Horror and hope through a Schindler child’s eyes
The Boy on the Wooden Box: A Memoir
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