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On Schindler's List: Leon Leyson's Story of Survival

On Schindler's List: Leon Leyson's Story of Survival

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Leon Leyson, one of Schindler's survivors
Leon Leyson, one of Schindler's survivors

Nine-year old Leon Leyson counted the days as his family packed their belongings and prepared to move from their small village in Northern Poland to the big city, Krakow. While he knew he would miss his school friends, Leon imagined the unique sights and sounds, and the exciting energy, of his new life in a new place. His father, a craftsman, needed to relocate for his work. There were whispers of danger from anti-Semites, but it was 1938, and in a modern city like Krakow, what could happen to them?

A year later, the Nazis invaded Poland. "Suddenly, I lost my most basic rights," recalls Leon Leyson. "I was hungry all the time, and frightened all the time."

Leon described how overnight he was surrounded by violence and fear. The Jews of Krakow were rounded up and forced to live in a ghetto. Leon spent most of his waking hours searching for food; any scrap that looked edible was a treasure. "The Nazis did not kill millions," he said, "they killed individuals." His father, Morris, was one of the few Jews who was allowed to leave the ghetto--because of his work in a factory owned by a German named Oskar Schindler. Traveling to and from the ghetto, Morris was able to bring back scraps of food to give to his family. He, like many others, worried about what plan the Nazis had in mind for the Jews. He planned ways to ensure that his wife and children would be added to the list of Schindler's workers, and perhaps would be spared the harsh fate of the extermination camps.

Leon was sent to Plaszow, a camp presided over by a murderous commandant who would shoot Jews for the slightest infractions. The commandant had a list of prisoners who were designated for transfer to Schindler's factory, and Leon saw that his name had been written but crossed off. With a sudden burst of outrage and courage, Leon confronted a guard and told him an error had been made. He shook as he spoke to the guard, and was sure that he could be shot for making a complaint, but he strengthened himself to conceal his fear. Miraculously, the guard waved him forward and he was reunited with his father, mother and sister.

Leon worked twelve-hour shifts for Oskar Schindler, but he was happy to be alive with his family. Given his short stature, Leon had to stand on a box so he could more effectively reach the machinery. Sometimes, the kind German would leave him a prize of extra food rations for a job well done; and he often smiled with a twinkle in his eye after he inquired how the boy was feeling or how many devices he had made that day. When Schindler noticed Leon was bored with a particular task, instead of getting angry, he transferred to boy to another department so he could develop his skills as a craftsman. One night, Leon saw Oskar Schindler put his arm around his father's shoulder and say, "It's okay, everything is going to be alright." Young Leon wondered how a German, who was expected to hate Jews, could have shown so much kindness to his family.

Leon Leyson said he wasn't sure whether it was because his father, Morris, was one of the first Jews enlisted by Schindler or because of the German's natural affinity for his father, "but Schindler complied with whatever my father suggested."

Morris worked tirelessly to ensure that his wife and surviving children remained on Schindler's list of workers- thus providng them safety in spite of the cruel and ever-changing plans of top-ranking Nazis.

Towards the end of the war, Schindler personally rescued the Leyson family and others on several occasions, as his factory and his workers were being transferred from Poland to Germany. When the train carrying female workers and their children was sent by mistake to Auschwitz instead of Germany, Schindler himself ventured to Auschwitz where he bribed the officials to release the women and children--among them Leon's mother and sister.

On another occasion, Leon was in a line of men destined to be transported, but he attempted to step up in front to get Oskar Schindler's attention as he walked by. A Nazi guard hit Leon with the butt of a rifle and knocked him to the ground. When Schindler noticed Leon on the ground, he immediately searched for his father and brother and brought them, together with Leon, back to the factory. Leon would find out later that Schindler had seen his mother and sister and reassured them that they would all be reunited soon.

After the war, Leon Leyson was determined to put the past behind him and to build a new life. He moved to California, where he started a family and worked as a schoolteacher. The suffering of the past happened to that boy who lived half a world away, in another time. He didn't tell his story: "I didn't think anyone would be interested," he said. Besides, he often thought, who could comprehend the madness and cruelty of the Holocaust, particularly his young students?

