In The Boy on the Wooden Box Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) shares his harrowing experience as a Jewish boy in Nazi occupied Poland. His father’s relationship with Oskar Schindler helped to save Leon and most of his family.
Schindler is a controversial figure; some people see him a war profiteer but Leon sees him as the man who gave his family a chance. While Schindler is merely a tertiary character in the story of Leon it is his factory and the opportunities it afforded the Leyson family that are frequently referred to with the utmost gratitude. This is a tough one to get through, but most first person narratives about such atrocities are usually difficult reads.
Leon was only ten years old when the Germans invaded Krakow, Poland where Leon and his family lived; while they didn’t have a lot of money and lived in a cramped apartment Leon had a happy childhood and love his family dearly. Germans kicked Jewish children out of schools and no longer let Jews own their own businesses, many lost their livelihoods early on in the occupation. Leon’s father was able to stay on at the glass factory he worked at for longer than most Jews because he was highly skilled; his skill in safe cracking brought him into favor with Nazi business owner Oskar Schindler. His work permit covered Leon, his mother and the three other children still living at home and protected them from being sent to work camps. Unfortunately, when the Nazis erected the ghettos they were forced to move into cramped living quarters (although Leon’s father was still permitted to go to work).
Leon’s life was a constant struggle in the ghettos, there was never enough food and the Nazis soon began rounding up Jews in the ghetto to be sent into work camps. Leon’s father and older brother were working for Schindler but even that was no longer a guaranteed security blanket. Eventually the family was sent to Plaszow, a concentration camp outside Krakow, where they were separated and Leon was forced to do dangerous menial labor. He was alway hungry and cold, living in constant fear that the commandant would shoot him on a whim. While the family was eventually reconnected in Schindler’s factory it was far from a sanctuary; there was still very little food, cramped living quarters and Nazi officers frequently visited.
As far as WWII non fiction goes this is a pretty short book without a lot of dense passages. While Leon was 84 when he wrote this memoir his experiences of the six years he spent in Nazi occupied Poland are haunting and fresh.