Leon Prochnik was 6 years old and living a privileged existence in Poland — his family were owners of a famed Krakow chocolate factory — in 1939 when Hitler’s invasion of the nation sent Jewish people everywhere fleeing for their lives.
His family escaped to Lithuania, staying until they could secure a transit visa to Japan. Traveling Russia’s vast countryside by train, they eventually sought refuge in Canada and then New York City.
Trudie Strobel was born in a Soviet collective farm in Ukraine in 1938 to a woman whose husband had been exiled to Siberia during a wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe.
They were taken to Poland’s Lodz Ghetto and then to labor camps, where her mother toiled as a seamstress for years before their liberation by American soldiers.
In a special assembly for seventh-graders at La Cañada High School 7/8 on Thursday, the two Holocaust survivors shared their harrowing experiences and entreated students to make sure the hatred and bigotry they witnessed never takes hold of humanity again.
School parent Gal Kessler Rohs, director of Temple Beth David Religious School, helped arrange the visit in advance of the seventh-grader’s upcoming lesson on Anne Frank.
She asked the two speakers, LCHS 7/8 Principal Jarrett Gold and three Jewish students to illuminate six candles on stage, each representing 1 million Jewish adults and children who perished during the genocide.
“Anything that was not pure German blood had to be exterminated,” Kessler Rohs said, listing individuals with disabilities, homosexuals and those of the Roma culture among Hitler’s victims.
In his turn at the mike, Prochnik shared how his idyllic life came to an end when the Nazis invaded Poland. Forced to leave his family’s Suchara chocolate factory, he bid farewell to a particularly beloved tub of chocolate he’d named Milka, after the company’s best-selling chocolate bar.
“She was my best friend,” he tearfully recalled.
Prochnik often prayed to Milka and asked for protection during his long journey. It was a comfort on cold nights, he said, to dream of swimming in the tub or pouring its contents on Hitler’s head, drowning the dictator in melted chocolate.
After his talk, the 86-year-old urged his young listeners to act.
“If you’re going to speak up for good causes … if you’re going to care for your neighbor and not just act like they don’t belong on this planet, do something good now,” he implored.
Strobel shared how she and her mother were transported to the Lodz Ghetto when she was just 4 years old. She remembered a doll — one her father had bought for her before she was born and he was exiled to Siberia — being ripped from her arms by soldiers.
“Already cruelties had started on this journey,” she said, recounting her horror of delousing showers and a barracks-like existence dominated by shrill cries and insults from German soldiers.
“You felt like they would crush you any second,” she said.
Strobel accompanied her mother during long work days. It seemed interminable until the war ended, and American trucks arrived to move camp victims to displacement centers. When a Red Cross worker gave her some shiny beads, she sewed a tapestry she still has today at 81.
“Please remember never to forget the Holocaust,” she asked students. “We must be watchful not to have this happen again in our country.”
Afterward, LCHS seventh-graders Henry Dearborn and Leah Stewart said they were impressed at the hardships Strobel and Prochnik faced as children.
“It makes me really grateful we live in a society that’s a lot more forgiving,” Stewart said. “We just accept people more.”
Could something of the magnitude of the Holocaust happen today?
“Hopefully, if we get enough awareness, we can help prevent it from ever happening,” Dearborn said.