Leon Leyson, author of The Boy on the Wooden Box, survived the holocaust, just barely. Because he was on Schindler’s list, this young Polish Jew made it to liberation. The years of the war were not without much suffering, brutal beatings, and near starvation in Nazi concentration camps. The humiliations and terrors were endless. Still, Leon lived! And his gratitude to Oskar Schindler is undying.
Ironically, Leon spent three years in post-war Germany. With his parents he lived in a refugee camp protected by the U.S. Army. They were provided ample food and shelter and the freedom to come and go as they like. Leon talked to people everywhere he went.
Among the Germans who sympathized with the Nazi regime, he always received a similar response: They looked down at their feet; they twirled their watches. They stated, “We didn’t know.”
Of course, Leon knew that one Nazi, Oskar Schindler, had not cowered under that excuse. Although not a saint, Oskar used up his own fortune to rescue 1,200 Jews from certain death. Countless times he risked his own life to pluck others from death.
Because the Nazis had blocked Leon’s education from the age of ten, his parents were worried about Leon’s future. Although they had no money, they used some of their food rations to pay an unemployed German engineer and father of five to tutor Leon three times a week.
Almost immediately, Leon knew this man was different. He listened with compassion and interest to Leon’s accounts of the concentration camps. Once while Leon was giving a grim account, the tutor’s wife heard and mumbled, “We didn’t know.” Her husband shot her a withering look and rebuked her, “Don’t say that!”
While they may have not known every detail, they all knew something. On November 9, 1938, violence broke out against Jews across the Reich. In two days, over 250 synagogues were burned, over 7,000 Jewish businesses were attacked, and dozens of Jewish people were murdered. Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted while police and fire brigades watched.
These pogroms became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” because of the shattered glass from the store windows that littered the streets. Yes, they surely knew, and they did nothing. If they hadn’t cared then, why would they have cared later?
Of all the historical accounts we read in our family, the period of World War II and the Holocaust is the one we come back to over and over. We are particularly captured by those who risked their own lives (and, in fact, many did die) to rescue the lives of the persecuted Jews. Additionally, we are interested in our own country’s history of slavery and those who sought to liberate others in the Underground Railroad. If we had lived in those times, would we have risked it all for others? Or would we claim, “We didn’t know?”
Every generation has its own story. We can’t know how we would have acted in the past, but we can know how we act in the present. Today there are an estimated 27 million people in slavery worldwide. After drug dealing, human trafficking (both sex trafficking and trafficking for forced labor) is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world today, and it is the fastest growing. Worldwide, there are nearly two million children in the commercial sex trade. Abject poverty puts children at risk of many kinds of exploitation.
We don’t know all the details, but we know. And many of us care. What can we do? Among other things we can do what hurts—take from our own wallets. Organizations like International Justice Mission are effectively combating human trafficking and can only continue and increase their work through contributions.
With hundreds of millions in extreme poverty, were does one begin? One precious child at a time. Compassion International engages each child as a whole person, releasing the child from spiritual, social, economic, and physical poverty. Research by the University of San Francisco demonstrates that Compassion child sponsorship works powerfully. You can change a life forever.
Right before their liberation, the “Schindler Jews” presented him with a ring they made from a gold tooth of the one of the Jewish workers (talk about giving till it hurts). Engraved in Yiddish on the ring was the saying, “He who saves a life saves the world entire.”