This weekend, Southern California lost a prominent Holocaust survivor and educator. Leon Leyson of Fullerton died Saturday after a 4-year-long battle with lymphoma. He was 83.
Leyson was the youngest person saved from the Nazi concentration camps by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler. Schindler employed Jews at his factory in Krakow, Poland, claiming they had special skills he needed. The story of Schindler and these survivors was dramatized in the 1993 Oscar-winning movie, "Schindler's List."
Leyson was just 13 at the time he worked for Schindler, and he was so small he had to stand on the box to operate work machinery. He was a young man by the time he emigrated to the U.S. in 1949, serving in the Army, then going on to attend Los Angeles City College, Cal State Los Angeles and Pepperdine University.
He lived in Fullerton and spent 39 years as a high school teacher, speaking little of his harrowing experience under the Nazi regime, but after the film stirred national interest in Holocaust, he started to give talks and interviews around the country.
In a 2011 interview for the show Off-Ramp, Leyson credited his survival to Schindler, and to luck.
"I had a whole series of fortunate events, you know, many of them, in an unfortunate time," said Leyson. "Everytime something was happening that might have caused me not to survive, I did something not because I was smart. I just did something and it was the right thing."
One such lucky break was when he saw that he had not made the original list of Jews authorized to go work at Schindler's factory.
"Eventually I ended up in front of this officer, a brutal commadant, he was big and tall and when I looked at him all I could see was a belt buckle. And I told him I was on the list," said Leyson. "I was a child I was speaking to a man and he didn't even think I was human. But he looked at the list and he looked at me, and he just pointed me to the group and I jumped in and I waited. And I made it out of the camp. He might have shot me because he was the kind of person who was shooting people on a daily basis."
Leyson lost two brothers in the Holocaust, and said one brother was killed in a massacre in the family's village. Another brother was on a train to a concentration camp and could have been saved by Schindler, who was retrieving his Jewish accountant from the same train. But the young man refused to leave behind his girlfriend.
"People should know the Nazis did not murder numbers. They murdered individuals," said Leyson. "Somebody's brother , somebody's uncle. Somebody's aunt. Somebody's grandchild. Somebody's grandfather."
Leyson saw it as his duty to keep the story of the Holocaust alive, and to highlight the decency of people such as Schindler.
"It's not going to be very long before there won't be any witnesses," said Leyson. "And if I tell my story and there are 100 people in the audience and many of them telling the story to somebody else then somebody else will tell the story to someone else."
Leyson is survived by his wife, two children and six grandchildren. A public memorial for Leyson will be held Feb. 17 at Chapman University.