‘Schindler’s List’ survivor recounts, reflects

‘Schindler’s List’ survivor recounts, reflects

Q: How does it feel to come back to campus to

A: I always tell people about my
experiences at Cal State Los Angeles; how much assistance and help I
got, and how much kindness I found. After all, I wasn’t prepared for a
college experience. My formal education ended when I was 10 years old,
and while I learned a lot, it was not necessarily for the classroom.

There were quite a few people who really stood
out. There actually were students who would offer help or give
assistance, and just teachers who would go out of their way.

It was a nurturing, warm experience.

Q: What made you decide to go into teaching?

A: It was just a good fit. I went over to
Los Angeles City College after having gotten out of the service to see
if I could enroll, and I talked to a counselor. We discussed my
experience and background and he suggested that I should be an
industrial arts teacher….

Industrial arts was a good instrument, a good
vehicle for learning. It combines the practical with the impractical.

Q: How have you managed to carry on with your
life, getting married, raising a family and building a lasting,
successful career?

A: There’s a saying, “How do you survive,
after surviving?” It comes to a point where people have to make a
choice. Be bitter for the rest of your life, which you have every right
to do, or move forward—which is what I did. I didn’t have time to think
about this; I was moving forward.

Q: What message would you like people to take
away with them?

A: All I can ask from anybody is that
they remember and tell their children that I saw someone who survived
the Holocaust.

Leon Leyson gives speech at podium.

Leon Leyson, the youngest survivor on Schindler’s List, speaks to an audience of hundreds of students, faculty, alumni and guest at an event on campus in February.

After more than 50 years, Leon Leyson ’58, returned to
campus in February to share his story of tragedy, survival, resistance, and as
he describes it, luck.

Leyson, a Polish immigrant, was the youngest survivor on
the famed Schindler’s List. As recounted by the movie, German industrialist
Oskar Schindler protected many Jews from the Nazi concentration camps in World
War II, saving about 1,200 lives—including Leyson, his father, mother, brother
and sister—as the war drew to a close.

“I have been a lucky person,” said the 80-year-old Leyson to the crowd
of more than 200 students, community members and guests. “I am lucky to have
survived the Holocaust, and lucky to have come to this country. You are looking
at the most fortunate person in the world.”

Leyson’s talk, in which he shared his first-hand account of
the harrowing times of growing up under Nazi rule—when the thin line between
life and death could dissipate in an instant—was made possible through an
ongoing speaker series of the
American Communities Program, with his talk
sponsored by the Folb family.

It was the first time that Leyson, a retired industrial
arts teacher from the Los Angeles Unified School District, spoke at the
University since being moved to speak publicly about his experience following
the release of the 1994 Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List”

“I was determined to move forward with my life,” he said in an
interview before the talk. “And I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my
story. …But I was wrong; and as I went along, I learned some lessons for

Leyson’s story begins in Krakow, Poland, where he was
living with his family when the Nazis invaded. He says he was living this
idyllic life, jumping on and off street cars, nabbing free rides behind the
conductor’s back, and running through busy city streets with his friends, when
everything slowly began to change.

First, it was Jews were not allowed to sit on park benches. Then, Jews weren’t allowed to go to the parks at all. Then
came the street car restrictions—Jews had to sit in the back, and soon, weren’t
allowed to ride at all—and requirements that Jews identify themselves by their
religion, he said. And finally, the ghettos.

“Little by little they marginalized us,” Leyson said, his voice
cracking from choked back emotions. “We know that’s how they
worked. We know that now.”

Drawing from memory, Leyson relives each moment of his
talks, like a movie running through his mind, he said. And the times, even when
he finally did get on Schindler’s List, were not easy. In Schindler’s factory,
for instance, he said, they worked 12 hour shifts.

“Lil’ Leyson”, as he was called by Schindler who took an
immediate liking to the Leyson family, would stand on a box to reach the
controls of the machine he was assigned to. He and his brother worked the
production line, and then were transferred to the tool-making area after
Schindler found Leyson out of line one night, watching the other men at work.

“It was incredible,” he said. “Just think, this guy thought that we
would have a future; we weren’t just going to die in this factory.”

On several occasions, Schindler ensured the family's survival. The businessman bribed Nazi officers to
have a transport of women—including Leyson’s mother and sister—who were routed
to Auschwitz, safely returned to his factory. He saved a similar transport of
men, which included Leyson and his father, when it was routed to another death
camp, and tried to save the life of Leyson’s older brother on a third. Schindler
also had the names of Leyson, his father and his brother added to his list of
workers when he discovered that they had been left off.

“Schindler saved our lives,” Leyson said repeatedly.

“You have to judge his actions by the times then, not
today,” he added. “Today, he would be a good CEO who takes care of his
employees. In those days, saving Jews was against the law. What Schindler did
was not only a dangerous thing to do, but a heroic thing to do.”