Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

"During the next week, some workers, my brother David among them, had to exhume hundreds of bodies from the mass graves where they had been thrown and burn them.
When he returned to the barracks, David was in a state of shock. He struggled to find the words to describe what he had been. He wept as he told us that he literally had to reach down into the graves, lift out and carry the decomposing bodies to the burning pyres. We tried our best to comfort him, but we couldn't make the memory of what he had seen or the stench of death he carried on his clothes and skin go away. David was barely seventeen."

These poignant heartbreaking passages remind us that evil flourished during the Second World War.  But The Boy On The Wooden Box also reminds us that during dark times, goodness can also be present when people decide to confront evil. This short biography tells the story of a young boy's family who was saved by the courage and street smarts of Oskar Schindler.

Leon Leyson, born Leib Lejson in Narewka, a rural village in northeastern Poland enjoyed a good life during the 1930's. He was the youngest of five children, born to his mother Chanah and father, Moshe. His father was determined to provide a good life for his family and so he worked as an apprentice machinist in a bottle factory, eventually moving to Krakow when the owner expanded the business. His father decided he would relocate Leib's family when he had enough money saved. This meant Leib's mother was left to raise four boys, Hershel, Tsalig, David and Lieb and their sister Pesza. His father would often visit and the family would be reunited over dinners. Eventually Lieb's father saved enough money to move the family to Krakow in the spring of 1938. Lieb and his sister and brothers loved the city exploring the historic Old Town, Wawel Castle, St. Mary's Basilica and the parks and department stores.

Leyson writes that Krakow contained 60,000 Jews - a quarter of the city's population in 1938. Like most of his fellow Jews, Leib and his family felt that they were integrated into the city's life, but in retrospect, he now realizes that this was not really true. In October 1938, the situation in Germany is worsening under Hitler. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria  and then occupied the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia in October.  By this time Jews in Germany were becoming more and more marginalized with Hitler now ordering thousands of Polish Jews out of Germany and into Poland. This was followed by Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass on November 9-10 in Germany and Austria. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and life for Leib and his family was forever changed.

First like many other Jews and also non-Jews, Leib's father and his older brother, Hershel fled the Nazi's into the east to avoid conscription. However, Leib's father returned after reconsidering abandoning his family, while Hershel was sent on to their home village of Narewka. In Krakow and throughout Poland, more and more restrictions were placed on Jews, while German soldiers looted Jewish businesses and evicted Jewish families from their apartments. Jewish workers were fired from their jobs, although Leib's father retained his job in the glass factory because he could speak German. One night Leib's father was beaten and taken away to prison. Although he was eventually released he had lost his job at the glass factory.

Eventually he was hired off the books, to work for another glass company. One day Leib's father was asked to crack open a safe in an adjacent enamelware factory by the Nazi owner. That Nazi businessman was Oskar Schindler and he offered Leyson's father a job. Working for Schindler meant no wages earned but a permit that afforded him special protection from being picked up and sent away by to labour camps.

From this point on, Leyson describes his family's attempts to survive the next five years including the "cleansing" of Krakow of its Jewish population in May, 1940, the formation of the Jewish ghetto in Podgorze, the southern area of Krakow which was crammed with over 15,000 Jewish souls, and the transport of Jews from the ghetto to the death camps in the east. During this time, working in Schindler's factory saved all the Leyson family except Tsalig. He was on a transport train with his girlfriend, Miriam, who did not work for Schindler and who therefore could not be saved. Tsalig refused Schindler's offer to get off.

In 1943, the Podgorze ghetto was liquidated and the remaining Jews sent to the Plaszow labour camp. Leib almost never made it as he was repeatedly pulled from the line by soldiers. He eventually slipped onto the transport with his parents, sister Pesza and brother David. The hellish conditions in the labour camp caused Leib to believe he would never leave Plaszow alive. However Leib, his father and mother and brother, David, were moved to a subcamp Schindler had built next to his factory in Krakow while Pesza was moved to another subcamp. Although Leib's name was taken off the list of Jewish transfers, he managed to get the German officer in charge of the transfer to let him rejoin those going to Krakow. It was at this factory that Leib, who was so small, "had to stand on an overturned wooden box to reach the controls of the machine".

With the defeat by the Soviet troops of the German Sixth Army in February, 1943, Leib and his family knew Germany would probably lose the war. It was only a matter of when. Leib and his family just needed to hold on.

