Hor­ror and hope through a Schindler child’s eyes

The Boy on the Wooden Box: A Mem­oir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen Agnes Nieuwen­huizen Gideon Haigh’s

am­a­teur cricket coach who leaves his con­crete house in Ra­jkot near dawn to throw balls to pre-teen hope­fuls on a con­crete pitch in the shadow of a con­crete ten­e­ment.

When his son Chintu was four, Pu­jara de­cided to train him as a mas­ter bats­man, with pads made from mat­tress foam to pro­tect him from the hard leather ball. ‘‘ We were just do­ing our work,’’ he says. ‘‘ Try­ing to do good.’’ Twenty years later, Pu­jara Jr is In­dia’s vir­tu­oso No 3, but his fa­ther still charges noth­ing for his ser­vices.

By the time the reader ar­rives at the teem­ing crowds, sat­u­ra­tion mar­ket­ing and caked-on glam­our of the IPL, its sym­bol­ism as an in­car­na­tion of In­dian com­mer­cial and cul­tural as­pi­ra­tion is clear. Like­wise its eco­nomic heft, glob­ally and do­mes­ti­cally, for it has dis­placed even ex­u­ber­ant Bol­ly­wood in In­dian af­fec­tions. ‘‘ For two months of ev­ery year,’’ a film boss tells Astill, ‘‘ you now have a dark pe­riod in In­dian mul­ti­plexes.’’

In one chap­ter, Astill em­beds with the Delhi Dare­dev­ils, one of the least suc­cess­ful IPL fran­chises, and dur­ing their brush with the Kings XI Pun­jab, one of the more glamorous, gets a taste of the com­pe­ti­tion’s essence from the lat­ter’s co-owner, for­mer Bol­ly­wood star Pre­ity Zinta. What does she bring to her team, Astill asks. ‘‘ Bums on seats,’’ she says un­self­con­sciously. ‘‘ Peo­ple come to the sta­dium to see me, even when we’re los­ing.’’

The shift is ap­pre­ci­ated by many of Astill’s in­ter­na­tional in­ter­vie­wees, in­clud­ing Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist. ‘‘ Peo­ple are a lot more con­fi­dent,’’ Warne ob­serves of the In­di­ans he en­coun­ters now com­pared with those he met as a young crick­eter. ‘‘ They won’t be pushed around.’’

Yet per­haps the miss­ing quad­rant of Astill’s panorama is an as­sess­ment of In­dia’s re­la­tions with the rest of the cricket world, how its By Leon Leyson with Marylin J. Har­ran and Elis­a­beth B. Leyson Si­mon & Schus­ter, 207pp, $19.99 (HB)

IT was not un­til Leon Leyson saw Steven Spiel­berg’s 1993 Os­car-win­ning movie Schindler’s List, based on Tom Ke­neally’s more imag­i­na­tively named Booker Prizewin­ning novel Schindler’s Ark, that he be­gan speak­ing about his World War II ex­pe­ri­ences un­der Hitler in Poland. He writes: It was too hard to ex­plain to peo­ple. There didn’t seem to be a vo­cab­u­lary to com­mu­ni­cate what I had gone through. For Amer­i­cans a word like ‘ camp’ evoked happy sum­mer mem­o­ries that were noth­ing like what I had ex­pe­ri­enced in Plas­zow and Gross-Rosen.

Try­ing to sur­vive, naked and shorn, hud­dled with hun­dreds of oth­ers, was Leyson’s camp ex­pe­ri­ence. He died in Jan­uary this year, aged 83, a day af­ter de­liv­er­ing the man­u­script of this mem­oir. He be­lieved he was ‘‘ an un­likely sur­vivor of the Holo­caust’’: . . . I was just a boy. I had no con­nec­tions; I had no skills. But I had one fac­tor in my favour that trumped ev­ery­thing else: Oskar Schindler thought my life had value.

Leyson was prob­a­bly the youngest on the now fa­mous list of more than 1000 Jews saved by the Nazi fac­tory owner Oskar Schindler, who with amaz­ing dar­ing and in­ge­nu­ity bribed and ma­nip­u­lated all about him to spare the lives of ‘‘ his’’ Jews. Leyson’s fa­ther ob­tained work in Schindler’s fac­tory when he showed skill in break­ing open a safe. Leon man­aged to get work there later, at 13. He was so small and scrawny that he needed a box to reach his des­ig­nated ma­chine.

Schindler saved Leyson’s par­ents, sis­ter and one brother. Two other broth­ers and most of his ex­tended fam­ily per­ished.

