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home : features : people & places July 27, 2015

4/15/2010 8:36:00 AM
Schindler's list survivor gives harrowing account
Leon Leyson talks about working in one of Oskar Schindler's factories during the Holocaust. Leyson is the youngest survivor from Schindler's list.
Photo by Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
Leon Leyson talks about working in one of Oskar Schindler's factories during the Holocaust. Leyson is the youngest survivor from Schindler's list.
Photo by Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier

Linda Stein
Special to the BBN

Click here for related video from dCourier.com.

Leon Leyson lived through some of the darkest days of World War II, surviving the Holocaust with the help of Oskar Schindler.

Leyson, now 80, was 13 when he joined his father and brother at a factory run by Schindler in Krakow, Poland. The youngest worker Schindler saved, Leyson could barely reach the lathe he manned 12 hours a day.

"I was too short," Leyson said. "I used to stand on a box. I could reach the controls better that way."

Hunger and fear tinge his memories.

Toward the end of the war, when the Russian army neared Krakow, other factory owners who used Jewish slave labor closed their plants and sent their workers to concentration camps. Schindler decided to move his factory, which by then also made armaments, to Czechoslovakia, and he took his workers along.

"My father was one of the first Jewish workers Schindler hired," Leyson said. "He was a craftsman. Five of us (Leysons) survived and everyone else related to us died - all the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents." The Nazis killed two of Leyson's older brothers.

"My survival, even on Schindler's list, was a matter of good fortune," Leyson said. "During the period of time the machinery was being dismantled (for the move), even Schindler couldn't keep all his employees. Some people had to be sent back to the concentration camp.

"As it turned out my mother was on the list to stay," he said. "My father, my brother and I were on the list to leave. So we were all lined up waiting to be escorted back to Plaszow. They were counting us. The Nazis had habit of counting us, and Schindler came to see who was leaving. Schindler walked back and forth. I tried to get his attention, but I couldn't. I was still little, and I always lined up in the last row.

"This time I wanted to get his attention and I started sliding out of my row," Leyson said. A guard saw him and struck a thermos he carried with the butt of his rifle, breaking it. "It broke with a big crash. That got everybody's attention. I called out to (Schindler) that my father and brother and I were being sent away. He ordered the three of us out of that line on the spot. At that point, he saved our lives."

Schindler even sought out Leyson's mother and told her not to worry.

"In those days the law of the land was to murder Jews, not save them," Leyson said.

While Schindler had numerous flaws, "You don't have to be perfect to be a hero. He did those things at risk to his own life and fortune," he said.

Leyson spoke to more than 1,000 Prescott-area residents at the Days of Remembrance gathering at Yavapai College Tuesday evening. The annual event marks the Holocaust, the systematic genocide of six million Jews and several million others the Nazis considered undesirable.

"It's difficult and painful for Leon to speak of these events," said Rabbi William Berkowitz of Temple B'rith Shalom. "For decades he kept silent."

Leyson didn't come forward publicly about his experiences during the Holocaust until after the release of the movie "Schindler's List."

University of Arizona history Professor Leonard Dinnerstein spoke of the "righteous gentiles," individuals who helped Jews survive during those dark days at great risk to themselves. The Nazis shot them and their families for helping Jews.

Schindler, one of those righteous people, saved 1,200 lives.

Leyson, who came to America after the war, served in the U.S. armed forces during the Korean War, then taught high school in Los Angeles for 39 years. Married, he has two children and four grandchildren.

A year before World War II began, Leyson's father brought his family to Krakow from a small town in eastern Poland. A skilled tool-and-die maker, the elder Leyson had a good job. That changed after the invasion when Nazi thugs beat him in front of his family and Moshe Leyson lost his job. However, once Schindler, a Nazi party member, took over a factory, he heard of Moshe Leyson's prowess and hired him as one of the first of his Jewish employees. One by one, Leyson's father persuaded Schindler to bring his family members into the factory.

The Nazis herded Krakow's 20,000 Jews into a ghetto, or confined area, behind walls, he said.

"In the ghetto there was a tremendous shortage of food, space and freedom," Leyson said. Guards randomly fired at people, nearly hitting Leyson, who was then about 10 or 11. Transport trains began to take people - who were told they were going to the countryside for fresh air and jobs - to concentration camps.

"Little by little, word came back (about the camps)," he said. "It was difficult to accept that this nation (Germany) that had philosophers, musicians and composers had produced factories to kill us.

"Some people don't think that evil exists," Leyson said. "These people were pure evil."

Afterward Adele Plotkin said on behalf of Beit Torah Congregation, "We would like to state that uniformly we found the presentation to be moving, powerful, profound, educational, sensitive and gripping. We pray that the lesson presented that all people should be treated with respect, dignity and politeness is one that will be absorbed by all those in attendance."

Related Links:
• Video: Schindler's List Youngest Member

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