‘Schindler’s List’ survivor, Leon Leyson, dies at 83


Miami Herald Staff Report

Leon Leyson — born Leib Lejzon in Narewka, Poland — could so easily have been among the 1 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Born on Sept. 15, 1929, he was just days shy of 10 when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. But he, his parents and two siblings survived under the protection of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose list of some 1,100 Jews inspired the Academy Award-winning 1993 film, Schindler’s List.

Two brothers perished: one in a 1941 massacre, the other in a death camp.

Leyson came to the United States as a teenager in 1949 after years in a Displaced Persons camp, with his father, Moshe, a tool-and-die maker, and mother Channa. They all became U.S. citizens.

Leyson served with the Army in Japan during the Korean War, then taught industrial arts at a Southern California high school for 39 years.

He died in hospice care on Jan. 12 at 83, of lymphoma, said daughter Stacy Wilfong, of Warrenton, Va. Many news organizations incorrectly reported that Leyson was the youngest person saved by Schindler. At least two others in the United States are still in their 70s.

Leyson didn’t talk much about the Holocaust while his children, now in their 40s, were growing up, said Wilfong, although she and her brother “always knew’’ what he’d been through, and about Schindler’s role in his survival.

But after retiring in 1997, Leyson accepted all invitations to speak to school, civic and religious groups about his experience.

He would, of course, talk about how the towering, barrel-chested Schindler called him “Little Leyson,’’ as he perched atop a box to operate a munitions-factory machine. But he also talked about how, despite the brutality, terror and starvation he endured, he’d made peace with his past.

Her father taught “being a good person’’ by example, his daughter said: “how to value friendships, be compassionate, be interested in people, be supportive and helpful. Being able to forgive and move on. he didn’t sweat the small stuff, because he knew what the big stuff was.’’

In the 1994 book, Schindler’s Legacy: True Stories of the List Survivors, Leyson described how he had the chance to strike back at some German prisoners of war after Russian soldiers liberated Schindler’s factory in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.

Some in his group, after years in painful wooden shoes, demanded the Germans’ boots. Not Leyson.

“To take revenge would have been absolutely insane,’’ he said. “This one particular person I picked on might have been a perfectly innocent person with a family and children. I would not even take myself down to that level. There is no way we could get even.

“Trading some of those shoes for boots in the short run is a gain, but in the long run it is a loss. In the long run I am better off than the person who did that. I know what kind of person I am. I could stand up taller.’’

In addition to his daughter, Leyson is survived by Elisabeth, his wife of 46 years; son, Daniel Leyson, of Los Angeles; sister, Aviva Nissenbaum and brother, David Leyson, both of Israel.

Leyson was buried in a Los Angeles on Tuesday.

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