By the time Leyson next met Schindler in 1965, along with other Schindler­ju­den, he was 35 and liv­ing a safe and pro­duc­tive new life in the US.

Leyson’s debt to Schindler is never in ques­tion. How­ever, when read­ing this re­mark­able if of­ten har­row­ing book don’t al­low Leyson’s story to be over­shad­owed or di­min­ished by the achieve­ments of Schindler. Go straight to the first chap­ter and leave the pro­logue (and epi­logue), where Leyson pays trib­ute to Schindler, un­til af­ter ab­sorb­ing this first­hand ac­count of suf­fer­ing and en­durance.

Leyson, whose given name in 1929 was Leib Le­j­zon, writes: ‘‘ I was born in Narewka, a ru­ral vil­lage in north­east­ern Poland, near Bi­a­ly­stock, not far from the bor­der with Be­larus.’’ He sketches in his mod­est early life and that of his loving fam­ily. Hop­ing for a bet­ter life for his wife and five chil­dren, the fa­ther moves them to Krakow, not sus­pect­ing the hor­rors ahead.

Leyson does not shirk from pre­sent­ing the in­hu­man­ity of life un­der Nazi dom­i­na­tion. He de­tails the in­cre­men­tal dis­crim­i­na­tion fac­ing Jews from 1933 on; later the daily search for food scraps, the strug­gle for shel­ter, the sick­ness, the cold, the pro­hi­bi­tions re­gard­ing work, ed­u­ca­tion and use of pub­lic trans­port.

He doc­u­ments the raids, bru­tal­ity, evic­tions and round-ups, the hor­ror of the ghet­tos and the forced labour, of­ten in freez­ing con­di­tions. All lived in con­stant fear of, for ex­am­ple, the psy­chopath com­man­dant of Plas­zow, Amon Goeth, who one day, on a whim, shot all the pa­tients in the in­fir­mary. He also or­dered mass lash­ings and killings.

Leyson also re­calls small kind­nesses, the strength of his fam­ily and striv­ing to re­tain some dig­nity. Through­out, he main­tains his di­rect, mea­sured tone and re­serve.

He raises unan­swered ques­tions. ‘‘ Why did the Nazis hate us so much?’’ ‘‘ How [could] the Nazis be­lieve what they were espous­ing?’’ How did Hitler man­age to ‘‘ marginalise Jews, to make us ‘ the other’ ’’, so rapidly? And he won­ders how so many non-Jews could claim they had no idea what was hap­pen­ing.

The Boy on the Wooden Box has been com­pared with The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne was a young girl con­fined to an at­tic when she wrote her diary. This book de­scribes what hap­pened to Leyson and oth­ers on the ground, though it in­evitably re­flects an adult sen­si­bil­ity and is told with the wis­dom of years.

Even though Leyson’s mem­oir was writ­ten so long af­ter the events, it has enor­mous im­pact and a sense of im­me­di­acy, so much so I had to stop read­ing at times. It is a deeply af­fect­ing and pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment to the ex­pe­ri­ences and re­silience of peo­ple. Like Anne Frank, it is a book for all ages and deserves a wide au­di­ence. hege­mony af­fects the game more gen­er­ally, in­clud­ing those who nei­ther know nor care that the Mum­bai In­di­ans won this year’s IPL, but who are now un­know­ing guests on the fringes of the big In­dian cricket party.

Cor­re­la­tion might not be cau­sa­tion, for in­stance, but how much of a co­in­ci­dence is it that it was dur­ing the IPL’s in­au­gu­ral year that Aus­tralia’s on-field for­tunes be­gan their steady and on­go­ing col­lapse, and yet our play­ers earn un­prece­dented re­wards de­spite Aus­tralia rank­ing fifth in Test cricket?

So fee­bly re­duced is the In­ter­na­tional Cricket Coun­cil, mean­while, that it has watched tamely in re­cent weeks as the BCCI took a sched­ul­ing de­ci­sion pe­nal­is­ing Cricket South Africa tens of mil­lions of dollars merely out of dis­like for that or­gan­i­sa­tion’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. At one point in The Great Ta­masha, Astill stops to won­der whether In­dia is be­com­ing ‘‘ an oli­garchy, a democ­racy stage­m­an­aged by a cor­rupt su­per-elite’’. One won­ders the same about cricket.

Ac­tress Pre­ity Zinta, sec­ond from left, with the Kings XI Pun­jab team

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