Leyson's story is told in a simple, honest way that not only portrays the reality of what life was like for Jews in Europe during the war but also attempts to explain how he was particularly baffled at how his fellow Polish citizens simply accepted the Nazi propaganda spread throughout Poland.
"As the Nazis tightened their grip on Krakow, Jews were barraged with all kinds of insulting caricatures. Demeaning posters appeared in both Polish and German, depicting us as grotesque, filthy creatures, with large crooked noses. Nothing about these pictures made any sense to me....I found myself studying all our noses. None was particularly big. I couldn't understand why the Germans would want to make us look like something we were not."

In fact as Leyson points out later on in his memoir, the Polish Jews often looked just like the much touted Aryans.
"To Nazi eyes, we Jews were a single, detested group, the exact opposite of the blond, blue-eyed, pure 'Aryans'. In reality we were not their opposites at all. Plenty of Jews had blue eyes and blond hair, and many Germans and Austrians, including Adolf Hitler, had dark eyes and hair....It made no sense to me, and I even wondered how Nazis could believe such contradictions themselves. Had they taken the time to really look at us....They would have seen families just like their own: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, craftsmen, and tailors, individuals from all walks of life."
Leyson also states that most gentiles in Krakow had to have known what was going on in the ghetto but chose to simply ignore the situation. They did nothing.
"As I walked out of the ghetto with its tombstone-crowned walls and along the streets of Krakow, I was dumbfounded to see that life seemed just as it had been before I entered the ghetto...I stared at the clean, well-dressed people, busily moving from place to place...Had they not known what we had been suffering just a few blocks away? How could they not have known? How could they not have done something to help us?...They showed absolutely no interest in who we were, where we were going, or why."
As for Oskar Schindler, Leyson has great respect. He was initially frightened of this man who was a Nazi and who had the power of life and death over him and his family. Yet Leib noticed that Schindler seemed to genuinely care about his Jewish workers, taking the time to learn their names and to help them through small acts of kindness. Years later, Schindler still remembered Leib's name, when the two met in the United States.

Leyson also tackles what life was like after the war. In the displaced persons camp in Wetzlar, Germany Leyson was tutored by a German engineer so he could catch up on his schooling.  Unlike many German's, Dr. Neu listened to Leyson when he told him what happened to him during the war. He did not accept the stock answer most gave that "they did not know."
"After my experiences with Oskar Schindler, I felt I could tell the difference between those Germans who had been true Nazis and those who had retained some humanity, even if they had joined the Nazi Party. I found that the true believers would look down at their shoes or wind their watches when someone mentioned the war. When someone spoke of what the Jews had gone through, their stock response was "We didn't know."

It's hard to accept that the German people and other non-Jews in other countries did not know what was happening; those living near the concentration camps could smell the smoke and knew they were crematoriums, they saw the Jews beaten and arrested, their property confiscated, their children removed from school, their neighbours who disappeared never to return, and many actively participated in the crimes against them. They stole property often after promising to hold it for safekeeping. In a way though, much of the Western world is responsible for what happened in World War II. Antisemitism was rife throughout Western countries for centuries with frequent pogroms against the Jews well into the early 1900s. Leyson himself states that although the Jewish population in Poland thought they were a part of the society, in reality they were not. Hidden beneath the surface of civility was a burning racism that as Leyson relates often showed itself  every Easter, when Jews were pelted with stones or yelled at by Catholics and other Christians. The Nazi's simply capitalized on that racism to secure power and retain it.

Immigrants from Europe brought their antisemitism to Canada and the United States, countries that stood by and did nothing to help the Jewish people when the Germans turned against them. Canada and America were reluctant to issue the visas that would have saved thousands of lives, worse, they did nothing as Hitler and his Nazi government enacted restrictions that gradually subjugated the Jewish population and stripped them of their most basic human rights. The US even turned a boat, the SS. St. Louis filled with Jewish refugees away as did Canada.

Leyson rounds out his memoir with an album of pictures of his family, notably absent are Hershel and Tsalig both of whom did not survive the war. As Leon Leyson passed away in January 2013, before the memoir was printed, there are afterwords written by his daughter and son. Leyson had put his war experiences behind him and lived a full life. But eventually he came to realize the importance of sharing with people, what happened to him and his family. It was the release of the movie, Schindler's List which caused Leyson to rethink his reluctance.

The openness and honesty of this memoir is strengthened by the magnanimous tone of Leyson's writing. He demonstrates a noble and generous attitude of forgiveness throughout the book towards those who did his family great harm. Besides the story of fortitude, perservance and the struggle against evil, it is greatest feature of The Boy On The Wooden Box.

Book Details:
The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson with Maryily J. Harran and Elisabeth B. Leyson
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers      2013
231 pp.

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