All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Boy On The Wooden Box – Leon Leyson

on October 14, 2013

Boy On The Wooden BoxThe Boy On The Wooden Box
Leon Leyson
Simon & Schuster UK
2013, 256p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AU

Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only 10 when Germany invaded Poland to start the Second World War. As his family were Jewish, the impact was felt upon them when they were forced to relocate to a Krakow ghetto commandeered by the German forces especially to house Jews – thousands of them in a compound that was legitimately meant to hold a tenth of the population crammed into it. The family regularly dodged the purges of the camp where hundreds of Jewish people would be rounded up and herded onto trains – presumably to ‘other’ areas but the word soon got out that the people who got on those trains weren’t ever coming back. However they couldn’t escape this forever, one of Leon’s brothers and his girlfriend did not have the right sort of employment papers that allowed them to continue being regarded as useful and they were lost.

A stroke of luck for the family was that Leon’s father was employed by German Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler who acquired an enamelware factory in Krakow where he employed over 1700 people, about a thousand of which were Jewish. He was dedicated to preserving and protecting his workforce from the regular purges, frequently insisting that they were highly trained and crucial to the war effort and could not be spared, especially when Germany began to lose the war and Schindler had to switch to making munitions to further the war effort. Not only did he employ Leon’s father but over the years he also employed Leon’s brother David, Leon himself and also made sure that when the factory was moved to Czechoslovakia that Leon’s mother and sister were on the list of workers determined necessary to go to the new factory and set up and begin work.

If not for Oskar Schindler, Leon and his family would surely have perished, most likely in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or similar. Despite the generosity and protection of Schindler, the Lezjon family suffered terribly at the hands of the German forces, where starvation, disease and regular beatings and despicable treatment were the norm. Leon saw people executed in front of him for no reason other than the soldiers felt like shooting someone, he saw his father beaten and taken away, languishing in jail for days, he lost two brothers to the war and countless friends and relatives from the small village they lived in before Krakow, where the Jewish population was obliterated. If not for that one man, the death count would’ve been much higher, the suffering even more. Schindler risked death every day in order to feed and protect his workers.

In one of the only memoirs about one of Schindler’s children, Leon Leyson describes life as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland for someone who was the wrong religion.

I’m not even sure where to start with this review! I’ve read a bit of fiction set around WW2, some containing Jews that were persecuted either in Poland or Germany and even some that include the death camps but this is the first time I’ve read a memoir of a Polish Jewish person during this time. Leon (then Leib) is just 10 when Germany invades and his entire life changes. Before the war, his father was a respected man who worked hard in a factory and Leon played with his friends (most of whom weren’t Jews) around the streets near their apartment block in Krakow. He was slowly ostracised after the war began until none of his friends would talk to him and some would even openly abuse him in the street. Not long after, his family were moved to a compound solely for the Jews.

This isn’t a book that will have you sobbing the whole way through but it’s quietly matter-of-fact about the atrocities committed and the harsh treatment that Polish Jews experienced simply for existing. Leon and his family were lucky (if you can call it that) in some ways because of the job his father found with Oskar Schindler and the fact that he developed a sort of rapport with Schindler and Schindler always took care to protect the family, if he could, by employing other members and helping keep their names off bad lists. However they did not escape unscathed – Leon lost two brothers and his parents lost their entire extended families, unknown to them until after the war was over. The simplicity of the prose and the gentle way in which the story is told makes the impact all the more powerful. They were a regular Jewish family who loved each other and had their own lives before Germany invaded and set about systematically destroying them. Looking back now it seems so ridiculous that such events could happen, that so many people could be executed in such a way – people that weren’t even from Germany, whom the Germans should’ve had no jurisdiction over whatsoever. It’s startling that the mistake in Russia probably cost them the war and if they hadn’t of made that mistake, who knows what could’ve happened and how it might’ve shaped the world. Leon Leyson was clearly a remarkable person, gifted in many languages by the end of the war and when he emigrated to America with his parents, he certainly made the most of his new life. It’s very sad that he passed away early in 2013, before he could see his memoir in print. It’s one of the first, if not the first memoir of one of Oskar’s children and it shows Schindler as a man who must’ve taken incredible risks to do what he did. I’ve never read Schindler’s Ark/List (depending on where you live). I tried once when I was about 12, when the movie came out but it was a bit too much for what I was after at the time. It’s definitely going on the list of books I have to get to (one day!).

This is a fabulous book. It would be a great tool for helping to teaching tolerance.


Book #264 of 2013


One response to “The Boy On The Wooden Box – Leon Leyson

  1. What a beautiful and carefully thought out review. Like you, I am left shaking my head in utter dismay and disbelief that this ever happened, if not a little fearful if the future. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

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