Students Sarah F. and William B. were matched with Holocaust survivor Leon R. during this year’s Next Chapter program.
As part of the Next Chapter, students write biographies of their survivors, then create personal projects to reflect on the experience of meeting and getting to know a Holocaust survivor. For his personal project, William wrote “Darkness around us.”
Darkness around us
11th grader at Stuart Hall High School
Darkness covertly lives in cracks in this place we call earth. It catches everything that stands in its path and absorbs it, without ever letting go. It starts off as a speck, and then spreads like a virus, infecting everyone and everyplace there is to be. It does not stop and pause for anyone, but just keeps moving at its normal pace, making sure it is leaving an effective mark. A mark. A mark that lasts a short while, but forever scars the victims it catches. These scars come with the pain that have affected many and continues to do so until it has deeply embedded itself within oneself. How does one escape from these scars? How does one find a way out of the nightmare that has consumed them? Perhaps it is showing resilience to the evil that has confronted them. Or maybe it involves showing the strength and courage to push the evil away. Who knows. Maybe this dark entity that consumes everything just goes on its own. Maybe time plays a factor in its termination and existence from this earth. But in the end it does not matter, as darkness will forever leave a mark on those it has seen.
Leon R., Survivor of the Holocaust
Sarah F. (written in partnership with William B.)
9th grader at The Branson School
Leon R. was born March 21st 1931 in Chernowitz, Ukraine. Although at the time of his birth, it was part of Romania. In 1940 Russia gained occupation of the neighboring region of Bukovina and Leon’s hometown of Chernowitz. This occurred in June of 1940. Russia’s control over the area quickly changed Leon’s world forever.
For the first time in his life, Leon and his family had to stand in long lines for a single loaf of bread, often waking up as early as 3:30 A.M. just to receive a good spot in line. Since all privately owned stores in the area had been shut down, Leon and his family were forced to purchase bread from stores that were owned by the government. These government run stores proved to be quite unpleasant and harsh as they would often only serve bread to the first ten or fifteen people waiting in line. This was just a small portion of the harsh reality of life Leon and his family were faced with. Not only was purchasing food a challenging process, but acquiring other items also proved to be difficult for Leon’s family due to the rapid shutdown of all privately owned stores in the area.
Then, in July of 1941, horror and chaos erupted upon Bukovina. With the arrival of Nazi killing squads, an estimated 70-100 people were murdered a day from July up to September of that year. Up to 124,632 people were deported from Bukovina as well. Meanwhile in Transnistria, hundreds of death marches were conducted by Nazi officials controlling the area. These marches resulted in the death of thousands of men, women, and children who fell victim to hunger, disease and the brutality of the Nazi guards. Jewish men were forced to serve hard and intense labor by German soldiers on a daily basis.
One day, when Leon was 10 years old, his father went missing for several hours. Leon and his mother had no idea where he was. This soon began to worry Leon’s mother as she became frightened that he was taken by soldiers from the street. Then, one afternoon when Leon was in his front yard, he spotted his father amongst a large group of Jewish men being escorted by Nazi soldiers. Leon ran toward the group of men and decided to march with his father. Leon and his father ended up marching to the Prut River, where they were forced to carry massive logs to help support a damaged bridge. After hours of intense labor, Leon and his father were finally allowed to go home. They returned home to the sight of Leon’s mother waiting for them, who had been crying all day because of their absence. Leon and his father were extremely fortunate to have returned home safely that night, as other laborers did not.
Starting in September of 1941, all Jewish people were ordered and forced to evacuate their homes and apartments to move to a ghetto which was structured as a type of holding station in Chernowitz. During this time, Jews were also forced to wear yellow stars on their shirts or jackets. Once Leon and his family arrived in the ghetto, they were told by soldiers that they would be sent to live on nice farms in the Ukraine. The night before leaving the ghetto, Leon and his family could not get any sleep as they were concerned with what was ahead of them the following day. The next morning at around 4:30 a.m., soldiers harshly forced everyone out of the ghetto and onto the streets to assemble and begin marching to the train station. Leon, his family, and everyone else had remained hungry and thirsty all morning until arriving to the train station which was five kilometers away. Box cars awaited Leon and his family, surrounded by soldiers posted to maintain order.
Fitting eighty people into one box car, many Jews lost all hope and self-esteem as their bodies withered from claustrophobia and body-heat. However, unlike many other internees of the Reich, Leon was able to stay with his family on the train. After two days with little to no food or water in the train cars, Leon arrived in Atashi, Basarabia, the “place of mud.” Leon was met at Atashi by a large amount of soldiers carrying rifles; many Jews, including himself, thought that they were going to get shot. He saw a woman, in her desperation, put her baby boy in a bush, hoping that he would be found by a farmer. Yet, Leon claims that he “was never scared,” but rather “became brave very fast.” His father threw away their only blanket, thinking that it would be no use to their family because they were going to die. But Leon picked up the blanket and took it with him.
