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Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List, written by Leon Leyson. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, 2013. $19.99 ages 9 and up

"My family had already spent our safety net of gold coins, and my father's savings had disappeared. All we had left to barter were the last of my father's suits. When we were most desperate, Father once again asked his friend Wojek, who lived outside the ghetto, to sell one on the black market. As before, after taking a cut for himself, Wojek gave us the remaining coins."

Leon Leyson was the youngest person on Schindler's list. Saved from the death camps that were the fate of so many, Leon and his parents were approved for immigration in 1949. He was nineteen years old. He lived in the United States for many years following WWII, teaching high school and sharing his personal experiences of the Holocaust. Sadly, he died early this year before this memoir was published.

When the war began, his working class family lived in Poland. Theirs was a happy life, living with friends and relatives in the countryside and loving the freedom that life afforded. When his father moved to the city to make a better life for his family, he was sorely missed. Finally, he was able to move his wife and five children to the city. It was an exciting time for each of them, although they missed everything they had left behind them.

When the war broke out, Hitler and his henchmen changed their lives forever. It was no time before the Jewish people of Poland were stripped of any human rights, all that they owned, and finally their freedom. The family was moved to the ghetto where they did their best to endure and survive. With little food, and nothing left to trade for more, they lived in constant fear of the power of the Nazis and for their lives. As the ghetto grew and became overcrowded, people were chosen for transport. It might be to a labor camp, but more likely that meant a death camp.

Luckily, for the Leyson family, Leon's father was given work in Oskar Schindler's factory. That work brought with it a small sense of security, but little to fully support his family. Admiration for Schindler came for his mission to save as many Jews as he could. Leon had many conversations with him, and often was given extra rations and changed work assignments because of the young boy's hard work and resilience during the war. It was because of this close connection that most of Leon's family survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation.

Told from his perspective as a young boy, this book has tremendous power for its readers. The voice is so strong and real:

"After the soldier left, the gates swung open. I was in shock. We all were. We had gone from years of imprisonment to freedom. I felt confused, weak, and ecstatic all at once.
Disoriented and uncertain, we continued to drift around the Brunnlitz camp for two days. I couldn't
absorb the fact that we were now liberated, even as our enemies, the vanquished German soldiers, streamed past us by the hundreds. I stood and watched them, the once confident troops now dejected prisoners of the Soviets. Hour after hour they trudged by, their heads down, their expressions sullen. Some of the Jewish workers contemplated revenge. A few grabbed the soldiers' boots and tossed their own wooden clogs at them in exchange. I didn't join in. There was no way to "even the score" with the Nazis, no matter what I did. All I wanted was to remember those hours forever, remember the sight of the once proud soldiers straggling past us in abject defeat."

His telling has tremendous impact. His testimony concerning the Holocaust has been heard by many, and Leon's story now has permanence in this harrowing, but hopeful book. It is worthy of your attention.

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