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Leon Leyson of Fullerton Will Never Forget the Nazis or Their Brutality. But His Strongest Memory Is of the Humanity of Oskar Schindler, Who Put Him on a . . . : Survivors' List

January 23, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — The memories, Leon Leyson says, have not diminished with time.

Memories--of German troops invading Poland in 1939 and his family being herded into the Jewish ghetto in Krakow when he was 9. . . . Of hiding in a cramped attic crawl space to avoid being killed or sent to a death camp by SS commandos who periodically swept through the Jewish quarter. . . . Of living in a concentration camp run by a sadistic SS commandant who would shoot Jews for sport. . . . Of wondering whether he'd have enough bread to eat for the day or whether he'd even live until tomorrow. . . . And of a German industrialist--a war-profiteering Nazi Party member--who saved Leyson's life and the lives of 1,100 other Jews who worked for him:

The memories of a Schindlerjude, a Schindler Jew.

"He was very good to me," Leyson says of Oskar Schindler, the true-life hero of "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's critically acclaimed movie adaptation of Thomas Keneally's fact-based novel.

Leyson was 13 when he joined his other family members working at Schindler's enamel works factory. Schindler frequently ordered that Leyson be given extra soup, and he called the skinny boy who had to stand on a box to operate a lathe "Little Leyson."

Leyson's father--a tool-and-die maker--was one of the first Jews to go to work at Schindler's factory, which produced mess kits and pots and pans for the German army. Ultimately, Leyson, his mother, a brother and a sister would all work for Schindler--one of the few families to do so.

Two of Leyson's older brothers, however, did not survive the war. One, who was taken from the Jewish ghetto, died in an extermination camp. The other was murdered by the Nazis, along with 500 other Jews living in the Leysons' hometown on the northeastern border of Poland.

Leyson, 63, who teaches industrial arts at Huntington Park High School, hasn't talked much about that time of his life. "Periodically," he says, "some things come out in conversations with people." But for the most part he has kept his memories to himself.

Elisabeth, his Ohio-born wife of 28 years, has often urged him to talk about his experiences. "I think it's a miraculous story that many people would find inspirational and really amazing," she says.

Leyson's children--Daniel, 24; and Stacy, 25--are familiar with their father's background. But Leyson says his sister, Aviva, who now lives in Israel, once started to tell her story for an oral history project and couldn't finish. "I can identify with that," he says.

So it was with "some real reservations" that Leyson recently agreed to talk about his wartime memories and about "Schindler's List," the movie that tells the story of the man who made a fortune in the war by using unpaid Jewish labor and then spent that fortune to save their lives.

Leyson sat on the edge of a white sofa in the living room of his two-story house in Fullerton, thousands of miles and a lifetime away from the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp where he spent five years of his youth.

His arms resting on his knees and his hands tightly clasped, the soft-spoken Leyson said he saw "Schindler's List" at an invitational screening for other Schindler Jews in West Los Angeles.

He didn't know what to expect of the movie, which was shot on location in Poland, but he found it "startlingly effective and quite authentic. I was amazed to see these places looking very much like I remember."

At times, he said, watching the film "was like having an out-of-body experience because those little kids who were running around and hiding and trying to get away from the Sondercommando (the brutal SS commando troops), that was me. That was my friends."

*

His family, Leyson said, had moved from their hometown near the Russian border to Krakow a year before the Germans arrived in his country. His father, Moric, worked in a glass factory across from the Jewish-owned factory Schindler would eventually take over.

Even before the Germans invaded Poland, Leyson said, they had heard that the Germans were mistreating Jews inside Germany, "so we had some inkling of it, but nothing of the sort that it ended up to be. We had no idea."

The only experience his parents had had with the Germans was during World War I. "To them, yes, the Germans forced people to work, and they would release them after they finished their work. So it looked like in the beginning that it was the same thing. But it was nothing like it."

Within six months, Poland's Jews were forced to move into a newly closed-off area of Krakow. Leyson's parents piled as many belongings as they could into suitcases and onto sheets, which they tied up at the corners and made into bundles.

"We just loaded everything up on a wagon," he recalled. "Whatever we couldn't move we just left there."

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