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June 27, 2013 8:15 am

My Promise to the ‘Lion of Judah’

avatar by Dovid Efune

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The late Leo 'Leibel' Zisman with his wife Myrna at The Algemeiner's 'Jewish 100' Gala in April.

In August of last year I was invited to the premiere of a Holocaust documentary at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village entitled ‘Lion of Judah.’ The hour-long film features Holocaust survivor Leo ‘Leibel’ Zisman as he traverses the European sites of his horror-ridden youth with a group of adolescents.

Days following the viewing Leo called me on my cellphone and asked if I planned to write a review of the movie. “Of course” I promised. But one distraction led to another, and it slipped my mind.

Last Saturday morning Leibel passed away following a tragic accident. It feels appropriate therefore, that in my column this week I set out to fulfill my promise, and carry out Leibel’s last request of me.

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I can’t say I knew him well, frankly; I didn’t know him much at all, but like so many others, I was touched by his generosity and shaken by his untimely passing.

A longtime reader and supporter of The Algemeiner, he would greet me warmly when we met at various events, always with a smile and firm handshake.  A stocky redhead with a broad smile, Leibel appeared much younger than his 82 years both in countenance and attitude.

This youthful exuberance is on full display throughout ‘Lion of Judah.’

The film dedicates a significant amount of face-time to a number of the young travelers who share their feelings and insights upon visiting some of Poland and Eastern Europe’s more prominent death houses, including concentration camps Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The filmmakers also focused on interacting with the local youth, aiming to capture contemporary Polish views on Jews and the Holocaust.

“Polish people say that everyone should go to Auschwitz, but only once,” a young Pole tells the film’s interviewer. “We should never forget it, but on the other hand, we are a younger generation,” says another, “and it is starting to apply to us less and less as time goes by.”

Zissman’s chilling testimony shared frankly in interviews and directly with his fellow travelers is raw and unvarnished. At times emotional and at others questioning and reflective, he stands out for his bold defiance.

He recounts how after drawing the attention of a camp guard for interceding to defend a fellow inmate from brutal harassment, he challenged the Nazi to shoot him as he stared down the barrel of his gun. “Go ahead, shoot, pull the trigger you pig,” he shouted. “Well I’m here,” he concludes, “I don’t know why he didn’t do it, I cannot explain.”

“I accomplished my goal, what I should do, by going back to the camps and telling the young group of people what took place,” Leibel says as the film ends. “Of course my goal is not finished,” he continues, “these young people are going to tell their generation what took place.”

“They go away so much richer and it is more meaningful to them and that is really why I want to continue doing it, I feel that’s my mission and my call and I guess that is why I am here,” he concludes.

With the movie, his testimony has been preserved for eternity and his unique brand of courage will serve to inspire all who encounter his tale.

Plucked from the jaws of death he lived a full and accomplished life. But his life’s calling he said was to tell his story, and tell it he did.

The author is the Editor-in-Chief of The Algemeiner and director of the GJCF and can be e-mailed at defune@gjcf.com.

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  • Leibel was an accomplished individual with a big heart and brilliant mind.
    He had ordination for the rabbinate but chose to be laity supportive of all things
    Jewish.

    He was a great believer and supporter of the Jewish community and the Jewish people
    in Israel and North America . He was a fighter for the truth and a
    Maiven on the power of the printed word!
    His memory is a blessing to all.

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