‘Oskar Schindler defines heroism. He proves that one person can stand up to evil and make a difference. My hope is that he will become part of your memory, even as I was always part of his.’ So writes Leon Leyson, the author of this remarkable memoir. His presence at number 289 on Schindler’s now famous List enabled him to become – in his own words – ‘an unlikely survivor of the Holocaust’. For years, having made a new life in the US after the war, Leyson never spoke of his appalling experiences. But after the release of the 1993 film Schindler’s List, he began to do so, and eventually to accept invitations to share his story at churches, synagogues, schools and with political and civic organisations. Finally, he wrote this memoir, but sadly died in January 2013, the day after delivering the manuscript to his editor.
A year or so after Spielberg’s film came out, I visited Auschwitz. Our Polish guide (not Jewish) had been a wartime prisoner there. Someone asked him what he thought of the film. ‘Every week they find a good German,’ he replied, with venom. Oskar Schindler’s motives in saving almost 1200 Jews from certain death have been scrutinised and doubted. But the author of The Boy on the Wooden Box is unequivocal about Schindler’s heroism.
Leon Leyson was born Leib Lejzon in Narewka in rural northeastern Poland. The youngest of five children, he remembers his early childhood as ‘an endless carefree journey’. In 1938, the family moved to Krakow. A few days before his 10th birthday in September 1939, the Germans entered the city, and Leon’s ‘years in hell’ began. Confined to the Krakow ghetto from early 1941, the family avoided deportation for over a year thanks to Leon father’s job in an enamelware factory belonging to Oskar Schindler. Then ‘in the span of a minute, my beloved brother was gone’. Tsalig was rounded up and taken away, and never seen again. Shortly afterwards, the rest of the family was sent to Płaszów concentration camp, presided over by sadistic commandant Amon Goeth, (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film). Here, he would undoubtedly have met his death, had it not been for Schindler, who found little Leon a job in one of his factories, despite the fact that he was so small he could only reach the controls of the machine he was assigned to by standing on a wooden box. ‘That box gave me a chance to look useful, to survive,’ he writes.
‘Little Leyson’ as Schindler called him, outlived the Nazi’s reign of terror, along with his parents, his sister Pesza, and David, one of his three brothers. His brother Tsalig, perished in Auschwitz, whilst his eldest brother Hershel, having made it back to Narewka, was machine-gunned by the SS with all the other Jewish men of the village in 1941.
So vividly does Leyson describe his experiences, that the pain, cruelty and suffering is almost tangible. But his telling is also beautifully measured, with young readers in mind. In terms of reading matter about the Holocaust, it’s hard to imagine any testament ever equalling Anne Frank’s Diary for its first-hand immediacy. But The Boy on the Wooden Box deserves to stand alongside it as an immensely powerful testament of how a youthful will to survive, and the actions of a good German kept one small boy alive to tell his transcendent tale, many decades later.