Remembering Holocaust Survivor Leo Zisman

Leo Zisman in Krakow, Poland

Back in 2010, six years after I had visited the concentration camps and ghettos where my grandparents had been enslaved, I had the opportunity to return to Poland. But on this second trip, I would be traveling with a few dozen twenty-somethings and a Holocaust survivor named Leo Zisman.


Leo died this past weekend, after sustaining an injury a few weeks before. And of all the survivors I had known–and there were many–only two men seemed unbreakable: the two Leos of Auschwitz, my grandfather, Leon Lederman, and Leo Zisman.


The first time I had met Leo Zisman, he presented himself as a Teddy bear, round and smiley. But I quickly learned that he was a survivor, who, if he had been older during the war (he was fourteen when he entered Auschwitz), would have had tomes written about him, like the ones that portrayed the head of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Mordechai Analewicz.


Leo Zisman had fought off German Shepherds that had hunted him down and tore through his slacks. He had led a chorus of boys in a spiritual revolt toward the gas chambers, which baffled the Nazis, causing them to divert the singing congregation to the showers instead. He had kept contraband tfillin for prayer and when his Auschwitz guard found them, he accepted the beating that would force him to sleep on his stomach for months. And Leo Zisman, at age fourteen, slugged a Nazi in the groin and then dared the German to kill him. The Nazi placed a gun to his head and Leo said, “Go ahead, pull the trigger.” But the Nazi didn’t shoot, and Leo lived to eighty-two.


Traveling with Leo Zisman


When we traveled Poland with Leo, I had worried that the sites and stories would wear him down. But with each tragic retelling, youth was restored to his gray beard. Each time he stood before an awful scene from history–a piece of the former Warsaw Ghetto wall that now served as a partition in an apartment complex courtyard, the sunken mass grave inside the Jewish cemetery, the camps that he had survived–sadness distorted his voice as he conjured up his memories, but at the same time youth filled his countenance. The Holocaust stories that would have drained most eighty-year-old survivors, reinvigorated Leo.


“Do you want to know why I tell my story?” Leo had said to me inside of Birkenau. “When I was on a death march from Auschwitz, a man said to me, ‘You’ll probably make it. But when you get out of here, tell the world.’ This is why I tell my story.” And the stories, Leo said, needed to be told in Poland for two reasons: “To remember the ashes… and to let the [Polish people] know that we’re still here.”


I will never forget the image that he had placed in my mind after we had walked together from a mass grave filled with corpses of those who had been stripped of their identities. “I saw a German take a baby, maybe a month old, and rip it like a chicken… Why didn’t we fight back? We’d have more than six million…”


I wondered how he was able to re-enter the cement gas chamber in Majdanek. I wondered how he could get angry at the perfectly rounded statistics–shouting something like, How could they say it was 5,000? It couldn’t always be 5,000. Sometimes it was 5,001. How come nobody remembers that one?–and then bounce back to educate us as we walked past the barrack that housed all of the shoes. (A few weeks after we visited the camps, the barrack housing the shoes burnt down.)


Even though he was bed-ridden for the last few weeks of his life, I’ll always remember Leo Zisman as the man who had told us a story in front of a building in Auschwitz-Birkenau and when he discovered that the door to that building was locked, he began to kick down the door. Who else could get away with trying to kick down a door in Auschwitz in the Twenty-First Century?


I’ll always remember the night when we sat inside a synagogue in Krakow, where we had gathered to listen to Matisyahu perform for a people that were nearly erased. Matisyahu sang about Jerusalem, but stopped his song to recognize how unlikely and incredible it was that he was able to perform in Poland for a survivor. And when he acknowledged our friend Leo, the entire temple filled with the roar of nearly thirty voices of young Americans who knew that survivor well.


“Leo,” we all screamed.




Posted on by Noah Lederman in Europe, Somewhere

10 Responses to Remembering Holocaust Survivor Leo Zisman

  1. Juliann

    I got chills just reading this. I’ve visited two concentration camps and come away feeling hollow. And I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Elie Wiesel speak. But to wander around a concentration camp with Leo would have made it even more real. I can’t imagine. What a privilege that was for you. He sounds like an incredible man.
    Juliann recently posted…Do the Words “I Shot J.R.” Mean Anything to You?My Profile

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks Juliann. It was an experience that, in another decade or so, will be impossible to replicate.

  2. Sam

    Great tribute to Leo . May he rest in peace.

    • Noah Lederman

      He was a good man.

      • myrna

        DeaR Noah,
        Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful words you wrote about Leo.We just got up from shiva and the outpouring of love and admiration that we received about Leo was amazing. so many of the people that were on the trip with us came to pay there respects. it was a source of great comfort for me and my family.
        fondly, Myrna

        • Noah Lederman

          Hi Myrna. I’ll always remember Leo and the impact he had on me and so many others. I’m sorry that more people couldn’t hear his stories and have the opportunity to meet such a great man.

  3. Annette | Bucket List Journey

    Wow! What a special experience this must have been. I agree with Juliann, I got chills reading this.
    Annette | Bucket List Journey recently posted…Getting a Foot Massage by a Prison Inmate in Chiang Mai, ThailandMy Profile

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks, Annette. It was an unforgettable travel and life experience.

  4. Laura Zeitz Shainbaum

    I first heard Leo Zisman speak in Toronto, at Chabad Flamingo, and was very impressed with his exuberant personality, and generous spirit. He helped to shape the education of many people, young and old regarding the HOlocaust. I was so taken with him that when he came to speak at The Shul of Bal Harbour in Miami, I went to see him again. May he rest in peace. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

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