He was the youngest survivor on "Schindler's list," a boy who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust yet remained mostly silent for 50 years about the incredible suffering he and others endured.
Then, in 1993, director Steven Spielberg made "Schindler's List," the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler and his rescue of 1,200 Polish Jews.
And Leon Leyson finally told his story.
"Well, it was time. That's all," said Leyson, who was 13 when he was brought into one of Schindler's factories. He survived the Nazis, along with his parents, a brother and sister. But two of his brothers perished.
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Sunday, Leyson will be in Columbia to speak at the Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center at a free event entitled "Saved by an Angel: An Evening with Leon Leyson."
Leyson, born Leib Lejzon in 1929 in the town of Narewka, north of Warsaw, moved with his family to Krakow at age 9.
A year later, the Nazis invaded Poland and his life forever changed.
The family was herded into Krakow's Jewish ghetto, where they faced incredible depravations. Leyson's father and brother David were able to leave the ghetto to work in Schindler's nearby enamelware factory, and eventually he joined them, standing on an upturned box to work a lathe.
As the Nazis began the systematic destruction of the ghetto and the deportation of Jews to death camps, Schindler realized he would have to resort to intrigue and bribery to keep the Jews in his factory alive.
Using wits, wealth and the black market, Schindler was able to save more than 1,200 Jews, outwitting the Nazi SS officers who routinely toured his factories. In one of his most daring efforts, he rescued Leyson's mother and sister and 300 other women after one of the transports carrying Schindler's female workers to a factory was diverted to Auschwitz.
That moment is depicted in Spielberg's movie, but Leyson said it also happened to him, when he and other male workers were taken to a separate death camp before Schindler obtained their release.
"Survival was just a matter of luck," Leyson said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Charleston.
In all, about 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
After the war, Leyson and his family lived in a camp for displaced people in Germany until American relatives discovered they were alive. He and his parents emigrated to California; his brother and sister went to Israel. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea, and then went on to graduate from college.
He taught industrial arts at Huntington Park High School in Los Angeles for 39 years, never telling his students his remarkable life's journey.
"I never forced my experience on anybody. Some of my sensitive students did get a feeling that there was something more."
Leyson remembers Schindler as a gentle man who looked out for him, sometimes bringing him extra rations of food.
"I can tell you this - he was a better human being in real life than he was depicted in the movie."
Rabbi Levi Marrus of Chabad of South Carolina said he wanted to bring Leyson to Columbia to tell his story and remind people that such systemic destruction of a people should never happen again.
"I think it is so important that we all remember and not forget," Marrus said.
"Watching a man like him, who is such a positive person, is incredible," Marrus said. What he endured during the war "makes our problems look minuscule."
It never gets easier to tell his story, said Leyson, now 80, but he believes it is important to serve as a witness.
If he is optimistic, he said it is about the United States and what the country has represented for him and for other refugees.
"This is a country like no other," he said.
Sunday's program is underwritten by the Columbia Jewish Federation, the Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center, Fred and Ellen Seidenberg, Henry and Gloria Goldberg, and the S.C. Holocaust Council.