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Leon Leyson at Asper School of Business, U of M
Photo by Judy Wilson


By Rhonda J. Prepes, P. Eng, Jan 17, 2012

Leon Leyson, the younget  Holocaust survivor on Schindler's List  dies in Los Angeles home aged 83.

Leyson spoke in Winnipeg in 2010 and the Winnipeg Jewish Review is reprinting his story of survival in his memory.


After being employed at Oskar Schindler’s factory during World War II at just 13 years of age, Leon Leyson was the youngest member of the 1,200 Polish Jews to be on Schindler’s list and survive the Holocaust.

Leyson spoke to a capacity crowd of 800 people on March 4, 2010 at the University of Manitoba. The event was sponsored by the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, and the Winnipeg Foundation. Never angry or vengeful, he shared the story of his family’s suffering with the audience and received a well deserved standing ovation.

For more than 50 years, Leyson was silent about his suffering during the Holocaust. He lived in California, had two children and now has four grandchildren. He worked as a schoolteacher, determined to build a new life.

But in 1993, after the debut of the Oscar-winning film “Schindler's List”, people all over the world were re-alerted to the horrors of the Holocaust and praised Oskar Schindler’s heroism. Leyson knew it was time for him to break his silence for the first time in decades.

Narewka was a small village in Northern Poland of 2000 residents, both Jews and non-Jews, where Leyson was surrounded by a large extended family. In 1938, Leon (Leib) Leyson was nine years old when his family, including three brothers and a sister, moved from Narewka to Krakow. A year later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, the Jews of Krakow were rounded up and forced to live in a ghetto.

"We wore Star of David arm bands to identify us as Jews. We were all living in a small area surrounded by a 12 foot fence. There was a shortage of space, provisions and food, yet we continued to live our lives the best we could. We learnt to be resilient, we had to,” explained Leyson.

Leyson’s life was enveloped by fear, hunger and violence. He spent most of his waking hours searching for food. His father Morris and brother David were allowed to leave the ghetto to work in an enamelware factory that made pots and pans, owned by German businessman, Oskar Schindler. Traveling to and from the ghetto, they were able to bring back scraps of food - a piece of bread or potatoes - to give to the family.

During this time, as Leyson recalled, “You could not have predicted what the Nazi’s ultimate plan was. More and more restrictions were put upon Jews, we couldn’t go to school, we couldn’t go into public parks, we couldn’t use public transportation…it just seemed like little inconveniences that we had to put up with. We thought that in just a short time everything would go back to normal. We had no sense of the immediacy and enormity of the war at the time.”

Leyson later learnt that at this time, Nazi troops had invaded the rest of Eastern Europe with the objective of killing any Jews left in towns and cities. All the Jews of Narewka were killed, including his large extended family and his eldest brother, 21. Then the Nazis began transporting Jews to death camps to be murdered en masse. His second eldest brother, Tsalig, 17, ended up on a transport train to a death camp.

“Yet, it was still inconceivable to the rest of the world that a mass extermination of people was taking place in Eastern Europe,” said Leyson.

His remaining family was sent to Plaszow, a work camp, “where atrocities were committed against Jews every day.”

Leyson, along with his mother, father, sister Aviva, and remaining brother David were transferred to barracks closer to Schindler's factory. Leyson began working in Schindler’s enamelware factory in 1943 at just 13 years of age

Leyson, who worked twelve-hour night shifts in Schindler’s factory, was grateful to be alive and with his family. Given his short stature, he had to stand on a box so he could reach the machinery. Sometimes, Schindler would speak to Leyson as he worked and even leave him extra food rations.

“When you judge Oskar Schindler and his activities during that period, you have to judge within the context of the times then, not within the context of today’s time,” Leyson observed.

“In those days, the law of the land was to murder Jews. To treat Jews as human beings was against the law and punishable by going to a concentration camp or worse. What he [Schindler] did was very dangerous to his own well being, but he did it anyway. He was a decent human being. He was doing the right thing,” Leyson said.

"Schindler’s List was an act of defiance by a German, Oskar Schindler. It was an act of conscience that saved the lives of 1200 Jews.”

Schindler personally rescued the Leyson family from certain death over and over again by bribing and disobeying officials. Because of Schindler's heroic actions, Leyson and many other Jews were spared the harsh fate of the Nazi extermination camps. Schindler risked everything in desperate attempts to protect “his Jews” from certain death. To more than 1200 Jews, Oskar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis.

In Leyson’s view, Schindler acted humanely to the end. When the war ended and his employees were liberated he gave each one of them “a bolt of blue cloth and a bottle of vodka” he had stolen from the Nazis.

After being liberated, the Leyson family went back to Krakow, where they traded the cloth and vodka for food, lodging, and clothing. Following one year in Krakow, they spent three years in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt, Germany. Leyson’s brother David and sister Aviva eventually emigrated to Israel.

In 1949, Leyson’s mother’s brother and sister, who were located in Los Angeles, brought Leyson, his mother and father to the United States.

I realized right away that I was in a different place when I landed in America. People were more friendly. Something in the air was different. People were kind and I experienced small acts of kindness by Americans on a daily basis,” Leyson recalled.

“We started a new life in California and the rest is history.”

"Now a retired, accomplished and well-respected man, Leyson has dedicated his life to educating the public about the horrors of the Holocaust. As he says, the task of telling the stories of the Holocaust is an essential weapon in the constant battle against forgetting. “We must never forget, so this will never happen again.”

By the time World War II ended, Leon Leyson had lost two brothers, survived the Krakow Ghetto in Poland and narrowly escaped death countless times. He was just 15. Leyson describes his experience during World War II as “a series of fortunate events in a very unfortunate time.”

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