More than 60 years ago, little Leon Leyson steadied himself on top of a box each morning, climbing the makeshift step stool to operate the controls of a metalworking lathe machine that towered over his skinny 13-year-old body.
Today that pint-sized worker is 80, the youngest survivor of Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, the workplace that saved more than a thousand Polish Jews from death. He shared his story with New Yorkers for the first time Tuesday evening, at an event organized by Chabad-Lubavitch of Midtown. Only after Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” premiered in 1994, did Leyson begin speaking about his experiences working in Schindler’s enamelware factory and how he and some of his family members were able to survive the Holocaust.
In Leyson’s opinion, “Schindler’s List” paved the way for the slew of World War II resistance films that have become popular in Hollywood today — films like “Defiance,” “Valkryie” and “Inglourious Basterds,” which tell of survival rather than victimization. “Defiance” particularly strikes a chord with Leyson because he grew up very close to the story’s location, he said.
“Ever since Schindler’s List came out things turned a little bit,” Leyson told The Jewish Week prior to the event. “There was more interest generated in those events like Schindler, those people who rescued Jews. Rescuers didn’t come out and admit what they had done until Schindler’s List came out.”
While “Defiance” juxtaposes Jews as both rescuers and resisters, a movie like “Inglourious Basterds” allows Holocaust victims to fulfill lifelong fantasies of killing Hitler, according to Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and professor of theology at the University of Judaism.
“Most of us seldom face life-and-death choices, seldom face the decisions that are absolutely ultimate,” said Berenbaum, who is the former project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “We now understand that many victims and almost all survivors faced life and death situations almost routinely.”
After the Nazi invasion of his town in northeast Poland, the Leyson family was forced to resettle in the Jewish ghetto of Krakow. Leyson’s father, an accomplished toolmaker, was one of the first Jews that Schindler hired, after the elder Leyson lost his initial factory job on account of being Jewish.
“Eventually he hired one-by-one my family members who survived,” Leyson said.
While his oldest brother escaped the invasion and somehow made it safely back to the family’s hometown, Leyson’s other two brothers and his sister all eventually ended up at Schindler’s factory. Schindler actually removed Leyson’s sister from Brunnlitz concentration camp in Czechoslovakia simply by adding her to his list and thereby saving her life.
“He was an extraordinary human being, not just for us but for everyone who was in his company,” Leyson said. “Everyone who was on Schindler’s list probably thought they had some special relationship with Schindler.”
“They realized that they were an extraordinary community that was going to survive communally,” Berenbaum said. “They just had it bad enough for there to be a sense of shared destiny and good enough or them to have enough left to be able to share and create community.”
“The ties are also based on a lot less guilt because they survived together,” he added.
But as the absolute youngest worker, Leyson felt that his relationship with the beloved factory owner was particularly special.
“I was little so I stood on a box so I could reach the controls better and see over the machine. I think maybe Schindler was a little bit amused about that,” he said. “He used to stop and talk to me, ask me how I was doing. Sometimes after some of these visits he would actually order a double ration of food for me.”
Leyson does recall seeing younger children playing at the factory, but they were too young to work and were eventually taken to Auschwitz at the end of the war. And he too, even as a worker, feared that he and his colleagues could be taken away at any second.
“I was skeptical the whole time about surviving,” Leyson said. “Things were getting worse and worse. At one point I didn’t think Schindler would be able to accomplish what he did. These Nazis were not stupid – they were just evil. And so he had to bribe a lot of Nazis and a lot of officials and befriended him.”
Scholars agree, noting that despite the workers’ seemingly favorable situation, their survival was always hanging by a mere thread.
“It was the most fragile of triumphs that could’ve ended up in a very different way at any moment,” Berenbaum said.
After the war, Leyson spent three years in a displaced persons camp and was finally able to move with his parents to Los Angeles, while his brother and sister emigrated to Israel through the illegal Aliyah Bet. Leyson served in the American Army during the Korean War and then studied at Los Angeles State University — now Cal State Los Angeles — which led him to become an industrial arts teacher for the next 39 years. This past December, NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate aired an Emmy-winning half-hour documentary on Leyson’s life called
“A Child on Schindler’s List,” and Leyson will be displaying the statue at The Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at nearby Chapman University.
“Once it became public who I was, everybody wanted to come and have me speak – the dam burst,” said Leyson, whose public appearances first began at Chabad in Los Angeles. “I’m always amazed when people come to hear me — sometimes I think I’ll show up one day and there will be nobody there.”
But Leyson continues to speak to audiences nationwide, delivering powerful messages of survival and resistance, as a tribute to all of the victims and their selfless rescuers.
“Everyone who lived during that period of time resisted” – from opening up underground schools to staging rebellions to surviving concentration camps. “It’s just not the kind of resistance that makes a splash. It was resistance. Believe me, no one came willingly.”
Not a day goes by where Leyson does not think of Schindler and the time spent at his factory, and he was actually able to reunite with his hero 20 years before their first meeting – but this time, in California.
“When I tried to introduce myself he interrupted me and said, ‘I know who you are, you’re Little Leyson,’” he remembers. “Twenty years later, that gives you the idea what kind of guy he was.”