Most of us are familiar, due to Steven Spielberg’s film, with the amazing story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi officer who saved hundreds of Jews in Poland during the Holocaust. The youngest person on Schindler’s list was Leib (Leon) Leyson who was just 10 years old when the Nazis began their occupation of Poland. Leyson’s father had already attracted Schindler’s attention, and over the years, the several other members of the Leyson family were taken under the wing of the famous “Righteous Gentile.”
"THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX is a powerful memoir, often devastating and heart-wrenching but just as often, hopeful and inspiring."
Leib Leyson was born in Narewka, a rural village In Poland near Bialystok, a place his family had lived for generations. His childhood there seemed like one adventure after another; “an endless, carefree journey.” Leyson lived in the small village with his parents, siblings and extended family until his father went to Krakow to work. Moshe Leyson moved to the city when the glass factory he worked for relocated there. The family’s eventual happy reunion in Krakow, several years later, is ended when the Nazis come to occupy Poland in 1939. From that point on, Leyson witnesses the Nazi brutality against the Jews, including his neighbors and members of his family. The Leysons are relocated to the ghetto, where they live with a kind couple in a small apartment. But those cramped conditions are luxury compared to what comes next. From the increasingly bleak conditions in the ghetto, things only get worse when the Leysons (minus oldest sons Hershel and Tsalig, who have been separated from the rest) are moved to Plaszów, a labor and concentration camp just outside Krakow.
A combination of good luck and Oskar Schindler's protection helped Leyson survive the Plaszów’s commander's sadistic whims and the war. Time and again, Leyson and other members of his family narrowly escape death by dint of Schindler’s lists, which kept them alive to work for him. Schindler, while he could keep him on his list of workers and could slip young Leyson a crust of bread now and again, could not keep him from abuse and near starvation, not to mention the deplorable conditions of the ghetto and the camps or from witnessing so much horror. Leyson’s survival of the “hell on earth” that was the Holocaust came at great price: he lost his home, friends, two beloved brothers, most of his extended family and the idyllic childhood he had known in Narewka.
After the end of the war, Leyson and his parents lived for three years in a displaced persons camp before immigrating to the United States. In California, he added English to the Yiddish, Polish and German he already spoke, worked in factories and took trades classes before being drafted into the Army in 1951. After service, he earned his master’s degree in education and taught high school for the next 39 years. Though he had his own American family, the atrocities of war and the kindnesses of Oskar Schindler were always with Leyson. But it wasn’t until the 1990’s that Leyson began to speak in detail of his childhood in Poland. THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX is a memoir that honors those who survived, those who did not, and those, like Schindler, who saw humanity and value in the European Jews when others refused to.
Written with honesty and clarity, this is a book for more mature young readers; it is an explicit account about what Leyson experienced. THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX is a powerful memoir, often devastating and heart-wrenching, but just as often, hopeful and inspiring. A must-read to compliment any discussion about the Holocaust and intolerance but also discussions about the fortitude of the human spirit and the courage to make the right choices.
Leon Leyson died in January of 2013.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 24, 2013