lunes, 26 de agosto de 2013

The boy saved by Schindler

LEON Leyson, one of the youngest survivors on the list drawn up by the remarkable factory owner, died this year, just a day after sending his memoirs for publication. Here we reveal his remarkable story.

In the autumn of 1965 Leon Leyson went to Los Angeles airport to meet a man he had not seen in 20 years.

Their last meeting had been in very different circumstances.

Back then Leon was Leib Lejzon, a scrawny boy of 15, so undersized that he had to stand on a box to reach the machinery in the factory where he worked.

The man he was meeting was his former employer and Leon – now 36 and 6ft tall – was not at all sure he would remember him.

But as soon as his eyes fell on Leon, Oskar Schindler smiled and said:

“You are Little Leyson,” his nickname for the youngest of the 1,100 Jews working in his factories – first in southern Poland and later at Brünnlitz in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Leon toiled for 12 hours a day on his box for three years. It was slave labour yet everyone there considered themselves lucky. The alternative, after all, was so much worse.

Schindler’s story became famous through Thomas Keneally’s book which Steven Spielberg made into the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, soon to be released in digitally remastered form.

But the story of Little Leyson, the youngest of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews) has remained little known until now because he didn’t think people wanted to hear it. He could not have been more wrong. Leon’s memoir, The Boy On The Wooden Box, is an account both of unimaginable horror and extraordinary resilience.
 Liam Neeson as Oskar in a scene from Schindler’s List
Leon, his parents Moshe and Chanah, his sister Pesza and brother David all survived the Holocaust because they were Schindlerjuden.

Two other brothers Hershel and Tsalig and around 100 other family members were not and perished.

Time and again Schindler not only saved Leon’s life but tried to make it less unbearable. Boys of Leon’s age were destined for the gas chambers yet Schindler gave him a job.

He gave instructions for “little Leyson” to receive double food rations.

He switched him from the night shift to the less taxing day shift and moved him to more challenging tasks to keep the boy stimulated.

“I am an unlikely survivor of the Holocaust,” Leon writes. “I had so much going against me and almost nothing going for me. 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.”

Leon was born in 1929 in Narewka, a village in north-east Poland where homes had no running water and electricity did not arrive until 1935.

In 1938 the family relocated 350 miles south to the city of Krakow.

The German army reached Krakow on September 6, 1939, and within months the city’s Jews were forced into a ghetto. One day Moshe, a skilled machinist, was summoned to an enamelware factory where the new owner, a Nazi party member, needed a safe opening. Moshe cracked the safe and the factory owner hired him on the spot.

It would prove to be the saving of the family: the Nazi factory boss was Oskar Schindler.

In the film it is witnessing the brutal clearing of the Krakow ghetto that transforms Schindler.

In another scene Schindler dashes to the railway station to rescue his accountant Itzhak Stern who has been rounded up for deportation. What was not seen in the film was Schindler trying to pull Leon’s 17-year-old brother Tsalig off a train too. But Tsalig would not leave his girlfriend Miriam. Both perished.

With the ghetto emptied the remaining Jews of Krakow were transferred to what Leon calls “the innermost circle of hell” – Plaszow concentration camp.

As the Jews were marched through the Krakow streets Leon was shocked by the indifference of the gentile Poles.

“Had they not known what we had been suffering just a few blocks away?

How could they NOT have known?

How could they not have done something to help us?

They showed absolutely no interest in who we were, where we were going or why.

Our misery, our confinement and pain were irrelevant to their lives.”

In Plaszow life and death were at the whim of the psychotic commandant Amon Goeth. He used prisoners as target practice and once shot dead all the patients in the infirmary only minutes after Leon had left it.
Another time he was not so lucky. Goeth ordered him to be given 25 lashes with a leather whip for not shovelling snow fast enough. Leon had to count out the lashes and if he faltered the guard would start again.

“The moment I entered the gates of Plaszow, I was convinced I would never leave alive,” Leon wrote.

In late 1943 Schindler bribed Goeth into letting him build his own camp next to his enamelware works, arguing that it was more efficient than marching the workers two and a half miles each way.

To his dismay, Leon learned that his name had been crossed off the transfer list.

Risking instant execution Leon protested to a guard who, amazingly, let him through to join his parents.

Leon worked alongside his father and brother David in the factory.
Schindler often came down to the factory floor at night, the smell of cigarettes and cologne signalling his presence.

He would chat to the boy on the wooden box and point him out to visitors as a hard worker.

Sometimes he even invited Leon to his office.

“I had grown used to the fact that to Nazis I was just another Jew; my name didn’t matter. But Schindler clearly wanted to know who we were,”
Oskar Schindler, leon, leyton, germany, jews, nazis, ww2, Oskar Schindler, left, meeting Leon and his wife Lis in 1965
Leon writes, recounting how Schindler would put his hand on his father’s shoulder, saying: “It will be all right, Moshe.” Such basic humanity from a Nazi to a Jew made a deep impression on Leon.

With the Soviet army already in eastern Poland, Plaszow camp was to be closed and all inmates transferred to Auschwitz. But Schindler set about moving his factory to Brünnlitz in Czechoslovakia along with some of his workers.
But Leon, Moshe and David were not among them – until Leon stepped out of the line of prisoners just as Schindler strolled past.

His boldness earned him a blow from a guard’s rifle butt but it alerted Schindler who ordered Leon, Moshe and David to be pulled out.

Leon’s mother was not safe either.

The train carrying the female workers to Brünnlitz was diverted to Auschwitz.
I am an unlikely survivor of the Holocaust, but Oskar Schindler thought my life had value
Leon Leyson
Schindler bribed camp commanders to return them to him.

In April 1945 as the war in Europe neared its end, Schindler gave each of his workers a bottle of vodka and a bolt of cloth and bid them farewell.

Leon and his parents emigrated to California. Leon did military service in Korea and then taught industrial arts in the same high school for 37 years.

He married fellow teacher Lis in 1965 after a six-month romance and they had a son, a daughter and six grandchildren. His colleagues knew nothing of his past until a reporter tracked him down after the release of Schindler’s List.

After his story appeared he was invited to speak all over the US.

He also returned to Plaszow three times.

Sadly, Leon died aged 83 of a rare form of skin cancer in January this year, a day after delivering the manuscript for his memoir so it falls to Lis to speak for him now.

“Leon had no bitterness in him. He loved every day of his job and was thrilled to be drafted into military service for his adopted country. After his story became known he was sustained by the warmth people showed to him.”

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