Leon Leyson was youngest on Schindler's List

Posted Monday, May 10th, 2010
The Vancouver Sun

Holocaust survivor to deliver 'Saved By An Angel' speech Monday in Richmond

MAY 8, 2010

Leon Leyson can't compute the odds of his being alive today given that, at the age of 10, he was entombed in the Krakow ghetto with thousands of other Polish Jews whose fate — with rare exception — was to be murdered by the occupying Germans.

"The odds of surviving were incredible. I was always skeptical I'd get through it. I was in the ghetto for two years, then the Plaszow Concentration Camp. There were so many events that if I had done something other than what I did, I wouldn't be speaking with you today," said Leyson from his home in Los Angeles.

His most singular achievement was to stay alive until in 1943, at the age of 13, his name was added to the list of Jews employed by German businessman Oskar Schindler.

Leyson owns the distinction of being the youngest on Schindler's List — the famed roll containing the names of approximately 1,200 Polish Jews Schindler saved from certain death by employing them in his factory.

And on Monday, Leyson, 80, will relate his experiences of the ghetto and Schindler's factory at 7:30 p.m. in the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel in Richmond, as part of a program by Chabad of Richmond entitled Beyond Never Again: How the Holocaust Speaks to Us Today.

Rabbi Baitelman, director of Chabad of Richmond, a group of orthodox Jews, said it was important for Leyson's story to be told publicly as it sheds light on "the heroism of one man, Oskar Schindler, whose courage saved many lives.

"When you talk about the Holocaust, words fail," Baitelman said. "Sometimes silence is the best way to give it respect because words are inadequate. They just can't communicate the horror or scope of it.

"And you wonder, 'Has the world changed?' We know of the rivers of blood shed in Rwanda, so have we really changed?"

Leyson, for his part, isn't going to attempt any explanation of the Holocaust.

"I can't explain it. Nobody can. All I can do is share my experiences and talk about Schindler and what type of a person he was," he said.

Schindler's story became mainstream with the release of the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler's List.

"As the actual events went, the movie was accurate. It looked very authentic — the ghetto and the camp and the factory. It was shot on location. Of course we don't know what was actually said between Schindler and Amon Goeth [the murderous SS commandant of Plaszow and Schindler's unwilling accomplice whose help was secured by bribes]. We've just got the end result," he said, alluding to the list that provided salvation for himself, his father, mother, sister, brother and many others. (Two of Leyson's older brothers were murdered during the massacres of Jews in Eastern Poland in the early part of the war.)

It was Leyson's father, Moshe, a tool and die maker, who was among the first of the Jews employed by Schindler, as his workplace was across the street from where Schindler set up his enamelware factory in 1939.

It was Schindler, the archetypical war profiteer, who got Moshe a pass to leave the heavily guarded ghetto each day to go to work and who would eventually rescue the entire family from Plaszow, where they were taken after the ghetto was emptied.

It's unlikely that Schindler would have any real use for a small 13-year-old who couldn't even reach the machinery controls without standing on a stool, but he found work for him.

"In the ghetto and the concentration camp we were treated as non-human. My life was threatened every day and I was nothing. The Nazis never spoke to us in complete sentences. They just yelled, or gave single word commands.

"Here I was: A little kid who couldn't reach the controls and Schindler would stop and say, 'Good morning,' and ask how I was doing. And he'd wait for an answer. He had a twinkle in his eye. I would think he didn't know who I was but then when I'd go for my rations I'd find he'd ordered them to give me two.

"This was a genuine human being. He did extraordinary things, they would be ordinary in ordinary times, but these were not ordinary times — these were times when murdering Jews was the law of the land. He was a genuine hero because of the danger he put himself in and the chances he took," said Leyson.

Thanks to Schindler, five of his family survived the war. All the others perished.

Twenty years after he last saw Schindler, he was in a group of people who went to see him when he visited in Los Angeles. "The last time he saw me I was 15 and very small. By 1965 I'd grown to be almost as big as him. I didn't think he'd know me but before I could say anything he said, 'I know you — it's little Leyson.'"

Ticket information on Leyson's speech "Saved By An Angel" can be found at ChabadRichmond.com/Leyson or by calling 604-277-6427.

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