His escape from the Nazis was more like “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” than “The Sound of Music,” Leon Prochnik admits.
Prochnik was 6 when his family fled Poland as Hitler’s army invaded the country. As they were smuggled out of the country, they left behind a luxurious life made possible by their Krakow chocolate-making business.
“There was this big, giant tub of chocolate in the factory” that was used in Milka candy bars, Prochnik said. “When nobody was looking, I’d stick my arm in up to my elbow and then lick off the chocolate.”
Now 80 and a resident of the Park La Brea complex in the Fairfax district, Prochnik uses that vat of chocolate as a centerpiece during talks about the Holocaust that he gives to schoolchildren.
“Today’s kids could care less about the Holocaust. It does not register with them,” he said. “But kids love chocolate, and they pay attention when I tell them how that tub of chocolate helped me get through that dark chapter in human history.”
His life was once as sweet as the chocolate the family produced, Prochnik tells his young audiences.
“It made us very well off. Life was very nice for me. We had a full-time nanny, a cook and rode in limousines. We had a four-story house and lots of toys,” he tells them. “I was a very happy child.”
His family was on vacation when the Nazis swept into Poland. He recalled that his father received a telegram advising him that Hitler’s troops were rounding up Jews and that the family should not return to Krakow. The news hit the family hard.
“You have your favorite things at your home and you know you’re never going back there,” Prochnik tells youngsters.
The family stayed with relatives in Chelm, Poland, but the good life was clearly over. “We were sleeping on straw pallets. Getting used to that was very hard,” he explains.
“I’d put myself to sleep at night by thinking about that chocolate tub at the factory. It became my sleeping pill.”
When the Nazis began hunting down Jews in Chelm, family members used jewelry they had with them to pay smugglers to sneak them by horse-drawn hay cart and by boat into neighboring Lithuania. There they found themselves hiding in barns and squalid farm huts.
“We would stay in peasants’ quarters with goats and pigs in the room,” he said. “We’d been pampered in Krakow. It was like coming from Beverly Hills and finding yourself in a poor peasant’s house in Mexico, sleeping on the floor.”
One of Prochnik’s older cousins obtained a travel visa to allow the family to leave Lithuania for Russia and then go on to Canada. But some of his Jewish school friends in Lithuania did not receive travel papers. Young Leon began having nightmares in which he was escaping the Nazis in a big vat of chocolate as his friends futilely tried to get in.
Another relative who had previously escaped to the West financed the family’s Trans-Siberian Railway trip across Russia and a sea voyage from Vladivostok to Vancouver, Canada. After a short stay, the family moved to New York City and established a new chocolate business.
His family was never able to return to their Krakow home or the chocolate factory — which was the Swiss-based Suchard brand’s Polish franchisee. German officials “claimed they had bought them from us” and even had fake bills of sale drawn up, Prochnik said.
Once in New York City, the then-7 1/2 -year-old was reassured by his parents that they were all safe. “I was no longer physically looking over my shoulder,” he said. “But it took a couple of years in the United States before I stopped being afraid of the dark.”
As an adult, Prochnik became a writer, film editor and director, as well as a leader of consciousness-raising workshops. He first talked about his childhood experience with the Holocaust when his wife, Mia, invited him to speak to a class she was teaching at a Los Angeles elementary school. After that, the Museum of Tolerance asked him to speak to visitors there. So far, about 1,000 children have heard about his escape from the Nazis.
Speaking one recent morning to a group of 67 Fillmore middle and high school students touring the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Prochnik explained that his wife, who is Catholic, persuaded him to return to Krakow for a visit in 2003. The family’s chocolate factory was gone, but Prochnik was invited into the family’s former mansion, he told the youngsters.
Jesus Mendoza, a 17-year-old senior at Fillmore High in Ventura County, said he could relate to Prochnik’s past because his immigrant family gave up a life in Mexico to come to this country for educational opportunities. Jesus’ father has a third-grade education; his mother finished second grade, he said.
“I’ve never heard anyone who actually went through what people like my parents have,” Jesus said. “I think people were shocked by the reality. For him the chocolate tub symbolized safety and hope — it made him feel comfortable.”
Ninth-grader Aiyanna Pillado, 13, concurred.
“The chocolate tub was his happy place,” she said.
Fillmore summer school coordinator Norma Magana said she was struck by the number of youngsters who lingered after Prochnik’s talk to ask him questions.
Teacher Doris Nichols said there were few Jewish people in the small community. She said she prepared youngsters for the museum trip by asking them what they would think if people of Mexican descent were persecuted as Jews had been by the Nazis.
Impressed by Prochnik’s presentation, she intends to invite him to Fillmore “to talk to the whole school.”
If asked, he’ll come, Prochnik promised.