Born Leib Lejzon in Poland, Leon Leyson recalls with candor his childhood as a Jew under Nazi occupation. The youngest of five children, Leon recounts early memories of carefree summer days with his friends. His family had lived in the rural village of Narewka for more than 200 years. Christians and Jews lived together in relative peace.
Leon’s father, Moshe, is a gifted machinist who quickly moves up in position at the local glass factory. When the factory moves to Kraków, a large city several hundred miles away, Moshe is one of the few employees asked to move with it. He believes it will allow him to provide better for his family. For several years he lives alone in Kraków, returning every six months to visit. He gets a job for his eldest son, Hershel, in the same factory.
In 1938, the whole family moves to Kraków. Leon is 8 and loves to explore the city with his older brother David. Every day is an adventure as they learn to navigate the streetcars and busy streets.
By the end of the year, disturbing news reaches them from Germany. Adolf Hitler has taken over Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. He has begun to discriminate against the Jews.
In November, the family learns of Kristallnacht, a night when hundreds of windows were shattered in synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses. Synagogues were burned, and Jews were murdered and beaten on the streets of Germany and Austria.
By the summer of 1939 the family prepares for war. In the fall, the German army advances. Leon’s father and brother Hershel decide it will be safer for them to return to Narewka, as they heard the Germans are conscripting men for forced labor. They believe the younger children and women will be safe in the city. A few weeks later, Moshe returns. Herschel had pressed on for Narewka, but Moshe feared for his family.
The new German occupiers loot Jewish business and evict Jewish families from their homes. Most Jews are fired from their jobs but Moshe is able to keep his because he speaks German. One evening, two Gestapo agents break into the Leyson home and beat Moshe. They smash dishes. Then they take Moshe prisoner. Until that moment, Leon had believed he might escape the war unscathed.
By the end of the year, the Nazis ban Jews from attending school. After many weeks, Moshe is released from prison, but he is a changed man. He has lost his sense of dignity and walks with downcast eyes. He finds work at another glass factory, but “off-the-books.”
One day he is sent to open a safe for the enamelware factory across the street. The Nazi who runs the factory, a man named Oskar Schindler, offers Moshe a job. Although he is not paid, Moshe does have official work papers that give him some protection from the Nazi occupiers. He is also able to bring a little food home from the small meal the factories give him.
In 1941, the family, along with the remaining Jews in Kraków, is forced to leave their home and move to a walled ghetto. Fifteen thousand Jews are crammed into an area that was built to house 5,000 people. Although they must share a one-room apartment with an older couple, the Leyson family counts their blessings. They are safe.
Moshe and two of Leon’s older siblings have jobs. In fact, David gets a job at Schindler’s factory. Disease spreads, as the sanitation system cannot support the influx of people. Leon realizes the Nazis hope the Jews will destroy themselves in the inhuman conditions, but they hold on to their humanity.
In 1942, the Nazis announce there will be an evacuation of Jews to the countryside. The Leysons survive the first wave but the evictions continue, and one afternoon the Nazis burst into their apartment. Leon’s brother Tsalig is forcibly taken as he is 18 but does not have a job. Later, Leon learns that Schindler had seen his brother and offered to rescue him. Tsalig refused to leave because his girlfriend was also taken from her family, and he did not want her to be alone. Leon never saw his brother again.
In the spring of 1943, Leon and his mother are sent to Plaszów. Leon is glad because that is where his father and two remaining siblings have been sent. However, when they arrive, he knows he has entered hell on earth. He lives in an overcrowded, unheated barracks with hundreds of other men. If he gets up in the night to use the bathroom, he risks losing his spot on the bunk or having his blanket stolen. Every morning he must stand outside in the cold and be counted and re-counted with the others. He spends his days hauling lumber and rocks. He receives only watery soup for dinner.
Leon recalls the terror one Nazi, an officer named Amon Goeth, cast over the camp. He once went into the infirmary, just after Leon had left, and shot all the patients. Another time, he ordered all the men on Leon’s work detail to be lashed 25 times. They had to count the lashes. If they cried out and missed a number, the guards would make them start over from one. Leon lived in fear of the Nazi officer. The prisoners would keep a daily count of how many Jews Goeth killed or wounded each day.
