A Reluctant Hero

Leon Leyson (September 15, 1929 – January 12, 2013) was the youngest person on Schindler’s List.   He spoke hundreds of times to students, educators and members of the community.

By reliving the persecution that he experienced as a boy, Leyson taught thousands of people the dangers of indifference and the possibilities within ourselves to act with integrity and moral courage.  He “embodied integrity, humility and a quiet courage fused with commitment to sharing the story of Oskar Schindler and of Leyson’s family, especially of his two brothers who were murdered in the Holocaust,” according to Marilyn J. Harran, director, Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University.

Harran added that Leyson was “a guiding spirit of the Chapman University program in Holocaust education since its inception.”  For decades, he never spoke of what he experienced, thinking that no one would be interested.  Only after a Los Angeles Times reporter searched him out after the film Schindler’s List premiered in 1993 did Leyson he begin to speak of what he and his family had endured.  He always spoke without notes and with total genuineness, unaware of how compelling a speaker he was.  The standing ovations he routinely received left Leyson stunned and humbled.  He never thought he deserved them. He always did.

After the war and a displaced person’s camp, Leyson arrived in the U.S. not knowing a word of English, but he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, put himself through Los Angeles City College, California State University, Los Angeles, Pepperdine University.  He was a teacher for 39 years at Huntington Park High School.  After retirement, he educated young people around the nation and in Canada by sharing the story of “little Leyson,” as Schindler called him.  In recognition of his many contributions, he received an honorary doctorate from Chapman University at commencement in May 2011.

“Everything Leon did was a reflection of his integrity and of the extraordinarily kind, gentle, generous person that he was,” Harran said.  “He always saw what was best in all of us, and through his belief, he made us all better people.  Leyson loved to quote a phrase from Joseph Campbell that a hero is an ordinary person who does the best of acts in the worst of times.  He used that phrase to describe Oskar Schindler.  In so many, many ways he himself was a hero.  Reliving his experiences, especially the death of his beloved brother Tsalig, was gut wrenching for him, but he did so again and again in the belief that his listeners could be inspired to become more just and caring people, to reject indifference and hatred, and to stand up for one another.  He left thousands of people with enduring memories not only of Tsalig but also of the loving younger brother who refused to allow him to fade from memory.”

Leyson is survived by his spouse, Elisabeth; two children, Constance and Daniel; and six grandchildren.  Cards may be sent to Mrs. Leon Leyson, 2016 Calle Serena, Fullerton, CA 92833.

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