Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? It really takes a lot of tenacity to be a writer. My dissertation advisor used to call it “Sitzfleisch”- the ability to sit for a long period of time and keep hammering away. That can be difficult to do when one is not feeling inspired. The best writing I’ve ever done is when passages ‘wrote themselves,’ if that makes sense, but I’ve become more aware that there is a lot of thought, of which I may not always be aware, that goes on before one of those paragraphs ‘writes itself.’ Right now I have several different positions – as a professor and director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University, and I’m on various boards and sit on our faculty Senate and have other obligations – so I miss the concentrated time I once had to sit and write. For me, at least, writing isn’t the sort of activity that I can pick up and put down. I need to have substantial time to really submerge myself in writing. At the same time, as a result of having less time, I may be more organized in my writing.
What’s the best part of your job? Well, again, my job isn’t easily categorized. I am the founding director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University. I teach – we have a minor in Holocaust history in the History Department and next year will be starting an M.A. in War and Society of which the Holocaust and World War II will be a component – and I do administration of the Center and all that goes with that. I am very proud of the Holocaust Art and Writing Contest we have, now in its 16th year, for which 209 schools from 26 states and one school in China have registered to participate this year. We need to get some schools in Australia! The contest engages students in viewing and listening to an oral history of a Holocaust survivor and then creating a work that expresses “connection” to that history in writing, art, or film. You can learn more about the contest on our Rodgers Center website. Leon was very deeply involved in the contest from its inception – as a judge and as a speaker at our awards ceremony. Some of the best works of the last years came about as a result of students connecting with Leon’s story. The contest is one element in the furthering of memory and of students coming to see that history is story.
What was the best thing about collaborating on this book? Well, without doubt, the best thing was working with Leon. He was a magnificent human being – humble, kind, caring. I always felt very strongly that above all he was telling the story so that the memory of his two brothers who died in the Holocaust, and particularly of his brother Tsalig with whom he was very close, would not be lost. Leon had shared his testimony with The 1939 Society and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, but I think he wanted the book to be a way of keeping Tsalig’s name alive. Leon grew up in a time when books were treasured and when seeing a name in print carried a great deal of meaning. I think it was his dream to give that gift of print to his brothers, as well as to honor his parents and Oskar Schindler. I think he also hoped that young people would not only learn about the history of the Holocaust through the eyes of a boy who experienced it, but would learn about courage and humanity and sheer decency. Both Schindler and Tsalig exemplified those qualities to Leon in very special and unique ways. And I think through his words we come to see that Leon exemplified those qualities as well.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when collaborating on this book? Even though I had known Leon for many years, I learned how many experiences and stories of his I didn’t know. For example, I remember when he first talked about the time when his mother made him a special plate of scrambled eggs, just because he was such a good boy. That may sound like something very unimportant, but to be singled out in this way by his mother who had several children and an enormous amount of hard physical work each day meant the world to Leon. What really struck me was the tone of surprise and joy as that memory came back to him. There were lots of special moments like that as Leon recalled the days of his boyhood, some memories were joyous and many others were profoundly difficult as he remembered hunger and fear and loss.
What did you learn from Leon Leyson? Certainly from Leon I learned much about his experiences of the Holocaust and of Oskar Schindler, but he inspired me to want to be a better human being. Leon was unfailingly kind to everyone he met. In all the years I knew him I never knew him to be impatient or dismissive of anyone. He had this wonderful way of answering the phone as if one’s call was a gift to his day. That’s the kind of person he was.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Well, it still seems a bit miraculous to me that the book was accepted by Atheneum so quickly, literally, within 72 hours of their receiving the manuscript. That’s not supposed to happen but it did. Then the terribly sad part of the story is that Leon died the very weekend the book was accepted for publication. I would like to believe that somehow he knew his dream had been realized, and, in fact, I truly think he does. If memory places one under obligation, especially to those one loved and whose memories one carries, then Leon more than fulfilled his obligation. It has been wonderful to see the book appear in so many languages and garner the kind of reviews it has from young people around the world. Leon’s understated response to that would be “pretty good.” From him that was a mighty high compliment!
What would you most like to ask Oskar Schindler? Great question – and a hard one since I have a lot of questions. I would certainly like to ask him how he was able to continue to see human beings as human beings when he was part of a Nazi system that viewed people according to a hierarchy of value. And then I would probably ask him how he could be part of that system, as he was. And lastly, I would ask him when he realized that the people he had been saving him had in fact saved him, kept him human. He had sought to make a fortune through the Nazis and he did – and then he did what at one time probably would have been unthinkable to him, he gave it up to save the lives of his workers.
Which location or museum is special to you? Certainly our own Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman University comes first for me because of the extraordinary artifacts that survivors have given or lent us. It also holds a lot of memories, of Leon being there so often speaking to groups or classes, and of other extraordinary witnesses to the Holocaust I have been privileged to know over the last two decades. It was very special to go to the place where Leon had lived in the Krakow ghetto and see the shed where he and his mother and friend had hidden in the rafters. Likewise, it was a powerful and memorable experience to see Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem. As in the film “Schindler’s List” the grave had many small stones on it, signs of remembrance. It was a very moving experience.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? Well, there are always people a little surprised by the wild streak of color (I’ve toned it down to purple now) in my hair. I had cancer a few years ago and thought I might lose my hair during treatment so I decided to do something a little daring before that happened. As it turns out, the treatment I had didn’t lead to hair loss. All my Holocaust survivor friends loved it and when I gave up the color they were disappointed so I went back to it….
What are you working on next? Well, I have a few different projects in the works, none of which gets the time it deserves, I’m afraid. We have been fortunate to have Elie Wiesel visit Chapman University for the last several years as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. One year he allowed my colleagues and me to create a readers’ theatre script, which our talented students read, entitled “The Worlds Within the Words of Elie Wiesel,” drawn from about 19 of his works, so we’re hoping to write some interpretive chapters and hopefully with Professor Wiesel’s permission publish it as a book so that the script can be performed elsewhere. I’m also working on a Holocaust survivor’s story that will be a lens on different aspects of the history of the time, including events like Kristallnacht. And then I have a larger work in mind.
Read my review of ‘The Boy on the Wooden Box’ here.