WHITTIER, Calif. (AP) — Leon Leyson, who was the youngest of 1,100 Jews saved from the Nazis by Oskar Schindler, has died in Southern California at 83.
Leyson died Saturday in Whittier after a four-year battle with lymphoma, his daughter, Stacy Wilfong of Warrenton, Va., told the Los Angeles Times.
Leyson was nearly 10 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Six months later, his family was sent to a ghetto in Krakow. He survived as mass killings and deportations to concentration camps escalated.
One time, Leyson recalled to the Times in 1994, SS commandos surrounded the ghetto. He and some other boys hid in an attic crawlspace in a building next to their apartment. Leyson’s mother managed to join them but another boy’s mother was taken away.
“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 said. “It wasn’t anything like being smart or clever or anything like that.”
He lost two brothers during the Holocaust. One fled to the family’s village and died in a massacre of its 500 residents. The other, who was 16, was deported from the ghetto to a concentration camp.
Leyson was the youngest of the Jewish workers that Schindler, an industrialist, saved by declaring them necessary for production at his factories. Schindler called him “Little Leyson” and at 13 he was so short that he stood on a box to work machinery. He was weak from hunger, so Schindler doubled his rations. He also put Leyson’s mother and surviving siblings on his list.
He emigrated to the United States in 1949 and taught at Huntington Park High School for 39 years.
Leyson rarely talked about his experiences.
“The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust,” he told the Portland Oregonian in 1997. “I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”
However, after the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List” rekindled interest in the story, he began a public speaking career around the U.S. and Canada.
“Any time he told his story he never used notes, he never gave the same talk twice. It always came from the head and the heart,” said Marilyn Harran, his friend and a religious studies professor at Chapman University. “It made people walk away wanting to be better people, to care more, to remember not only the Holocaust but to remember that we can never be indifferent.”
Leyson saw a screening of the movie and said it “was like having an out-of-body experience,” especially scenes that showed boys running from Nazi commandos.
“That was me. That was my friends,” Leyson recalled.
Leyson saw Schindler for the last time in 1974. Schindler visited Los Angeles shortly before his death and Leyson was with a group of Jews who went to the airport to greet him.
Leyson began to introduce himself.
“I know who you are,” Schindler said with a grin. “You’re Little Leyson.”
In addition to his daughter, Leyson is survived by his wife, Lis; son, Daniel, of Los Angeles; sister, Aviva Nissenbaum, of Israel; brother, David, also of Israel, and six grandchildren.
Information from: Los Angeles Times.