Leon Leyson, the youngest Jew to be saved by Oskar Schindler and his famous list during the Holocaust, died Jan. 12 in Whittier, following a four-year struggle with lymphoma. He was 83.
Called “Little Leyson” by the German industrialist who saved him and 1,100 other Jews, Leyson was born Leib Lejzon and grew up in northeastern Poland. He moved with his family to Krakow, Poland, nine years later, just before the German invasion. When the family was ordered into the ghetto, Leyson helped keep his family fed by running errands for the elderly.
Schindler hired his father and brother to work for no pay but allowed them to leave the ghetto and get scraps of food. The family eventually was divided in various deportations and two of Leyson’s brothers were killed.
Some members survived, however, in the Plaszow labor camp, because Schindler put them on his list, bringing them to his factory in Czechoslovakia, from where they were liberated in 1945. While at the factory, Leyson — then 13 years old — was so short that he had to stand on a box to reach the machinery.
Leyson had high praise for Schindler.
“He put everything on the line,” he told the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2010. “Even to treat us as human beings was against the law. … He did it because he was a decent human being.”
In a displaced persons’ camp, Leyson finally resumed the education he’d been forced to abandon when he was 10, and when the family moved to the United States in 1949, he earned a high school diploma and college degree. He studied industrial arts at L.A. City College and California State University, Los Angeles, and went on to receive a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.
Leyson worked for 39 years at Huntington Park High School, where he taught machine shop and was a guidance counselor. But he was quiet about his war experiences for decades.
“The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust,” Leyson told the Portland Oregonian in 1997. “I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”
This reticence changed after the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Schindler’s List.” Afterward, Leyson began taking on public speaking in schools and universities across North America.
“I can recount dozens of times where if I had stepped … to my left I would have been gone, or if I happened to step to my right,” Leyson once told the Los Angeles Times. “It wasn’t anything like being smart or clever or anything like that.”
He is survived by his wife, Lis; daughter, Stacy; son, Daniel; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren. A public memorial will take place at noon Feb. 17 at the Chapman University chapel in Orange.