All the Jews gathered in the center of the unfamiliar Ukranian city and stood there all night, awaiting instructions from the soldiers. The next morning, they were moved to Mogilev-Podolsk Camp. When Leon and his family were no longer in the officials’ vision, they swiftly bribed a Ukranian boy to look the other way as they ran from the camp. They successfully escaped and found safety “for a moment” with a nearby Ukranian family who took them in. Leon was challenged with the task of supplying food for ten people, as the family that took them in was poor themselves. He and his cousin risked their lives by going into the town market and bribing merchants for food. Yet, three weeks later, Leon’s mother decided that their family would be caught as they looked different than the town civilians.
It was rumored that Jewish partisan groups were working near Leon and his family. Leon had always dreamed of meeting a partisan. But Leon could not dream of being a partisan himself, for partisans gave up their parents and children to resist the Nazis; the Jews “were not a fighting force,” for it was impossible to fight without military training, weapons, food, etc. “Not one [leader] cared,” there was “no one to ask for help.” Leon and his family had to fight for their lives on their own, for all Jews “were alone.”
Leon’s mother spoke German, so she risked her life as she went to the German headquarters within the vicinity to ask for help. Captain Heitzmann, a German general, came out of the headquarters at Leon’s mother’s request. She begged him for help and the captain conceded on the condition that Leon’s whole family would pray for the captain’s sons who were fighting in war. On November 1st, 1942, Leon and his family met Captain Heitzmann who had arranged for them to be driven to the Djurin Ghetto, a sugar factory ghetto. Three weeks after their arrival, Leon’s aunt Loti died. While Leon had always been aware of the likelihood of his death in his current circumstances, his aunt’s death still served as a big shock, for he had not realized how truly close death was.
In Djurin, Leon’s father became a barber while Leon spent his time going from door to door, asking for food and money. Their small home was very cold, warmed only by a small furnace, and infested with lice. As winter came along, finding food became even more difficult. He and his family survived by drinking only a few sips of water per day; everyone had to be selfless in order to survive.
One day, a German order came calling Jewish men to work on a bridge nearby. Knowing that they would be worked then killed, Leon, his father, and four other men hid in an abandoned space behind a brick wall. Yet at midnight, they were snitched on by a Jewish man and discovered by German soldiers. His father and the four other men were to be taken to the bridge.
In her fear, his mother grabbed her father to try to hide him. However, her eyesight was impaired by malnutrition and did not see the soldier beside her husband. Leon clutched onto a knife, ready to kill the soldier if he had tried to take his mother too. She was left alone but Leons’ father was taken. But, whether it was luck or a miracle, his father returned to the ghetto that day, for too many Jewish men were already working on the bridge.
During the springtime, the blossoming land made it easier to find food. Leon would daringly go outside the ghetto with a net to a nearby lake, fishing and bathing in the war. He then collected wood from the forest to cook his catches over. During the fall, Leon devised new ways to find food. He woke up at 5 in the morning, every morning, and plant stones on a road. When military trucks containing beets and other foods drove by, they would shake when driving over the stones, causing beets to fall out of the truck and onto the ground, where Leon was waiting readily to collect them.
In the following winter, Leon’s mother contracted typhus disease. In an effort to find protein to help his mother regain strength, Leon walked far through the thigh-deep snow to buy a chicken from a Ukranian farm lady. Weak and exhausted, Leon could no longer walk on his trip home, but had to crawl on his hands and feet through the snow.
That same winter, Leon contracted typhus. As there was no room left in the local hospital, eleven and a half year old Leon was put in a crib in the morgue. He lay there, unconscious, dehydrated, no one attending him, thinking that he was dead. On the fifth day in the morgue, Leon woke up, swimming in his own waste. Still he was alone. Suddenly his father passed by the morgue, peered through the window, and saw Leon. After five days in the morgue, Leon was brought home for recovery.
In March, 1944, partisans liberated the residents of the Djurin Ghetto. Leon and his family went back to Chernowitz, walking for nine consecutive days. They arrived at their old condo to find that they were the only family of fourteen other Jewish families that had lived in the complex to return. As Romania was still occupied by the Russians, his father was accused of being a German spy and taken to Siberia. Eventually, he entered the army and got a pass to come home.
Leon and his family, like many other Jews, dreamed of building a homeland in Palestine. However, the British prevented them from travelling to Palestine, instead putting them in four refugee camps between 1945 and 1951. At this time, only the United States was letting in Jewish refugees. US President Truman commissioned an order allowing 100,000 refugees into the country. Leon and his family were among those 100,000. They arrived by boat in New York but were immediately put on a train to San Francisco. Three weeks after arriving in San Francisco, Leon turned twenty-one. He felt that he had just been born.
Both the language barrier and their lack of money made it difficult for Leon and his family to adjust to San Francisco. He and his father got jobs working in a steel factory, while his mother worked for Levi Strauss. In March of 1951, Leon met his wife, Eva, a refugee from Berlin, at a soccer club dance. In 1953, Leon purchased his house in San Francisco in which he still lives today. When US entered the Korean War of 1953, Leon “happily” volunteered for service, feeling that it was his duty to fight for the United States, his new home country. Leon returned from war, and in 1961, married Eva.
Today Leon visits schools to share his story and educate children on the Holocaust. After years of attempting to put the Holocaust behind him, Leon now appreciates his ability to inform others about the treacheries he once endured. When speaking about his experience with telling his story to others, Leon simply stated, “how beautiful it is to be able to express yourself. You’re not afraid of anybody.”