In 1994, the Oscar-winning film Schindler's List woke the sleeping hearts of the world to the crimes of the past. Suddenly, young and old alike around the world were discussing and learning about the horrors of the Holocaust and praising the heroism of this special German, Oskar Schindler. Leon Leyson knew it was time to speak. Stella Eliezrie, Chabad emissary to Yorba Linda, California, and a volunteer for Stephen Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, encouraged Leon Leyson to speak about the pain of the past for the first time in decades. Eliezrie, who interviewed 50 Holocaust survivors for the project, said the process of breaking the silence is "like going into a trance… these people have a great sense of urgency to give testimony…otherwise these things will be lost to history."

Leon Leyson, "A hero is an ordinary human being who does the best of things in the worst of times." encouraged by the interest generated by Schindler's List and other accounts of the Holocaust, continues to share his experiences with individuals as well as through public speaking, addressing high school students in gymnasiums and adults in crowded auditoriums. Recently, he spoke to a standing-room only crowd of 1,400 in Chicago. Even in a huge crowd, there was collective silence and a total concentration on every word of his tale of fear and survival.

With Holocaust deniers threatening to revise history, Leon Leyson says the task of telling the stories of those who were affected by the Holocaust is an essential weapon in the constant battle against darkness and forgetting: "The Nazis did not kill millions," he said, "they killed individuals." Leon found in Oskar Schindler a true definition of a hero. "A hero is an ordinary human being who does the best of things in the worst of times."

This article was published in spring of 2009. On January 9, 2013 (the first of Shevat, 5773), Leon Leyson returned his soul to his maker. May his soul be bound up with the bond of life. - Editor

Miriam & Yehoshua Metzinger live in Jerusalem with their 3 children. Miriam is a freelance writer and editor. She also writes a column for "Living Jewish," an English-language publication and is the Jewish Family blogger at Families.com.
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M L K Brockton Ma July 9, 2016

A protokol not too many Nazis would do such a zain . G-d most certainly was with you and your family . My grandmother mother and uncle were in White Russia. When Hilter sent his men in to there small village they also had a protokol A Catholic family rescued them and made sure they had a decent meal which food for the 3 off them was a apple a day made sure they got to safety where they be safe to get transportation to America . Reply

Chaya Mushka July 4, 2016

BS"D Thank you for continuing to tell your story, Mr. Leyson and family! Reply

M L K Brockton Ma May 7, 2016

Steven Spielberg and his wife went to Russia and made and filmed Shindlers List . From what I read he and his wife had a difficult time filming Shindlers List emotionally . How they both endured what they saw was I am assured is still with them . Reply

Vanessa Herman Macleod Nova Scotia, Canada February 11, 2016

I've just finished listening to the book, The Boy on the wooden Box" . I cried through most of it. My heart broke as I listened carefully. Makes me feel selfish for the happy life I've lived. I was so happy to know that Leon got to grow up, Marry and get a degree in education. I will never forget his story as long as I live. My great grandfather immigrated to NS well before the WW2 from Poland. Little was ever known about his family other than the fact he watched his parents murdered in a field, he hid and survived. Thank you for the courage to write your book. God Bless you, Vanessa Reply

AlexRose October 23, 2014

Does anyone know how I can get in contact with the author? Im doing a project on Oskar Schindler and I need to get an interview from a professional, historian or writer.
Please help. Thanks Reply

Peter Harms Delta, BC, Canada February 10, 2014

I saw Schindler' List and remembered little Leon Leyson well. A few years ago I attended one of his speeches in Richmond, BC. Canada. I am familiar with the Holocaust. Both my parents were non-Jewish refugees and told us about the Jewish plight being far worse than theirs. Being familiar with Leon' story, what struck me was his straight forward, matter of fact, no trace of hatred, no trace of bitterness and friendly sharing how he experienced Holocaust. I had the opportunity to talk to him afterwards. He signed my program booklet with: "To Harms Family, Peter, Takako, Hana and Anna. Leon Leyson" Reply

