The European Maccabi Games that begin next week in Berlin are going to be packed with emotion for a multitude of reasons.
Approximately 2,300 Jewish athletes from 38 countries will descend upon a country that germinated a Nazi machine that killed millions of their people. They will compete on the grounds of Olympic Park, where the still-standing stadium that Hitler had built for the 1936 Olympics will cast an ominous shadow.
The opening ceremony on July 28 is expected to be one of the largest gatherings of Jews in Berlin since the Nazi reign of terror. Contingents from Israel, the United States and all around Europe will march into the Olympic Park amphitheater not far from the former location of the SS and Gestapo headquarters — and just 22 miles from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
It’s likely to be a moving experience for everyone involved.
But for Dan Leyson, Team USA men’s water polo coach, it’s going to be “surreal,” for he has an inexorable tie to the Nazi story: His father was on Schindler’s list.
The Davis resident and head coach of the U.C. Davis men’s water polo team is the son of Leib Lejzon, who, at 13 years old, was one of the youngest people — perhaps the youngest — whose life was saved by Oskar Schindler, the German businessman credited with saving 1,200 Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.
Known later as Leon Leyson after he settled in Southern California in the early 1950s, he went on to have a four-decade career as a high school industrial arts teacher. He died at age 85 in 2013.
Dan Leyson, born in 1970, grew up knowing about Schindler’s heroism well before Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” took the world by storm. In fact, he wrote a paper about it for a fifth-grade class project even before the book “Schindler’s List” was published in 1982. After he turned it in, Leyson recalls, he got a phone call from his teacher. She had just read it, and she was crying.
“She was astonished at the story, having never heard of it before,” Leyson says. “But it wasn’t like there was a lot of attention because of what I wrote. It was just a fifth-grade assignment to write something about your parents. I didn’t realize the magnitude.”
Leyson says that while he grew up knowing about the Holocaust and Schindler, his dad didn’t talk a lot about it. “We were made aware of it, and there were times when he spoke about different stories,” he says, “but I never felt it was something that was a main topic of conversation.”
He says his father only began sharing his story more openly after the movie came out. A local reporter featured him in an article and “from then on, my dad began to get a lot of requests to speak. He ended up speaking many, many times and sharing his story with lots and lots of people.”
Leon Leyson’s amazing story also came to be shared via countless articles, books and archives. In 2011, the then-82-year-old survivor did a 12-minute radio interview (www.tinyurl.com/kpcc-leyson) for a Memorial Day feature on the NPR affiliate in Pasadena — conducted by freelance journalist Camille Hahn, Dan Leyson’s wife. The senior Leyson also wrote his own book, a memoir aimed at 9- to 14-year-olds, “The Boy on the Wooden Box.” He died just before it was published in 2013, but the book went on to become a New York Times bestseller for middle-grade books, hitting No. 1 at one point.
The book tells Leib Lejzon’s story, beginning when he was 9 and his family packed up their belongings and moved from Narewka, a small village in northern Poland, to Krakow. It was 1938, and the danger for Jews was growing, but Leib’s father needed to relocate for work, and the family didn’t think anything bad could happen in a big, modern city.
Within a year, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the Jews of Krakow were rounded up and forced to live in a ghetto. Deportations to Auschwitz and elsewhere soon started. Some three years later, the ghetto was liquidated and the family was sent to Plaszow, a forced labor camp ruled by demonic commandant Amon Goeth, who ordered Jews shot dead for the slightest infraction.
Leib’s father, Morris, was allowed to leave the ghetto for a job in an enamelware factory owned by Schindler.
In that way, “my grandfather was able to bring more members of his family to work in Schindler’s factory,” Dan Leyson says, “and eventually they were all part of the group that Schindler saved — except for those that perished before the list actually came out.”
Though only 13 at the time, Leib was hired at the factory, standing on a box so he could reach the machinery. He worked 12-hour shifts. In speaking appearances in America, Leyson talked about how Schindler would leave him extra food for a job well done, or smile at him after asking what he had done that day. Once, the young Leib saw Schindler put his arm around his father’s shoulder and tell him everything was going to be all right.
