Friday, May 30, 2014

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Finding excellent introductory books on the Holocaust for young readers is not as easy as it sounds even with the plethora of choices. More often than not they are too brutal for 5th or 6th graders or they don't give enough background to understand the setting and attitudes of people. Other times they are too one-sided presenting the Germans as one-dimensional villains omitting those that resisted the Nazi racist ideology. This story is a balanced account of Jewish attitudes that came from their experiences in the first World War, German's being merciful and merciless, and the author's firsthand experiences of surviving the ghetto's and concentration camps, giving it an authenticity more powerful than some of the more emotionally manipulative Holocaust stories. A straightforward account, it tells the horrors the author went through, but it is not graphic in its descriptions making the violence more palatable for the younger reader. The epilogue is a testament to the author's perseverance and courage in overcoming his trauma and living a long fulfilling life. While the start is slow it provides necessary background information. The action picks up in the middle and ends with a bang.

When Leon Leyson dad's new factory job landed his family in Krakow, Poland, they didn't realize how it would save their lives as World War II broke out in Europe. His dad's job put his family in contact with Oskar Schindler, the German Nazi that was sympathetic to the Jews and saved 1200 of them from death by claiming their unique skills as necessary for him to run his factory. Leon was the youngest person on "Schindler's list" at the age of 15 and his actions throughout the war saved his life and his family's. Leon took great risks at critical moments appealing to Nazi men in authoritative positions that had the power to kill him or show mercy. He was lucky in many ways, but he was also extraordinarily brave. Amazingly, most of Leon's family survived the ghetto and concentration camps. While the Nazi's tried to dehumanize the Jews, Leon oftentimes found someone, whether civilian or soldier, that represented the good in humanity and his story is tempered with good deeds in the midst of angst.

While reading this book I was reminded of the similarities between Leon's experience and slavery in the United States. The Nazi's stripped the Jews of their dignity just like slave owners stripped blacks of their dignity. As the laws eliminated Jewish civil rights over time, Leon marveled at his classmates prejudice. Not all of their family friends had forsaken them. Leon's dad would sell his suits through a friend on the black market that helped put scraps of food on their table. Leon's tale is sprinkled with glimmers of hope and humanity along with the inhumane acts inflicted on the Jews. His description of the rampant starvation and fear as the Nazi's took control of Krakow brings to life daily living. His family didn't think of the future but worked to survive day-to-day as Leon scrounged for potato peels in garbage cans or anything edible. Hunger consumed his thoughts and actions. He also shows how there was no guarantee of a person's safety even with a work permit from Schindler. Yet, in spite of the struggles, he also describes new friendships and new love in the ghettos. How his mother fought having her dignity being stripped by chucking furniture out the second story window so the Nazi's would not be able to reuse it. Leon and his family's resilience against fear and hate shows that attempts to dehumanize the Jews and make them feel worthless did not always work. Leon, his mom, and others risked their lives to retain their dignity as their oppressors tried to take it away.

While the general public persecuted the Jews some were silent witnesses, such as Dr. Neu. In a powerful ending, Leon describes how he was tutored by a German man after the war three times a week for two years in school subjects in order to catch up on his education. He distinguishes true Nazi's from "Germans who retained some humanity." Dr. Nue was the latter and Leon appreciated that he didn't "whitewash" the past. He asked Leon questions about his experiences and listened. Leon describes true Nazi's as ones that say, "We didn't know" taking no responsibility and pointing the finger elsewhere. Dr. Neu's wife said that once and Dr. Neu scolded her. The civilians knew of the atrocities, but were afraid or unable to do anything about it. When Leon comes to America and sees blacks being persecuted by Jim Crow laws or segregation he cannot believe that he is seeing inequality and prejudice again. Unfortunately, the theme of persecution, war, and prejudice exist today just as much as in the past. Leon Leyson's timeless message is the hope for a better world that is ruled by humanity not hate.

5 Smileys

1 comment:

  1. very nice review, thank you :)

    my review The Boy on the Wooden Box :