“He who saves a life saves the world entire.”- The Talmud
Leib Leyson was eight years old when his family moved from his parents’ ancestral village of Narewka, Poland, to the then-capital city of Krakow, where his father had taken a job that would help his family to live more prosperously than they could in a small town. His mother missed her family, but Leib was entranced by the beauty of a city he had only seen in pictures and heard about in stories. He went to school, played with friends, and lived securely with his loving, Jewish family. Jews made up about a quarter of Krakow’s residents, and everyone lived and worked together amiably.
Toward the end of the 1930s, the Polish people began to hear rumors that Germany’s Führer, Adolph Hitler, wanted to amass more land for Germany, and that he had begun blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong with the country since their humiliating defeat after World War I. Like most people throughout history, they found the news disturbing, but putting food on the table and other daily routines crowded out any time they might have had to worry about whether these far-off events would ever affect them personally. Gradually, though, Leib’s friends began to shun him, and his teachers called him names. In 1939, his brother, Herschel, joined a group of Jews running east to escape the German soldiers. They never saw him again. The Nazis arrived in Krakow, closed Jewish businesses, and broke into Jewish homes. Orthodox Jewish men were beaten on the streets. Nazis took over the formerly Jewish companies, and Leib’s father was allowed to keep his job only because he spoke German. One night, the Nazis broke into Leib’s family’s apartment, beat his father and dragged him to prison on trumped-up charges. He was released several weeks later just as randomly. Soon after, Jewish children were forbidden to attend school, and Leib’s formal education ended at the age of ten.
One day, Leib’s father was asked to perform a menial task for a Nazi-owned business. When he was done, the owner offered him a job. Since his family needed food, he accepted, however distasteful his decision may have been. Little did he know that that moment saved his family’s lives, since the owner of the business was Oskar Schindler. Although the Leyson family suffered cruelly in ghettos and work camps throughout the duration of the war, Schindler put all of their names on his list of expert machinists and metalworkers, ensuring that they would not be sent to Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi death camps. Even Leib, who was tiny for his age because of extreme malnutrition, worked at a machinist’s post in Schindler’s factory, standing on a wooden box in order to reach the controls.
The author of this moving memoir, who now goes by the name of Leon Leyson, was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, and he did not reveal his past to anyone in his new American home until after Stephen Spielberg’s famous movie. If you have seen the movie, you will know about the personal sacrifices that Oskar Schindler made for his group of 1,200 Jewish people, posing as one of the Nazi party faithful while shielding helpless people from the horrors he had witnessed at the hands of his own countrymen. There are so many fictional accounts of Holocaust survivors and other true stories of Jewish people’s rescue by righteous Gentiles in Europe, but a memoir of a Jewish boy’s rescue from the Nazis by a Nazi brings up all new questions and explorations of the human spirit. Most shocking to me in all of these tales is the ease with which long-time neighbors and friends will turn away from those who are “officially” marginalized, turning a blind eye to the suffering of those they should protect, often looking to their own safety. Sometimes those same friends will quickly become their tormentors, allying themselves with the stronger enemy, hoping to profit from the new rulers. Yet even in the darkest times, tiny acts of resistance keep the soul alive. In the Polish ghetto, Jewish rabbis would hold worship services in secret. Groups of Jewish actors would perform skits and theater productions in private, defiantly holding on to art and creativity while being held captive. Leon relates that even if he was too young to understand the comedies, he would laugh anyway, just to show that the Nazis did not own his very thoughts. In much the same way, Oskar Schindler performed little acts of resistance. After one of his renowned parties, he would walk into the factory where the Jewish machinists were working and speak to each of them, calling them by name— which was illegal. Sometimes he would “accidentally” leave a pack of cigarettes beside Leon’s father’s workstation so that he could sell them for food. He called Leon up to his office, ostensibly to reprimand him, but after chatting for a few minutes, he would slip him some bread.
And thus, in small and unseen ways, Oskar Schindler brought over 1,000 Jewish people through the years of World War II, spending all of his fortune on bribes to Nazi guards and food for all of his workers. There were so many opportunities for all of it to collapse, including once when Leon, his father, and his brother were in line to board a train to Auschwitz. The family was separated, reunited, and separated again. At the end of it all, Leon decided to leave Europe entirely and emigrate to the United States, where he continued his education, taught high school, married and had children and grandchildren. He died this past January at the age of 83.
I was honored when Baker & Taylor’s Jill Faherty emailed to tell me that she had given Simon & Schuster my name to receive one of the five manuscripts of this book that they had allotted to B&T. I had heard of the title and was very interested in it, since the movie Schindler’s List was so powerful. Once I received it, I read the 207-page manuscript the very next day. Regretfully, I cannot quote from the book, since the manuscript is not the final product, but there were many moving and thought-provoking passages that made me stop reading to consider my own heart and our own times. The Boy on the Wooden Box will be released on August 27th, and I highly recommend it for older children, teens, and adults. The opportunities for discussion are limitless.
Disclaimer: I read a manuscript copy of this book, provided by the publisher. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. My thanks to Jill Faherty of Baker & Taylor and Victor Iannone of Simon & Schuster.