‘Schindler’s List’ survivor recounts, reflects

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

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 myself.”

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.”