Marlene Huntington Park, CA January 14, 2013

Mr. Leyson was my high school teacher . I remember when he spoke to us about surviving the Holocaust and showed us the marking on his arm I think that was the first time I had seen many of my friends cry he made us realize that life couldn't be taken for granted . Mr. Leyson was a man we all respected and loved. He will be missed. Last time I saw or poke to him was in 2000. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles, CAlifornia January 13, 2013

I was taught by him when he was a teacher at Huntington park High School ( Machine Shop ). He really was an inspiration,mentor,and most of all the best of friends. I will never forget the values that he taught me and the knowlege that he gave to all of us. It's because of him that I am the person and professional (mechanical engineer) I am today. RIP Mr. Leyson Reply

Sientje Seinen Chilliwack , Canada July 19, 2012

Not all european christian communities stood by and did nothing, my own family put their lives at risk by harboring Jewish people, though there were those also who would betray their own neighbours for gain. As somone said in my family "Hitler brought out the worst in some and the best in others." my family was honoured with a plaque with their name written on same in Israel. Shalom and G-d bless. Reply

haroun jhb, south africa July 3, 2011

i cried when i saw shindlers list. I cried when I saw the brutality. Let it never be that this happens to any living being to walk God's earth ever. Let it never be that these type of individuals are able to display such inhumanity. I was born in south africa which had until '94, terrible repressive laws against all that were not caucasian, so we can identify with the innocent who suffered. May it never happen again. Amen.. Reply

Ida Sioux Falls, SD August 25, 2010

I was very grateful to talk to leon on the phone for a English project in my spring semester for college. I am very grateful for the things we have today and can only try to imagine what he had went through, but you know he is an amazing person to get to know. Schindler was indeed a hero who put his life on the line to save those Jews. Reply

Holly Vancouver, Canada May 25, 2010

Leon's fathers name was "Moshe" Reply

ALLAN LOWENTHAL Perth, Australia August 28, 2009

B'H I have my first granddaughter last week.
My father left Berlin in 1930,I have a single cousin in South America.How I hope we can ensure that she too will bring a tear to her eye not forgetting her lost family. Reply

Anonymous chicago, il August 11, 2009

I didn't plan on attending this event in Chicago until my ten year old niece told me she very much wanted to hear a "survivor" speak. Leon Leyson is an inspiration. I feel privileged to have heard him speak. Surrounded by people of every stripe and color applauding Mr. Leyson I again felt a lump in my throat and tear in my eye at all the unbelievable work done globally by Chabad. We are truly blessed. Reply

Robert Dublin, CA via jewishcontracosta.com July 27, 2009

I saw him at Tri-Valley Chabad in Pleasanton a while back. The talk was very interesting & you got to here the other story. Reply

Kayo Tokyo, Japan July 27, 2009

Thank you for sharing the story. I will try to not to waste even a second. I will treat my life more preciously. Reply

Glenda Jensen Des Moines, Iowa July 26, 2009

I am angry that the christian community of Europe stood by and did nothing. Just let the killings happen.
One man had the courage to go against the norm. Go up against a killer and risk his life to save so many. How I admire him. Naybe he did not do things just right but his heart and mind were in the right place. Reply

Martina Rrousselle-Howes Brockville, Canada July 26, 2009

I was recently shock to discover through a conversation with my now 15 year old daughter that, while in a Canadian Grade 8 history class the Teacher was told he was not allowed to show This movie as an example of the holocost and it's effects on future generations. It was felt that because of the rating it was unacceptable to be shown to the then 13 year olds. This disturbiong news was very upsetting to me. I myself watched this movie many years ago and to this day even dicussing the story and others like it brings tears to my eyes. When there are so few stories told of the courage that it took for people to step up and help someone in need. I cannot fathom how a school would not have even allowed the parents to determine whether or not to allow their children to view this movie. I was not born until 1967 but I know the importance of reminding the world. Of teaching the future generations so that this never happens again. Reply