Oskar Schindler was an extraordinary character; he saved Leon Leyson (formerly known as Leib Lejzon), his family, and over a thousand Jews from near certain death in the concentration camps, not once, but several times over. Luckily for Leon, Schindler took a particular interest in the boy, and he was afforded privileges not given to others, such as the opportunity to work a 12-hour day shift, rather than the night shift. Unlike other Nazis, Schindler treated his factory workers with a certain humanity, and he remembered their names, despite the risk of severe punishment from other Nazis for doing so. Jews had numbers by which they were supposed to be referred to, and brutality was expected and required of the Nazi soldiers.
It is important to note how extraordinary and important to our knowledge of history Leon Leyson himself was. Though he died in 2013, Leon lived over 60 productive, happy, healthy years after living under starvation and brutal conditions, and, if he was lucky, 300 grams of bread (about 700 or 800 calories worth) on days in which he worked. He managed to find his family members in the death camps in order to keep his hope alive. He risked the wrath of a Nazi guard by indicating that his name had been crossed off of Schindler’s List. On another occasion, the boy cried out to Schindler that he and his family were being taken to a death camp, against the factory owner’s wishes. Schindler bribed the guards to release the family to him. Visions of food clouded Leon's mind during dreams and wakefulness, and devising strategies for obtaining a few potato peels, a thin blanket and a few hours of sleep were his priorities.
Leon relates how he sat in the back of the bus in America in the 1950s. He was asked to move to the front because African Americans were required to sit in the back. He was horrified to learn about how pernicious racism infiltrated even the country which he had grown to love. Leon easily acquired the English language, he got a Master’s degree in Education, and he became a high school teacher. The experience made him appreciate every little luxury that he was able to experience afterwards in a new land.
After the release of the hit movie, Schindler’s List, Leon spoke in various locations in the United States and Canada about his harrowing experience during WWII.
In 1974, Schindler died and requested burial in Jerusalem, where he believed “his children” (the former factory workers) to be. He kept in touch with some of the survivors, including Leon, after World War II. He spent his fortune on food for the factory workers. He consciously made it his mission during the war to save as many Jews as possible from extermination.
The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson, 2013
Reading this book when I am much older than I was when I read Night in high school gave me a completely different perspective of the Holocaust. It is amazing to me that people managed to survive the physically and mentally exhausting work, the meager food rations, and the physical torture that the Nazis handed out, often for years at a time.
It was fascinating to get a real-life account of the tragedy from someone who was actually on Schindler’s List.
I remember going to see Elie Wiesel, author of Night, speak in upstate New York in the twentieth century. I find him and his story fascinating. I also was able to meet a Holocaust survivor when I went to a lecture at the CUNY Graduate Center. She asked me what I knew about the Holocaust; then she told me that she was a girl at the time. Everyone was confused when the concentration camp prisoners were released. No one knew where to go, what to do, or how to survive. Mass chaos.