The barmitzvah boy saved by Schindler
Leon Leyson was the youngest person on Oskar Schindler’s list. He reveals to Anthea Gerrie his remarkable story of survival and the debt he owes to the Nazi industrialist born 100 years ago this month
FOR A barmitzvah, it was a terse affair — no rabbi, no reading and certainly no reception. Leon Leyson’s rite of passage took place in a Nazi slave-labour factory. “My voice broke, one of the workers patted me on the head and said: ‘There, now you’re a man.’” But Leyson still had reason to celebrate. At 13, he was the youngest person on Schindler’s list — the Jews named as essential workers by Oskar Schindler, the Nazi industrial immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film, who saved 1,100 Jews from extermination.
On the day of his barmitzvah, Leyson, along with his father, mother, sister and youngest brother, were still alive and still together, thanks to the man he considers the most compassionate in the world. “Unlike those other Nazis with empty eyes, his had a twinkle — the humanity to chat with me on the factory floor on his way back from entertaining the officers he was bribing. The next day I’d go for my food ration and discover he had added an extra portion. He made special provision for me as the only child [on his workforce]; all the others had long ago been sent to Auschwitz.”
Leyson is talking in his comfortable house in California’s Orange County. His astonishing account of survival, which he kept silent about for nearly half a century, comes as the 100th anniversary of Oskar Schindler’s birth is marked next week.
The 78-year-old Leyson, whose original name was Leibl Lejzon, was living in Krakow, in Poland, when war broke out. “I had three elder brothers and a sister, and we had moved to be near my father’s job as a master tool- and die-maker. I was just experiencing the big city, like a child marvelling at Disneyland, when the Nazis turned my world upside down.”
The Leysons were horribly conspicuous in a nonJewish neighbourhood. “The Nazis beat up my father and imprisoned him. I was no longer allowed to go to school.”
Enter Schindler, the unlikely white knight, who as a loyal Nazi had been awarded an enamelware factory formerly owned by Jews. “When he heard my father was a craftsman who had lost his job, he hired him. It was pretty well slave labour — he was fed but received no wages — but there were advantages. My father was one of the few with a permit to leave the ghetto, which allowed him to smuggle little pieces of bread back in his pockets to feed the family.
“He persuaded Schindler to take my brother David into the factory too, but at 10 I was still too young. I spent the next two years scavenging for food and terrified for my life as the Nazis roamed the streets, shooting at will.”
But the life-and-death moment for the Lejzon family would not come until 1942, when the Nazis starting transporting the ghetto’s inhabitants to the camps. “One of the things you didn’t see in the movie was that my second eldest brother, Zalig, was on the same train as Stern, Schindler’s accountant, whom he pulled off the wagon,” says Leyson, his lips trembling as he remembers his adored big brother. “He was only 17, and the Nazis were sending thousands like him and his girlfriend to be gassed without a second thought.”
That Zalig made his own heroic life-or-death choice in an instant was something the rest of the family would not learn about for decades. “Long after the war, Schindler told how he had recognised Zalig and offered to get him off the train — but he declined, because Schindler couldn’t get the girl off as well. My big brother chose to stay with his girlfriend, and they died in the camps. I often reflect how many times my own life depended on whether I did X instead of Y — and how very nearly I also was not here to tell the tale.”
As it was, Schindler agreed to add Leon and his mother to his life-saving list. “Even then, I should have been done for because someone crossed my name off the list before we were supposed to leave for the holding camp. But I went to see my mother off, and somehow found the cheek to tell this huge, brutal Nazi officer I was supposed to join my parents and brother in Schindler’s factory. Amazingly, he listened to my story, and grunted at me to join my mother.”
There was no such thing as safety even for Schindler’s workers, who were suddenly culled when he prepared to move his factory to Czechoslovakia. “A new, negative Schindler’s list was drawn up, and only my mother made it on to the list to stay; my father, brother and I were destined for the camps.”
A scene in the movie shows the teenager Leyson’s desperate effort to avoid deportation. “You see a boy changing rows in the line-up, and I too tried to jostle to the front in order to attract the attention of Schindler, who had come to see who was being sent away. A guard saw what I was up to and hit me with his rifle butt. It smashed the Thermos flask of water I was carrying, which made a huge crash, and suddenly all eyes were on me. Schindler not only ordered the three of us back into the group to stay, but sought out my mother and told her not to worry. This was an incredible moment, because we had already said our goodbyes.”
Having saved all three surviving Leyson males, Schindler rescued the two women from the brink of death when Leon’s sister — who had by now joined the family of workers — and mother were shipped to Auschwitz en route to the new factory. “When Schindler discovered all the women on the list were not arriving, he spent even more of his money to go down to the camps and bribe more Nazis and get them out. I’ll never forget climbing up to a vantage point where I could see my mother and sister marching into the camp. They looked pretty terrible — dressed in rags, with their heads shaved like all the other women — but to me, it was the most beautiful sight.”
After the war, Leyson’s parents traced relatives in California and joined them. Leon, as he restyled himself, got qualifications and spent 40 years teaching industrial arts in high school. He has a son and daughter and three grandchildren. His parents are now dead, but his siblings are thriving in Israel in their 80s.
Leyson recounts his story as much to revere Schindler’s name as help ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten. “Before Schindler fled, some prisoners made a ring for him from a crown torn from one of their teeth, and inscribed it with the words: ‘When you save one person, you save the world.’ This was a wholly appropriate tribute. In a sea of inhumanity, here was truly a man — and I will never be able to thank him enough for saving our lives.”
Leon Leyson’s mother and siblings ( above) , who were saved by Oskar Schindler, pictured before the war. No photo of Leyson survives from the period. Liam Neeson and Steven Spielberg ( left) immortalised the story of Schindler and his Jews in Schindler’s List
Leon Leyson, now a retired teacher in California, with his wife, Lis