KRAKOW, Poland – Leon Leyson, the youngest Holocaust survivor on Schindler’s list, died last Saturday at his home in Los Angeles, aged 83.
Leyson was less than 10 years old and living with his family in Krakow when the Nazis invaded Poland. The city’s Jews were rounded up and forced to live in a ghetto. His father, Morris, was one of the Jews taken to work at Oskar Schindler’s factory, which gave him the opportunity to leave the ghetto every day.
Young Leon was separated from his family and sent to the Plaszow ghetto in Krakow.
A few years later, when he was only 13, he noticed that a German officer was holding a list of prisoners to be transferred to the Schindler factory.
His name was on the list, but had been crossed off. Concealing his fear, Leon told the officer a mistake had been made and that he should be transferred.
Surprisingly, the officer accepted Leyson’s claim and sent him to the factory, where he was reunited with his family.
Due to his young age, Leyson had to stand on an upturned box to reach the machinery.
Schindler himself used to call him “Little Leyson.”
Because Schindler received permission from the Nazis to keep his workers in the factory, Leyson survived the Holocaust and was the youngest of the 1,100 Jews the industrialist saved. His parents, his older brother and his sister also survived, but his two younger brothers were killed by the Nazis.
In 1949 Leyson immigrated to the United States, determined to start a new life and build a family. His experience in Schindler’s factory led him to study industrial crafts before earning a master’s degree in education in 1970.
For almost four decades, he worked as a teacher and a guidance counselor at Huntington Park High School in Los Angeles.
For many years Leyson chose not to share his childhood memories. He avoided talking about the Holocaust and the time he spent in Schindler’s factory. It was only Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List in 1993 that made him start sharing his past experiences after many people had become interested in “little Leyson’s” story.
He began talking at elementary schools, high schools and college campuses, describing how he had been hungry and frightened all the time.
“I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my story,” he told students.
In an interview he gave to the Portland Oregonian in 1997 he said: “The truth is that I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust. I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”
Marilyn Harran, professor of religious studies at Chapman University, said that “any time he told his story he never used notes and he never gave the same talk twice. It always came from the head and the heart. It made people walk away wanting to be better people, to care more, to remember not only the Holocaust but to remember that we can never be indifferent.”
Leyson was married to Liz and had two children.