Leo Weiss was a historical anomaly. His entire family — parents and two siblings — survived the Holocaust. He spent his years in Minnesota sharing his experience, and life lessons, as a public speaker at schools and community groups.
“The students loved him,” said Susie Greenberg, who runs the Holocaust speakers bureau for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “His demeanor was warm and engaging. [His talk] was about more than a horrible part of history. He wanted the kids to see that someone who went through what he did still saw good in the world.”
Weiss, 90, died Sept. 30. He was the last surviving member of a Jewish family that defied the odds of Nazi occupation. The family was living in Drohobycz, Poland, when German troops marched in. Because Weiss’ father, Solomon, was a well-known tailor, the family was initially moved to a basement location as the Germans rounded up the city’s Jews, said Leo Weiss’ daughter Heather Stesin of Minnetonka.
When they emerged, everyone was gone, she said. And the family then was separated and sent to different labor camps.
After the war ended, the family searched for one another until just one brother was missing. They made a decision to stay in Europe until they knew of his fate, she said. While waiting, Weiss worked in the Austrian office of legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who was starting to track down Nazi war criminals, she said.
The family, including the brother, emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, where Weiss worked in the life insurance industry until retirement. He and his wife, Evelyn, moved to Minnesota about 20 years ago, said Stesin. It was then that Weiss began an encore career as a Holocaust educator, both here and in Florida, where he had a winter home.
“For many years I didn’t want to talk, but I realized that I need to do it for the kids,” Weiss has written. “For as long as I’m here, I have to educate the kids and adults, to tell them what happened.”
Weiss spoke to Twin Cities high schools, church groups and community groups over the years. Diane Landis, theater instructor at the Blake School in Minneapolis, remembers vividly when Weiss addressed her students.
The students were rehearsing their roles for “Korczak’s Children,” a true story about Dr. Janusz Korczak’s attempts to keep about 200 Jewish children safe and alive during World War II in an orphanage in Warsaw.
“The information that he was able to share with the children was extraordinary,” said Landis. “The students were in rapt attention. He talked about how hard it was to be living, when everyone else was gone. But he also talked about how you have to move on, how he rebuilt his life. His message was to be happy with the life you have.”
Stesin said that her father had many “adopted grandchildren,” and that she was surprised by the outpouring of support she’s received from young adults from Boston; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Jerusalem, and beyond.
One of his staunchest admirers was grandson Ken Stesin, who in his eulogy of Weiss shared the story of his grandfather saving the life of a young woman at a concentration camp.
Weiss’ photo and story were recorded as part of the “Transfer of Memory” project of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
“His commitment to Holocaust education was his contribution to protecting future generations from the horrors he experienced,” said granddaughter Marlee Stesin at Weiss’ memorial service. “His legacy lives on in these students.”
He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; children Heather Stesin, Shirlee Weiss and Dr. Sol Weiss, and grandchildren.