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'Schindler's List' survivor shares message of hope

Posted December 14, 2009
Updated February 6, 2013

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— For most people, "Schindler's List," was a powerful movie about a German businessman who saved the lives of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by hiring them to work in his factories.

For Leon Leyson, it was his life – and a story he kept quiet for more than 40 years until the film in 1993.

Leon Leyson Web only: 'Schindler's list' survivor Leon Leyson

"It was real. It looked real. It's the way I remembered it," Leyson said recently, while in Raleigh sharing his experience with the Chabad-Lubavitch Center.

Born Leib Jejzon, Leyson was 13 in 1942 when his father took him to work at a factory owned by Oskar Schindler, who initially hired Jews as cheap labor. Eventually, Schindler witnessed the horrors the refugees faced and saved nearly 1,200 of them from death.

At age 18, Leyson moved to California with his parents to start a new life. He went to school, married and had two children and four grandchildren.

Now 80, Leyson shares his story, speaking to students and community organizations across the United States about his experience – the constant hunger, life in the Nazi-created ghetto in Kraków, working at the factory and the daily struggle to survive.

"The worst part of the movie for me to watch – there was a scene in the movie where there's a horse-drawn wagon with furniture and stuff on it coming into the ghetto. That could have been a picture of my family moving in," he said. "Even today, as I watch that, I just want to get up and say, 'Don't go in there.'"

His message is about hope, he said, and letting others know that everyone has the ability to affect countless lives in a positive way.

"The message is that the human spirit is indestructible, that Schindler was a single person who did the right thing in the worst of times," he said.

Even after everyone on the list is gone – there are about 60 to 70 survivors today – he said he knows Schindler's impact will live on.

"We have four grandchildren, and they will have children, and their children will have children," he said. "So, this kind of thing just continues on forever, and it expands."

And for that, Leyson said, he is eternally grateful.


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  • TomLynda Dec 15, 2009

    19tarheel75, You put it so well.

    If we don't remember our history, we will be condemded to repeat our mistakes.

    Just as bringing the terrorist to NY for a trial. We are now bact to the pre 9-11 mentatality. It's just a matter of time now before America gets hit again, probably by sucide bombers this time among other ways.

    Oscar Schindler and others who did the right thing during World War II inspire me.

    Looking at the DVD set "Band of Brothers", where the GI's came upond the death camps really tells it. Relatives that were in the war told us about it when we were children. They never forgot it, nor should we, and we have to keep that history alive, so it will never be repeated.

  • 19tarheel75 Dec 15, 2009

    The only way to succeed in the future is to study our past and stive to NOT make those same mistakes again - and again.

    Unfortunately, many of our leaders and politicians are only trying to serve their own self interests for their future and their place in history.

  • sssh.. whisper Dec 15, 2009

    Such a horrible tragedy for those people to have gone through.. but what a wonderful way to celebrate HOPE. Thank you for sharing.

  • WRALcensorsforIslam Dec 15, 2009

    Well, the horrific thing is that there were so few willing to do the right thing. For every Oscar Schindler there were thousands of Germans, Austrians, Danes, Frenchmen, Belgians, Latvians, et al, only too happy to join the SS or help the SS exterminate Jews or to profit from their misery.

    Schindler's main value was not saving 1200 lives, as good and honorable as that was, it was and is to serve as an indictment and conviction of the rest of the Germans and Europeans for their refusal to do anything. Starting with the Pope and working down the list from there.

  • NC Reader Dec 15, 2009

    I have heard several WWII veterans tell of their horror at seeing the concentration camps, either freeing them or later, after they had been emptied. Their stories move me to tears. Thank God for the people like Oskar Schindler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and so many others, who did the right thing at great risk to themselves and their families.