The Boy on the Wooden Box – How the impossible became possible…on Schindler’s list
A Memoir by Leon Leyson
The Holocaust shook the world 80 years ago. Countless records and books have been written about what happened and why. But facts and figures do not reveal the whole story. Milton Meltzer in Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust, suggests the “the better path to the truth is through eyewitness accounts—the letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs of those who experienced the terror and grief. However inadequate words are, human language is all we have to reach across barriers to understanding.”
Why memoirs? And why now?
Many survivors kept their stories so as not to burden their families because much of the experience was too much to bear. “It was too hard to explain to people. There didn’t even seem to be a vocabulary to communicate what I had gone through (186).” Healing for many took years. As there is a current resurgence of anti-semitism in the world, for many, their greatest fear is not the death camps, but that no one will remember their stories when they are no longer alive to tell them. There is a sense of duty to share their stories so that what they endured will never again happen. While facts give us historical validity, it is in testimony and witness stories where we create empathy and humanity.
Leon Leyson’s story, The Boy on the Wooden Box, told with without rancor, begins with stories of his relatively pleasant childhood growing up in Poland. Life seemed an endless, carefree journey. So not even the scariest of fairy tales could have prepared me for the monsters I would confront just a few years later, the narrow escapes I would experience, or the hero, disguised as a monster himself, who would save my life. My first years gave no warning of what was to come (7). His family is loving and supportive, and as the youngest son, he is especially close with his mother. But the family is soon torn apart as the increasing persecution is heightened, and ghettos emerge.
As the Nazis tightened their grip on Kraków, Jews were barraged with all kinds of insulting caricatures. Demeaning posters appeared in both Polish and German, depicting us as grotesque, filthy creatures, with large, crooked noses. Nothing about these pictures made any sense to me…I couldn’t understand why the Germans would want to make us look like something we were not.
Restrictions rapidly multiplied. It seemed like there was almost nothing Jews were still allowed to do. We were no longer permitted to sit on park benches. Then we were banned from the parks altogether. Ropes went up inside the streetcars, designating seating for gentiles—non-Jewish Poles—in the front of the cars and for Jews in the rear. At first, I found the restrictions irritating. It ruined my chance to play the game of evading the conductor with my pals…The German soldiers acted with impunity. One could never predict what they’d do next. They looted Jewish businesses. They evicted Jews from their apartments and moved in, confiscating their belongings. Orthodox Jewish men were special targets. Soldiers would grab them off the streets, beat them, and cut off their beards and side curls, known as ‘payot,’ just for sport, or what they considered sport (52-53).
Leyson realizes that part of his survival, in addition to his own cleverness and courage, is that his father caught the attention of factory owner Oskar Schindler, which proved fortuitous throughout the course of the war. His father was given a job, which provided work papers, and an unexpected connection to an unlikely hero. Though he was a member of the Nazi party, it was Schindler’s unexpected turn of heart to use his factory and his influence to hire and ultimately save thousands of Jewish workers. His now famous list included Leon’s father and mother and one of his brothers; the youngest person on Schindler’s list was Leon.
The Jews on Schindler’s list were transported each day to work from Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Only one hundred-seventy-five miles northwest of Kraków, but more than a million miles from the civilized world…. On the night we arrived, we dragged ourselves out of the cattle cars and assembled on a vacant field. We were told to strip naked and leave our clothes where we stood. We were marched to the showers. By that time we had heard horrifying stories about showers spewing poisonous gas, but in this case, it was only icy water that dribbled out. After the shower our heads were shaved and we were sent back to the field to stand naked in the raw October night. We waited for something to happen, but nothing did. As the hours dragged by, we became colder and colder (152-153). Eventually, Schindler had the influence to request that his workers be housed in a camp adjacent to the factory, and though an improvement from Gross-Rosen, it was still a concentration camp, and they were still at the mercy of often surly guards.
We spent the next eight months of the war at Schindler’s munitions factory. Senior Nazis came through periodically and inspected our work. Somehow Schindler succeeded in convincing the Nazis that we were useful and productive, even though during those eight months we were in the Brünnlitz camp, we produced almost no usable ammunition (158).
Prior to the liberation, Oskar Schindler gave out bolts of fabric to his workers before he left the factory, and Leon’s family was able to use this fabric not just for clothing, but for bartering for goods after the war. Continually grateful to Schindler for these small moments of humanity, Leon, now a veteran, a teacher, and a young father, reunites with him at the Los Angeles airport in 1965, and wonders if he will even remember that scrawny boy of only 15 when the war ended. Instead of disappointed, I felt elated, warmed by his smile and his words, “I know who you are!” he said with a glint in his eye. “You’re ‘little Leyson.’” I should have known Oskar Schindler would never disappoint me (2).
When the movie Schindler’s List was released, Leon Leyson shared his own story to many more people, and encouraged others to as well.
It is humanity’s imperative to listen to, read, and know these stories “We survived. We won’t forget. Never forget. And never let it happen again.”