ORANGE – From working in the Polish factory operated by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust to the walls of American classrooms – Leon Leyson survived to tell a tale of tragedy and serve as a role model to students.
Leyson, 83, of Fullerton died Saturday after a battle with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
World War II began when Leyson was 10, and he ended up working in Schindler's factory. Schindler employed about 1,000 Jews, saving them from execution in nearby concentration camps. The story of Schindler and the survivors became widely known after the 1993 movie "Schindler's List."
At the war's end, Leyson spent time in a German displaced-persons camp before immigrating to the United States. He served in the Army during the Korean War. He later attended Los Angeles City College, Cal State Los Angeles and Pepperdine University and become an educator.
A teacher at Huntington Park High School, he spent 39 years in the classroom and afterward gave speeches at local universities, including Chapman.
Marilyn Harran, Stern chairwoman in Holocaust studies and director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman, brought Leyson to Chapman as a speaker in the mid-1990s and remembers him as a humble friend.
"He had never spoken on a university campus," she said. "He thought people wouldn't want to hear him."
Harran remembers when Leyson came to Chapman for his first speech.
"He was wearing a beautiful new jacket. He was always so handsome," she said. "While we were walking, a bird flew over and left a 'gift' on Leon's new jacket. He could have responded many ways, but instead he thought immediately of how embarrassed I was and said, 'You know, in Poland that is good luck.'"
Leyson was an active member in The 1939 Club, a group of Southern California Holocaust survivors who frequently attend Chapman Holocaust events.
Bill Elperin, the club's president, remembers Leyson as a respectful man whose story resonated with young people.
"The magic of Leon was that he was able to connect to students," he said. "He treated and spoke to them like adults."
Jessica MyLymuk, the assistant director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and Chapman alumna, met Leyson as a student and later worked with him as an administrator.
"When he walked into a room, his eyes lit up," she said. "Although he was talking about something dark, he was able to spark interest in Oskar Schindler and the rescuers of the Holocaust."
Jan Osborn, an English professor at Chapman, said she remembers when he agreed to meet with 15 Orange High School students who came from immigrant families and were having trouble acclimating to American culture.
"Mr. Leyson took his time to reach out to them with respect for who they were and who they might become," she said. "He told his own story of a boy suddenly denied education, a boy facing loss and flung into horrors they could never imagine. He spoke with them – person to person – with a unique understanding of their doubts, their fears."
Chapman awarded Leyson an honorary doctorate in 2011 for his efforts to educate and enlighten within the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Science.
"My association with Chapman has been one of the highlights in my life," Leyson said about the degree. "I feel like I have found a home."
Leyson is survived by his wife, Elisabeth; daughter Stacy, son Daniel and six grandchildren.
Chapman's Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education will hold a memorial for Leyson at the Fish Interfaith Center on Feb. 17. The time of the event has yet to be determined.
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