By Aaron Blevins, 9/05/2013
Leon Prochnik’s Holocaust stories resonate with kids
Park La Brea resident Leon Prochnik is taking the story of his “chocolate tub” national, in hopes of relaying his unique Holocaust narrative to children across the country in a memorable way.
For the last seven months, Prochnik, now in his 80s, has spoken to children at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park and the Museum of Tolerance. The overwhelming response — including hundreds of drawings — has prompted him to find ways to reach out to more young people.
His new venture, “Hear It, Draw It, Remember It Forever”, aims to help more children find a link to the Holocaust. After Prochnik addresses a class in person or online, many students have drawn a picture related to his talk and sent it to him. This gave Prochnik the idea to compile these drawings into a keepsake book for each participating child.
“The Holocaust becomes theirs. …They become witnesses in their own way to the Holocaust, and they have the book forever,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe such an initiative has ever been done.
Many of the drawings center on the chocolate tub, which he would think and dream about in the darkest of moments during his family’s year and a half journey from Poland to the U.S.
As a child, his family owned the Polish franchise of Suchard Chocolate, the second largest chocolate factory in Poland. At the factory, there was a tub of chocolate. When no one was looking, he used to dip his arm into the tub up to his elbow, and lick his arm clean.
That was a fond memory for Prochnik, and during his family’s exodus, he contracted an ear infection — “you know, like the kind you die from.” With no medicine or doctors available, he sought relief in that majestic tub of chocolate.
“So the chocolate tub became like my real friend,” Prochnik said. “So whenever I felt very alone, very scared, I would summon it up. Sometimes, I would dream about it. Sometimes, I would just think about it.”
He always felt that the story was too childish and personal, but as fate would have it, he was asked to speak to an elementary school class. After that discussion, the teachers suggested that Prochnik reach out to the Museum of the Holocaust. And he did.
“They totally related to it — totally,” he added.
Prochnik said the Holocaust is a tough thing for children to understand. He likened it to asking children how much they hold World War I in their heart. The fact that 6 million people died during the Holocaust is also difficult to grasp as a young person.
“It’s too big a number. It’s too far away. It’s too long ago. But when they hear a story about a boy who kept dreaming about the chocolate tub, then the connection is made,” Prochnik said.
During the 1-1/2 year journey, he and 13 of his family members fled Poland to Lithuania, then to Japan, Canada and eventually the United States. Prochnik recalls riding sleds in 30-degree weather, sleeping in peasant huts and never having enough warm clothes.
“It was a very, very scary escape. …We had to flee past the German side border of Poland,” he said.
While awaiting a transit visa in Lithuania, he attended a Jewish school in the country for about six months. Prochnik has a photo of his class, and said that in all likelihood all of his classmates were murdered. During his time in Lithuania, he had another dream of the chocolate tub, but in this dream, his classmates were trying to get in to the tub to escape the Germans, but the walls of the tub kept rising, he said.
“Because I thought of the tub as a friend, I felt like that was a betrayal,” Prochnik said, adding that he swore to never dream of the tub again.
While laden with tragedy — his father’s side of the family opted to stay in Poland and almost all were murdered — his story also relays the humor involved in learning the ways of a new country. For example, in a hotel café in Canada, he believed corn flakes were expensive because he thought they were individually created by hand.
Many of the students relate to those out-of-place feelings, and it shows on the drawings that they’ve sent to Prochnik. While cornflakes have little do with the Holocaust, they represent one of many links in his talks that allow children to understand his story. And once they draw it, it becomes their vision of his experience, Prochnik said.
“Hopefully, they’ll treasure it forever,” he added.
Prochnik, a former filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Mia, is hoping to raise money for his newest venture. He has set a goal of $20,000.
For information or to donate, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/504752/emal/4490253.