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

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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

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