'Schindler's List' survivor shares message of hope
Posted December 14, 2009 6:05 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2013 5:10 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
"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.