Tales from a Holocaust Survivor’s Widow

Tales from a Holocaust Survivor’s Widow

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It’s an internationally recognized date corresponding to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the 27th day of Nisan in the Hebrew Calendar, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Not too long ago, there was a story written in the Daily Titan previewing a talk that was given today in the Fullerton Public Library.  I didn’t write the story, but I was very interested in the event after I heard about it.  The talk was given by Lis Leyson, wife of the youngest person ever saved by Oskar Schindler: Leon Leyson.  He was #289 on Schindler’s List.

Lis Leyson speaks to a crowd about The Boy on the Wooden Box at the Fullerton Public Library Community Room.

The main topic of conversation during the talk was Leon’s memoir, published just after his death in January 2013, The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible… on Schindler’s List.  Lis spoke about how she met Leon, parts of their life together, the creation of the book and the aftermath its publishing has had on her life.  However, she never talked about the content of the book except in small passing references.  She told the audience that she didn’t feel qualified to tell the stories of her husband’s life, especially since she could never be as powerful with the words as he was in the book.

Leon Leyson (1929-2013). Photo courtesy of Lis Leyson.

Despite not talking about the book’s content, I still feel like Lis brought the content of the book to life in her own way.  She was a fabulous speaker, able to instantly connect with the audience through comedic quips and a generally inviting and warm demeanor.  When she got emotional remembering the past it was obvious, but watching her pause to catch her breath was almost more endearing than watching her crack smiles in the audience with a joke.  In fact, so many people came to hear her talk that the library had to double the amount of chairs they had set out in the room to accommodate everyone – and even then there were a few small children still sitting on the floor.

Speaking of the audience, there was quite an eclectic group in attendance.  Lis and Leon lived in Orange County for a large part of their lives, so there were plenty of older folks that personally knew Leon that came to hear his wife talk.  There were also a few professors, photographers, and lots of children and their parents.  I had the pleasure of talking to one woman who told me about a book club her child was a part of, one filled with elementary to middle school students.  According to her, the children read Leon’s book to “expand their minds”, and it was the first non-fiction book many of the kids had ever read.

Beyond her initial presentation, Lis also answered questions from the audience and talked about the worldwide distribution of her husband’s memoir.  She also brought along printed copies of the novel from all around the globe.

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Some of the covers in particular had certain stories associated with them, ones that Lis recounted as she showed off each individually to the audience.

The two cover variants for Leon Leyson’s memoir in the United States: One from before the book won a Christopher Award and one after.

According to Lis, the original cover art for the 1st edition of the book was immediately loved between the wonderful artwork that was done and the title stretching across the top.  However, once it was printed and being sold, the book almost instantly made it into the New York Times Best Seller list and gained other accolades.  Because of this, the original cover had to be changed to fit these achievements and the fairly long title of the memoir.

The Japanese cover for The Boy on the Wooden Box.

While this edition of the book (translated to Japanese) does have an actual picture of Leon Leyson’s family on the cover, Lis disclosed to the audience that most people didn’t know the irony behind this choice.  Apparently, Leon himself isn’t actually in this particular family picture!  Lis believes that this was because he was too young at the time it was taken, and finds the fact that it was chosen really funny as a result.

All and all, I had a wonderful time getting the chance to listen to Lis Leyson talk.  She’s a wonderful woman with a great heart and plenty of stories.  She took her audience on an emotional rollercoaster of happy moments and the sometimes tragic circumstances of life.  Coming from a Jewish family, I have a strong interest in the time period and the events surrounding the Holocaust, and getting to hear the intimate details about one individuals experiences with it – even through a third party – was a wonderful experience.  I would highly recommend going to one of her talks should it come to an area near you, but I would also recommend trying to listen to tales of the Holocaust and other similar historical tragedies as often as possible.  Letting these events die off as faded memories along with their victims is perhaps the greatest tragedy we could impart on those victims.

But that’s just my two cents.

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