By Natalie Jacobs
When Charlie Bucket first stepped into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, it seems fair to assume that he would have liked to dunk his hand or even a finger into a vat of swirling chocolate for a taste of the rich, milky, cocoa goodness. But he was a well-behaved boy who had worked hard for a golden ticket and he wasn’t going to compromise that on a whim.
But unlike Roald Dahl’s title character, young Leon Prochnik could stick his appendages in whatever chocolate vats he wanted. His parents owned and operated a chocolate factory in Krakow, Poland, and every time he went by the factory, he would walk up to the tub where they melted the chocolate, stick his arm in, and then lick off all the chocolate.
During a summer vacation in 1939, when Prochnik was 6, his parents got a telegram from the factory manager telling them not to come back to Krakow – the Germans had arrived and they were looking for them.
“There were 14 of us,” Prochnik remembers. “It was my parents, my sister, me, two of my uncles – this is all on my mother’s side of the family – there were two uncles and aunts each with children of their own, and then there were my grandparents. The decision was made that we couldn’t go back, that we would now try to get as far away from the Germans as we could and headed eastward.”
The young Prochnik would never see the chocolate factory again. But it loomed large in his imagination, helping him get through the toughest parts of his escape from the Nazis. Now 80, Prochnik has just recently begun telling his Holocaust story to children in the Los Angeles area, with emphasis on the chocolate factory to surprising effect.
“I was 6. I didn’t understand the politics of it, that Poland was being divided between the Soviet Union and Germany, no, of course not. But I was always a very sensitive kid and I certainly was picking up my family’s anxieties. And of course, the realization that we were not going home … it was gut-wrenching.”
The first place they headed was Chelm, Poland, where Prochnik’s mother had family. The group split up between two houses and slept on straw palettes for weeks. When word came that Chelm fell under the German part of Poland, the men of Prochnik’s family followed the Russian troops out and promised to send word when it was safe for the women, grandparents and children to follow.
“They left because we had heard that when the Germans came they took the Jewish men who were able-bodied and put them into labor camps. So the men left with the promise that as soon as they could, they would send for us.”
After getting word that danger was fast approaching, Prochnik’s mother convinced the others that waiting for the men was not an option. She traded jewelry to smugglers for passage across the river into the Russian side of Poland.
On the day they piled into a cart filled with straw and headed for the river, the Germans entered Chelm and started rounding up Jews.
“[The smuggler] could have easily said ‘look, here’s your money back,’ or ‘goodbye, I’ve got to get back to my family.’ But he kept his promise and got us to the river where other smugglers got us across the river. And it was there that we reunited with the men.”
The Prochniks then travelled to Lithuania where they received money from a relative in New York. They were part of 1,000 people granted visas by the Vice Council of the Japanese Embassy in Lithuania to make their trek through the Soviet Union.
“[We were] fleeing at night, [in temperatures] 30-below zero in sleds, wolves howling in the distance. It was really something out of a story book,” Prochnik remembers.
Finally, they boarded the trans-Siberian railroad for a 14-day journey in a rickety, barely-heated train car. They arrived at the port city in Siberia and then left for Japan. In Japan, they ate at the only Kosher restaurant in town, waited for more papers and then boarded a boat for Vancouver, Canada. From Vancouver they went to Toronto, where they stayed for six months waiting for Visas from the United States. After circumnavigating the globe for a year and a half, they arrived in New York City and Prochnik could “finally sleep without clutching [his] pillow.”
Prochnik says his memory of the chocolate tub he left in Poland helped him get through the grueling trek.
“That chocolate tub became my friend, my confidant, and at one point my adversary, and then my teacher. I had no friends because I was too young to go to school before the war. I had my cousins and my sister and I was the youngest one. I was always a kid who lived a lot in his imagination, so the chocolate tub was very key to me.
“There was a point where I felt sort of betrayed by the tub. There was a point at which, when we got our Visas to take us out of Lithuania, I had a dream that [a boy from the Jewish day school] and the class were following me toward the chocolate tub and they wanted to get into it and instead of the tub making itself available, it just grew like a giraffe’s neck so they couldn’t get into the tub. And I really felt that the tub had betrayed me somehow. I know it’s a crazy thing but that’s how kids think. So I really pushed it out of my thinking as much as I could.
“But after we got to New York where we finally were safe … I had a dream one night. It was the last dream I ever had about the chocolate tub. The tub was as big as a lake, as the ocean, and I took off my clothes and got into the tub and I began to swim across it. The chocolate turned into water and I was swimming to the other side. I couldn’t even see where the other side was but I had this feeling, fundamentally, at the core that I was being looked after and that I was safe. So it was very powerful.”
While it was undoubtedly moving to him, Prochnik didn’t tell his Holocaust story for a long time. In fact, he kept mum about it until this year, a few months before his 80th birthday.
“Whenever I thought, as a Holocaust survivor, that I should go out and tell my story, I thought, well, then I’d have to tell the story of the chocolate tub and that’s very childish.
“There are lots of Holocaust survivor stories that make my story pale in comparison. You know, if you were in a death camp, or like my uncle on my father’s side of the family, who spent the whole war hiding in a cemetery. There are much more extreme stories. But what turned out was, I was asked to speak to kids and I told them this story and they totally, in a magical moment, were like, ‘we’re with you, yes, our story, yes, go on.’”
Prochnik has titled his talk “The Boy from Krakow and the Chocolate Tub.” Since his first speaking event at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A., he has returned to the museum multiple times and has also traveled to schools around L.A. county.
After giving the talk, students often draw pictures of their interpretations of his story, focusing on the family’s travels and, of course, the chocolate tub. The first time Prochnik got a package of these pictures, he was so moved by their vibrancy and the children’s connection to his story that he started thinking of a way to make this more permanent.
“I thought, these are fabulous drawings but how can we use them to help children of all races and religions remember the Holocaust for the rest of their lives?”
To accomplish that, he has created “Hear It. Draw It. Remember It Forever.” For every school he visits, he will take the drawings from the students, edit them, then get them professionally published into a book and give the book to each student who created a drawing. Since this will be an expensive endeavor, Prochnik is now looking for foundation support. He also launched a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo to raise money in the meantime.
Prochnik spent his career writing novels and screenplays and editing and directing films in Hollywood. But he feels like he’s finished with that part of his life and this new project seems like a valuable way to spend the remaining years of his life, of which there will probably be many.
“I’m 80, but the way I handle it is, I’ve got the mentality and sense of humor of a 12 year old.”
For more information on “Hear It. Draw It. Remember It Forever,” visit indiegogo.com and search “The Boy from Krakow.”