Hundreds gather to honor Holocaust survivor
Photos by Adam Ottke
The Fish Interfaith Center reached full capacity Sunday afternoon as hundreds packed into the chapel to remember Holocaust survivor and educator, Leon Leyson.
The memorial had so many attendees that many were forced to watch the memorial from televisions in Argyros Forum.
Leyson, 83, died Jan. 12 after a battle with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
Leyson visited Chapman numerous times in the past decade, sharing his experiences as a teenager working in Oskar Schindler’s factory during the Holocaust. Leyson also visited other schools in the area.
“Leon grew up in a world of hatred, but he never let that evil touch or change who he was inside. A kind, compassionate and caring man,” said Irene Strauss, a teacher at Parks Junior High School in Fullerton.
Schindler employed about 1,000 Jews in his factory in Poland, saving them from execution in the concentration camps. The story of Schindler became widely known after the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List”.
After the war, Leyson immigrated to the United States where he attended Los Angeles City College, Cal State Los Angeles and Pepperdine University to become a teacher. He spent his career teaching at Huntington Park High School and after retiring, sharing his experiences at local universities like Chapman.
Those closest to Leyson said he rarely spoke about the Holocaust until he was much older.
Marilyn Harran, Stern chair in Holocaust education and director of the Rogers Center for Holocaust Education, fought to hold back tears as she shared memories of her longtime friend.
“As a boy, Leon experienced what it was to be separated from community—to be humiliated and devalued,” she said. “That boy became a man who valued and respected everyone he met. He had a remarkable ability to make us not only feel good about ourselves, but to make us feel good about one another.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as Chancellor Daniele Struppa approached the podium and reminisced about the first days when Leyson came to Chapman 10 years ago.
William Elperin, president of The 1939 Club, an organization of Holocaust survivors, also spoke about Leyson and his many contributions to the club.
The many different generations that attended the memorial service proved that he reached the hearts of more than just those his own age.
Jennifer Wong, a 2006 alumna, said hearing Leyson speak while she was a student at Chapman had a profound impact on her life.
“I’ve been able to share his story with a lot of people I interact with,” she said. “Not just Leon, but also other survivors had made me realize that I wanted to change the course of my career. I became an educator instead.”
All who spoke noted Leyson’s humorous outlook on life and unyielding desire to bring happiness and peace to others.
Strauss recalled asking Leyson to share his experiences with her 8th grade students.
“To my surprise, he softly replied, no,” she said. “He said: ‘you see, your students are the exact age that I was during the Holocaust and looking out at their faces, I would see the faces of myself and my friends.’”
After several more conversations, he agreed to speak to the students, a tradition he continued for the next 19 years.
“He generously came every year to share his time and his history with us, changing the lives of more than 4,000 Park students and parents along the way,” Strauss said. “He dearly wanted my students to understand that even with such hate, goodness and happiness can prevail.”