The story of Oskar Schindler and his list of Jewish prisoners who he managed to keep safe somehow in the darkest days of the Nazi’s reign of terror, was made famous in Steven Spielberg’s movie some years ago. And although I have read some historical accounts about Schindler, Leyson’s memoir is the only first person account I have read, and it is all the more powerful because it is told from the perspective of the young boy he was when the Nazis stormed into his Polish town and brought his idyllic childhood to an end.
Leyson and his family are moved from their home in Krakow to the ghetto, and so begins their terrifying ordeal. When their circumstances are most desperate, Leyson’s father, by a stroke of luck, is offered a job by Oskar Schindler. That job, and Schindler’s determination to save his Jewish factory workers, saved young Leon, his parents, one brother and his sister.
But even Oskar Schindler could not spare the family from their terrifying ordeal at Plazow, the concentration camp run by the sadistic SS officer, Amon Goeth. There, Leon and his family, along with thousands of others, faced starvation, brutal punishment, and exhausting labor day after day. But, each time there is the threat of separation, Schindler manages to keep them together, and so they survive until the end of the war. After their liberation, Leyson emigrated to California with his parents. and began a new life. He rarely spoke of his experiences, even to his own children, wanting to give them “a legacy of freedom, not a legacy of fear.” The publication of Thomas Kennealy’s Schindler’s List, and the Spielberg movie that soon followed, caused him to rethink his silence and he began to speak about his experiences, and then to write his memoir. Leon Leyson did not live to see his memoir published, in a remarkable twist of fate he died the day the manuscript was delivered to his publisher, Atheneum.
The Boy On The Wooden Box was difficult to read, and even more difficult to write about. Leyson witnessed and endured unspeakable acts of cruelty, over a period of many years. He has written about these experiences with unflinching honesty, and through the perspective of a child trying to form some understanding of what was taking place, why it was happening, and what it meant for his family. This may be an intense book for some of my sixth graders to read, but it is an important one.
Here is Leyson giving a brief interview: