In 1993, Steven Spielberg produced an Academy Award-winning film called Schindler’s List, which told the remarkable true story of a Nazi businessman named Oskar Schindler. Sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, he managed to save over one thousand people from death under the pretence of needing them to work in his factories. Although he was met with criticism for his actions (some people thought he was using the prisoners for his own monetary gain), he has also been seen as a hero by many others, risking his own life to protect those less fortunate than himself.
One person who counted Schindler as a hero was Leib Lejzon, a young Polish boy whose life- and the lives of most of his family- were saved by the German entrepreneur. Leib, who later changed his name to Leon Leyson, was only fifteen when World War II ended and he was suddenly free from the tyranny of the German Nazis, and he credits Schindler as the saviour who rescued him from certain death. Unable to tell his story for many years, it wasn’t until 1994 that Leon finally started to tell people about what had happened to him during the Second World War, and his links to the now famous Oskar Schindler. In 2013, months after his death from T-cell lymphoma, his memoirs- The Boy On The Wooden Box- were finally published, allowing everyone to learn of his remarkable survival story.
Leon was only eight-years-old when he and his family moved from the small Polish village of Narewka to the city of Kraków to be with his father, who worked at a glass factory. Despite coming from a rural background, he enjoyed the city life- attending school, playing with other boys his own age, and travelling on the streetcars without paying the fare. But then war was declared and Germany invaded Poland.
Suddenly, life was very different for Jews, and Leon and his family began to experience the segregation and prejudice that the Nazis (and many townspeople) placed upon them. Before long, homes were being raided, people were ‘disappearing’ and all Jews were forced to leave their homes and move into ghettos. As we know from history, it wasn’t long before people were being transported to concentration and labour camps, including the infamous Auschwitz. Leon’s father, who gained employment with a German businessman named Oskar Schindler after he was no longer able to work at the glass factory, was able to stay in the city a little longer (along with his family) but soon they too were shipped off to Płaszów, a brutal labour camp. Leon, along with his mother, father, sister, and one brother (two other brothers had already been lost) lived in shocking conditions, until Leon’s father managed to get them jobs at Schindler’s factory. While the work was monotonous and the shifts were long, it ensured their survival away from the unpredictable and ruthless Nazis. Despite several close calls, an almost ceaseless hunger, and being witness to some of the most horrific events in known history, Leon and his family (with Schindler’s help) were able to live out the rest of the war years and, upon freedom, try to return to a normal life.
Leon’s memoirs are absolutely riveting- he went through so much and yet he seemed to be the most kind-hearted person (according to his family’s contributions at the end of the book). Throughout the book, his determination to survive and his love and concern for his family is evident. Aimed at younger readers (I would say 12 years of age and older), he writes about his experiences in a straightforward way, and doesn’t shy away from some of the more brutal aspects of the war (like seeing people shot in the head, for example). This candidness is refreshing- he’s not trying to sugarcoat his experiences- he wants young people to know just how difficult life was, and just how cruel some people can truly be. There are a lot of holocaust memoirs out there, but there is no other that has been told of the youngest person on Schindler’s ‘list’- the boy who was so small, he had to stand on a wooden box to reach the controls of the machine he was operating. If you want to read a compelling and inspirational survival story this year, make sure it is this one.