If you want to feel good about the promise of America, hear it in the words of “Little” Leyson.
“The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust,” he told the Portland Oregonian in 1997. “I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”
But the Holocaust gave the nickname to the 13-year-old when Leon Leyson and his family were taken under the protection of Oskar Schindler, the famous industrialist who risked his own freedom, if not life, when he saved 1,100 Jews from the Nazis in World War II.
Little Leyson was the youngest of his family and the last survivor of those immortalized in “Schindler’s List.” He died at 83 in southern California. He rarely talked about his experiences, but the film made the survivors famous.
In the years after the film, before a final four-year battle with lymphoma, he lectured on the experience. As The Los Angeles Times reported, Little Leyson thought the film overdramatized Schindler’s drinking and womanizing. The boy recalled that the man doubled his factory rations when he saw the emaciated Little Leyson working.
Late in his life, Shindler, on a visit to America, instantly recognized the middle-aged man who greeted him. “I know who you are,” Schindler grinned, “You’re Little Leyson.”
While the story of the survivors of Schindler’s elaborate scam against the Nazis deserves every bit of its fame, we also note with pride what Little Leyson did after the war: He came to America in 1949 and benefited from one of the great ladders of upward mobility, a California community college.
There he studied industrial arts, perhaps because of the things he had learned in boyhood in Schindler’s factory, and earned degrees from the Los Angeles City College and California State University.
He then taught machine shop classes and was a guidance counselor at Huntington Park High School for 39 years. Eventually, he earned a master’s degree from Pepperdine University.
It is that immigrant’s story that was “a legacy of freedom” for his descendants.
It is an inspiring story, too, and a lesson from Little Leyson’s life.