Welcome to Day 4 of the blog tour for the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, presented annually by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Kudos to everyone on the list. As you can see from my last post, I took a “snow day” from my own writing to read Leon Leyson’s memoir, The Boy on the Wooden Box, which is one of two honor books for older readers. Leon, at age 10, was one of the youngest on Oskar Schindler’s list of “essential” Jewish prisoners for the factory he ran for the Nazi war machine. Thanks to Schindler, Leon lived a full life and passed away about a year ago.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing two key people who assisted Leon with his memoir: Elisabeth B. Leyson, Leon’s wife; and Dr. Marilyn J. Harran, founding director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University.
RUTH: Leon’s memoir ends with remembrances from his son and daughter at Leon’s memorial service in 2013. How were the qualities that Leon showed as an adult shaped by his experiences as the “boy on the wooden box?”
MARILYN: I think that Leon’s experiences, above all, led him to be grateful for every day of his life. Perhaps that attitude is best epitomized in his responses to his time in basic training for the U.S. Army in 1951. Other draftees were complaining about their grub or their cot, and Leon was thinking how wonderful it was to get food every day, and a bed with a blanket, and a clean, nice uniform to wear. Leon’s experiences as a boy targeted for persecution might have made him incredibly wary of people. Instead he became just the opposite: open, encouraging, optimistic. He had a way of expecting the best of us all without ever putting any pressure on us and made us want to be better people—at least, that was certainly the case for me.
LIS: Leon came from a very loving, kind, and generous family and extended family. These were the people who shaped his life as a young boy. Their fundamental values held fast against the brutality and vileness of the Holocaust perpetrators. These values sustained Leon during the war and flourished in him for the rest of his life. Leon knew that he was more than fortunate to have ongoing, although limited, contact with his immediate family during the worst of times in World War II. Also, Leon’s long hours working on the lathe while standing on the box might be when he began to hone his impressive skills as a machinist and problem solver.
RUTH: Yes, I see how vital Leon’s family was to him. Were there other families on Schindler’s list?
MARILYN: Not many, I’m sure. Of course, what enabled the Leysons to stay together was, in part, luck, but the relationship that Leon’s father had with Schindler before the war meant he could approach Schindler and ask him to include other members of his family in a way that others probably could not have. And, let’s not forget that Leon lost two brothers, Tsalig and Hershel.
RUTH: One tiny aspect of Leon’s life nags at me. As an adult, he held a black belt in Judo. Why was he drawn to this form of martial arts?
LIS: I think Leon was attracted to the complexity of mastering Judo and of this kind of personal defense.
RUTH: Why do you suppose Leon waited until the 1990s before sharing most of his experiences? He didn’t write his memoir until 2012.
LIS: It takes time to process grief and suffering. That is true for the sufferer as well as for those afflicted by the events in a less personal way. People were not ready to hear of the horrors, and survivors were reluctant to speak of them. Remember, Leon began to learn English when he arrived in the U.S. in 1949. It takes a long time, even for one gifted with the facility to learn languages quickly like Leon, to be able to express oneself with the depth and preciseness essential to relating such events.
Three key events come to mind. The positive reception Thomas Keneally’s book, Schindler’s Ark (released in the U.S. as Schindler’s List), the stunning power of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, and the gentle persistence of Dennis McClellan, the LA Times reporter who wrote of Leon’s experiences, set the foundation for Leon to begin speaking. The outpouring of love, support, and interest in Leon’s story by friends, colleagues, and even strangers who read McClellan’s article encouraged Leon to begin to conquer the difficulties of retelling his life during the Holocaust. After just about every presentation, at least someone would encourage Leon to write his story. Over the years, he gradually began to believe that he indeed needed to leave a written testament.
MARILYN: I’ll just add that some survivors have still not told of what they experienced or told very little of it. It’s really important that we remember the story that Leon told about his LA neighbor early on who responded to Leon’s description of starving in the Polish ghetto with the comment: “Well, we had rationing here, too.” There was an incredible gap in knowledge and experience, and it was tough to overcome.
Now we have the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University, and many other institutions that make the Holocaust much more part of our daily lives than it was in the first decades after Leon arrived. Students learn about these events—and, of course, we hope that many will be drawn to learn more after reading Leon’s book—and we have programs at universities, like Chapman. As we all realize that there will be a time in the near future when there will be no more survivors to speak of their first-hand experiences, we have truly come to treasure their accounts in a way that we didn’t always before.
RUTH: If you could deliver a short message, on Leon’s behalf, to young readers of The Boy on the Wooden Box, what would it be?
MARILYN: Live with hope; live with gratitude; never be afraid to intervene when you see injustice; don’t be silent; have confidence that you can make a difference in the world for good just as Oskar Schindler did, even if it’s on a much smaller scale.
LIS: Marilyn and I remember a quote from the religions scholar Joseph Campbell that Leon used to paraphrase so frequently. “A hero is an ordinary person who does the best of deeds in the worst of times.”
MARILYN: Absolutely. Believe in your capacity to be a hero even if you doubt your courage.
RUTH: Thank you both.