Leon Leyson was just shy of ten years old when the Germans invaded Krakow, Poland, where he lived with his parents, 3 brothers, and sister. For Leon and his family, 1939 was the start of several years of misery, starvation, torment, inconceivable inhumanity, and loss. The Boy on the Wooden Box is an incredible and important memoir of a boy who survived the most horrific time in world history because of one man, an unlikely hero, Oskar Schindler.
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Leon is an 8 year old boy like any other: he plays with his friends, attends school, and sometimes gets into trouble with his siblings and pals. He is the youngest of 5 children, and his parents are hard-working Jewish people. Leon’s father moves from their town of Narewka, Poland, to Krakow to work in a glass factory, and his family joins him soon after when he has saved up enough money to take care of them all. The family adjusts to their new life in Krakow and they have hope for a bright future.
In 1939, the Germans invaded Krakow, and Leon and his family’s lives changed. Leon’s father and oldest brother, Hershel, decided it would be best to escape back to Narewka, but after the beginning of the grueling journey, his father returned, knowing he would not make the long trek; the family would never see Hershel again. Germans invaded their homes, took over the town, and ignited utter terror in Krakow. Leon recalls one instance of German soldiers entering their home and beating and dragging away his father right in front of his family. Several weeks later, Leon’s father was released, and worked secretly for a glass company in town. One day, he was sent to break open a safe for the new Nazi businessman nearby. The man, Oskar Schindler, thought Leon’s father was a skilled craftsman and offered him a job; little did the family know that this stroke of fate would later save them from certain death.
At the end of 1940, the Krakow Ghetto was built. A section of the city was sectioned off by high walls and guarded by German soldiers. All of the 15,000 remaining Jews in Krakow were forced into this space and not allowed to leave without permission. Leon and his family found a way to survive, and even live life a little. His father continued to work at Emalia, Oskar Schindler’s factory, and his brother Tsalig met a girl named Miriam and fell madly in love. Leon taught himself to ride a bike and made friends with some boys his age. The family’s goal was not to think about the future, but to stay alive as long as they could.
In early summer of 1942, the Germans evicted everyone who was unfit to work, and invaded Leon’s family’s apartment. His father’s work papers saved his family, but since Tsalig was 17, he needed to provide his own, which he did not have. Tsalig was forced to leave, and even though Oskar Schindler tried to get him off of the train, he would not leave his love, Miriam. The family would never see Tsalig again. With the help of Oskar Schindler, Leon’s family survived the next year of horror in the Krakow Ghetto. Then, one day in May of 1943, the Germans liquidated the ghetto, and everyone was sent to Plaszow, a forced labor/concentration camp nearby. Leon described Plaszow as, “The innermost circle of hell.” An excerpt from the books states, “It was barren, dismal, chaotic. Rocks, dirt, barbed wire, ferocious dogs, menacing guards, and acre after acre of drab barracks stretched as far as I could see. Hundreds of prisoners in threadbare clothing hurried from one work detail to another, threatened by gun-wielding German and Ukrainian guards. The moment I entered the gates of Plaszow, I was convinced I would never leave there alive.”
Leon and his family did get out alive. Because of Oskar Schindler, the wealthy Nazi businessman, Leon and his family were able to work and relocate to a sub-camp closer to the factory. Schindler even hired Leon to work in his factory; Leon was so small that he had to stand on a wooden box to reach the controls of the machine. As the Soviet army drew closer and the end of war seemed near, the Nazis shifted their focus on covering their tracks. Schindler made arrangements to move his workers to a new factory, away from the dangers of Plaszow. Leon remembers the date of October 15, 1944 as the day they departed and headed towards a glimmer of hope. Of course, it was not so simple. Their train took the men to Gross-Rosen concentration camp.
Naked, shaved head, and freezing, Leon struggled to understand how he got to the camp and why. When the men were finally transferred to Schindler’s camp, called Brunnlitz, rumors were floating that the women had been sent to Auschwitz. Somehow, though, with bribes and money, Oskar Schindler had managed to save the women. Leon and his family lived in Brunnlitz for 8 months until the seemingly impossible happened: on May 8, 1945, they were free. Schindler had fled, for if he was caught, he would’ve been killed; although he was a kind and empathetic man who had single handedly saved about 1,200 Jewish lives, he was still a Nazi.
Life after being freed still wasn’t easy for a long time. Upon their return to Krakow, the Jews were not welcomed by all, and adjusting to freedom was not easy. Leon speaks of attacks, riots, looting, and beatings. Knowing it was unsafe for them to stay, the family bounced around and lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany until they ended up in California in 1949. Leon went on to finish his education and become a teacher. He married and had children of his own. In 1965, he was reunited with Oskar Schindler, who remembered him as “Little Leyson”. Oskar Schindler died on October 9, 1974, and is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. Leon Leyson died on January 12, 2013. Throughout his life, he was a teacher, a speaker, and a recipient of an honorary doctorate from Chapman University. He shared his story whenever he could while also making sure that the world saw Oskar Schindler as the hero that he was.The Boy on the Wooden Box depicts the horror of the Holocaust from a young child’s point of view. It is extremely well written and heartbreaking, though at the same time, it is a story of courage and perseverance in the face of evil and tragedy. Teachers and students will never forget the story of Leon Leyson, and the man who saved his life.