60 pages • 2 hours readLeon Leyson
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Leon Leyson’s The Boy on the Wooden Box (2013) is a memoir for young readers about the author’s experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust. Leyson was one of the youngest persons on the famous list of Jews that businessman Oskar Schindler employed in his ammunition factory in Poland, thus saving them from execution. The book’s title comes from the fact that Leon, being small of stature, must stand on a wooden box to operate the factory machines. While working at the factory, Leon experiences the kindness and friendliness of Schindler, whom he comes to regard as a hero.
The book opens with a prologue in which Leon recalls a “Schindler’s Jews” reunion that he attended in 1965 in Los Angeles. By this time, Leon is 35 and working as a teacher. As he was only 15 when he and Schindler last met, he is worried that Schindler will not remember him. To his great surprise, Schindler recognizes Leon immediately and greets him warmly.
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The narrative switches to Leon’s childhood in Narewka, a small town in northeastern Poland. Leon is the youngest of five children; his parents are honest, working-class people, and his early childhood is idyllic. When Leon is eight, his father moves to Kraków to work in a glass factory, and his family joins him there afterward. At first, they believe that their fortunes will improve in the capital, but in 1939 the Germans invade the country and put discriminatory measures in place against Jews. Before long, the Germans force Leon’s family into a Jewish ghetto amid squalid working and living conditions.
Later, the family is sent to the Nazi labor camp in Płaszów, just outside Kraków, which the author characterizes as “hell on earth” (113). Here, the inmates suffer inhuman treatment and physical deprivation at the hands of Nazi overseers, mostly notably the sadistic commandant Amon Goeth. Leon is separated from his parents in the camp, but he manages to see them surreptitiously while working in an onsite brush factory.
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Oskar Schindler builds Emalia, a factory adjacent to the Płaszów camp, and recruits 30 Jews to work there; Leon and his parents and brother are among those chosen. At Emalia, Leon is impressed by Schindler’s goodness and decency, which belie his membership in the Nazi party.
As the tide turns against the Germans in the war, they decide to close down Emalia. However, Schindler orchestrates a plan to move the factory to Czechoslovakia. After a brief period in the brutal Gross-Rosen concentration camp, Leon and his family are transferred to Schindler’s new factory. When the Soviet army begins to close in on the Germans, Schindler liquidates Emalia, frees his employees, and flees. In all, he is responsible for saving almost 1,200 Jewish lives.
After the war, Leon, his parents, and surviving siblings move first to Kraków, then to a displaced persons camp in the American occupation zone in Germany, and finally settle in the United States. Leon serves in the army in the Korean War, attends college, and becomes a teacher. Only late in his life, after the widespread popularity of the movie Schindler’s List, does he begin to open up about his Holocaust experiences, giving talks to schools and other groups across North America.
The Boy on the Wooden Box was published shortly after Leon Leyson’s death from lymphoma at the age of 83. The book consists of a prologue, 10 chapters and an epilogue, and it concludes with an afterword in which Leyson’s widow, daughter, and son comment on his life.