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Over 200 students and community members filled the International House to hear the youngest survivor on Schindler’s List, Leon Leyson, share the story of his life during the Holocaust.
Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, saved over one thousand Jews during World War II by using his influence with the Nazi government. Less than 60 of the 1,100 Schindler’s list survivors are alive today.
The event was sponsored by Chabad at the University of Chicago and Hyde Park and the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
“The way to remember the Holocaust—the way I remember it—is one person at a time,” Leyson said.
As the youngest of five children, Leyson spent the first nine years of his life living in a small town in eastern Poland until his father got a job in Krakow, forcing his family to move. Soon after, Germany invaded Poland, and the Nazi party began deporting Jews to concentration camps.
Leyson called his survival “a whole series of fortunate events,” adding he was lucky and driven by his desire to be with his parents.
“If I were to tell you the number of times that my life was in danger, we would have to spend a whole lot of time here,” Leyson said.
Leyson and his family were sent to a camp, but Schindler’s kindness and savvy spare their lives. Schindler bribed the Nazis into allowing a sub-camp right next to his factory. There, he would house Jews and protect them from deportation.
While Leyson’s father was on the list to go with Schindler, Leyson’s transfer was uncertain.
“A few days before the transfer was going to take place, I found out that my name had been crossed off the list,” Leyson said. “I pretty much resigned that I was going to be left in this camp.”
Leyson said that as he went to see his mother off, something within him convinced him to speak up to an officer and told him that his name was on the list and had been crossed off.
“He looked at the list, looked at me and just pointed to the group and grunted,” Leyson said. “If I hadn’t done that, my chances for surviving would have been practically zero in that camp.”
Leyson recalled Schindler as a kind and caring man who did not accept the ideology of the Nazis.
“He stopped and talked to me as I worked my night shift sometimes, looked me in the eye, and waited for an answer,” Leyson said. “When you looked in Schindler’s eyes, there was a little humanity there.”
According to Leyson, Schindler’s efforts to transport all of his workers safely to his other factory went “above and beyond” in all respects.
“At one point, Schindler heard that not all the women on his list were being sent to him,” Leyson explained. “My mother, one of those women, was taken out of the barracks where she awaited the gas chamber, and sent back to the group of women who were going with Schindler’s company.”
As the war neared its end, Leyson remembers Schindler’s departure and his farewell speech in the factory.
“I remember standing there and hearing pretty much the same words that you heard in the movie,” Leyson said, referencing the 1993 Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List.
“In the darkness of all of Europe, there was a little light named Schindler,” Leyson said.