Late in 1943, Schindler bribes Goeth and other leaders for permission to build a camp on the grounds of his factory. He argues that the workers will be more efficient if they do not have to walk to his factory every day. Moshe and David are allowed to live in the new camp. Then news comes that Schindler will hire 30 more Jews.
Leon and his mother are initially put on the list, but then Leon is told his name has been crossed off. The day the new workers are to leave Plaszów, Leon finds his courage and talks his way into the group. He is ecstatic to be reunited with his father, mother and brother David. He learns that his sister, Pesza, is alive and working in an electrical factory nearby.
Although Leon, now 14, must work 12 hour shifts, his life in Schindler’s factory is much more bearable than Plaszów. Schindler is an enigma to Leon. The man often throws wild parties in his offices. He is a Nazi whose factory made casings for bomb detonators, and yet, he calls all his workers by name. He often stops to talk to Leon and secretly asks the men serving the evening meal to give him an extra portion of food. He would stop to talk to Moshe and sometimes leave cigarettes by his machine that Leon’s father could trade for bread. To Leon, these small acts of kindness are shining beacons of courage and hope after the atrocities he has endured.
As the war draws to an end, Schindler decides to relocate his factory. Fortunately, Leon and his family are put on his list of employees to be relocated. The men are sent to Gross-Rosen concentration camp first. They are shaved and stripped and left out in a field in the frigid October night. The next day they have to run in circles in front of Nazi inspectors. Anyone who stumbles or collapses from exhaustion could be killed.
After many days, they are put in boxcars and brought to Schindler’s new factory in the Sudetenland. When they arrive, they discover that the women’s train has been diverted to Auschwitz. Risking his reputation, Schindler goes to Auschwitz to demand that the women on his list be freed. They are essential to the war effort as they are highly skilled employees at his munitions plant. Eventually, he is able to remove all his workers from the camp and bring them to his factory. Leon discovers that his mother was to be gassed, but Schindler arrived in time to save her.
Toward the final weeks of the war, Schindler has a Nazi officer transferred before he can carry out his order to kill the Jewish employees. Schindler gives each of them a bolt of cloth and a bottle of vodka. It is the only currency he has to offer them before he must flee. He asks the Jews not to take revenge on the people in the nearby towns, as they had helped him keep them alive.
The prisoners make him a ring from a gold tooth. It bears words from the Talmud: “He who saves a life saves the world entire.” Oskar Schindler escapes to the American lines. In the end, he is credited with saving almost 1,200 Jews from death.
The Soviets declare Leon and his family free on May 8, 1948. They eventually make it back to Kraków, but must live in a dormitory for refugees. Many Poles are anti-Semitic now and resent the Jews' return. Riots break out over false accusations.
As Leon’s mother presses to return to Narewka, Moshe relays the news he has learned. SS killing squads had destroyed their hometowns. Every Jewish man, woman and child was shot and killed, including Leon’s brother Hershel.
Early in 1946, David and Pesza decide to try immigrating to Czechoslovakia. Leon wants to go with them, but his mother begs him to stay with her and his father. She has lost everything and cannot bear to be without any of her children by her side.
Leon and his parents leave Poland for a refugee camp in Germany and then make contact with his aunt in America. Finally, in May of 1949, Leon and his parents make the journey to the United States. They settle in California.
In the epilogue, Leon tells of how he got a job and began taking classes at a technical college. He served in the Army during the Korean conflict and eventually became a corporal. He used his GI Bill to get his college degree and later a master’s degree. He taught high school for 39 years, married and had two children. After the release of the movie Schindler’s List, Leon began to give talks about his childhood. He spoke to any church, synagogue, school or group who asked but never charged for his time. Although he died in 2013, Leon is remembered by his family as a kind, generous and loving man who did not let the atrocities he suffered affect the way he treated others.