Of course, it wasn’t. Even though Leib, his father, his mother and two siblings were saved by Schindler toward the end of the Holocaust — by virtue of being on a list that reassigned them to a munitions factory rather than being shipped to Auschwitz — he lost “everyone else” in his family, including two brothers.
As to whether his father was the youngest person on Schindler’s list, Dan Leyson says it doesn’t matter. “At one time, people were saying he was the youngest, then someone else said, ‘No, I was younger,’ ” he says. “It’s kind of ridiculous to even debate it. He was a young boy on Schindler’s list. That was enough.”
Schindler also saved Leyson family members on at least two other occasions. Once, when a train carrying female workers and their children to a factory in Germany was mistakenly sent to Auschwitz, Schindler quickly traveled there and bribed the officials to release the group, which included Leib’s mother and sister. Another time, Leib was rifled-butted to the ground by a Nazi guard when he tried to get Schindler’s attention after being forced into a deportation line. Schindler noticed Leib on the ground and took him out of the line.
After the war, the family ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and then went back to Poland. Some of the family went on to Israel, and others came to the United States in 1949, eventually settling in Fullerton. Leib, now named Leon Leyson, served in the Army during the Korean War and then became a teacher.
When “Schindler’s List” came out in 1993, Leyson saw the movie in Southern California with his son, Dan, then 23. “It was a very surreal experience to sit there and watch it with him,” Dan Leyson says. “His comment was, ‘That was pretty much like it was,’ noting the Hollywood embellishments.”
Talking to the Los Angeles Times, Leon Leyson said, “Some of the scenes were so authentic, I was stunned. It was like being in the ’40s.”
The Leyson family visited Poland after Dan played water polo in the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1989. “My dad’s sister also came along, from Israel, and we went to all the old places where he grew up, and we went to his village,” Leyson says. “It was very emotional.”
While the late Leon Leyson won’t be there for the upcoming European Maccabi Games in Berlin, he did get to see his son become a three-time All-American water polo player at USC and a member of the U.S. national team, narrowly missing out on making the 1996 Olympic squad.
The elder Leyson also got to see his son play in the Maccabiah Games in Israel twice — capturing silver medals in 1989 and 1993 — and saw him coach Team USA to a gold medal in the 2008 Pan American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I’m lucky he got to see me play and coach in those games,” says Leyson, who has nearly 30 years of high-level coaching and playing experience at the collegiate and international levels. He was an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s water polo squad in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and he has been the U.C. Davis head men’s water polo coach for two years.
“It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t see these games, which are so monumental in terms of being in Germany, but my mother, Elisabeth, who still lives in Fullerton, will be there, along with my family.”
Leyson will meet up with his family — wife Camille; daughter Mia, 5; and twin 3-year-olds Silas and Benjamin — in Berlin for the opening ceremonies after having spent a few weeks in Barcelona on a training retreat with his U.C. Davis squad.
“I’m looking forward to seeing them because they aren’t here with me now,” he said in a Skype interview from Spain.
While he is excited about the games, Leyson says he isn’t quite sure how to feel about them being held on soil formerly goose-stepped upon by the Third Reich and in a country where 11 Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m not aware of exactly where we’re going for these games, and it’s a little bit of an internal debate,” he says. “Really, not that much time has passed, and how can one really know what people are thinking underneath the outer facade that they are putting out there? I don’t know what the feelings are in Germany right now.
“I’m going there with an open mind, and we’ll see,” he adds. “On the other hand, it’s also an incredible opportunity.”
Andy Altman-Ohr, J. managing editor, will be reporting from the European Maccabi Games from July 28 to Aug. 5 in Berlin. Opening ceremony starts July 28 at 11 a.m. PDT, streaming live at www.hauptstadtsport.tv. For information and results, visit www.emg2015.de/en.