How reading the story of a Holocaust survivor changed the life of an inventor, environmentalist and Hong Kong educator
- Cesar Jung-Harada remembers Nathan Prochownik as a grandfather figure; his widow gave him the book he’d written, but told him not to read it until he was 21
- When he read it, Prochownik’s story of deportation from France and the loss of his entire family had a profound effect on the Hong Kong-based entrepreneur
Mémoires Barbelées, et Après (1995) is the memoirs of Nathan Prochownik, a Polish-French Holocaust survivor who subsequently became a successful businessman.
Cesar Jung-Harada, founder and director of makerspace network and foundation MakerBay, executive director of ocean robotics company Scoutbots, and senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, who knew Prochownik personally, tells Richard Lord how it changed his life.
Nathan Prochownik sold one of his old factories to my parents, under the market rate, giving my family a huge amount of creative freedom. My father (sculptor Tetsuo Harada) was a Japanese immigrant in France. My parents were broke. They looked for seven years for a workshop for my father – they looked everywhere in Paris – but everything was too expensive.
Finally, they found an abandoned factory building, with dead cats and drug deals in it. They thought they could maybe afford it, but it was hard to find out who it belonged to. They asked the neighbours, who just knew it was an old Jewish guy. They asked around in the Jewish community, and found him in a local Holocaust survivors’ group.
When they first walked in, he said he wasn’t selling; he was a businessman and he was too busy with other factories. My father has been making art for peace his whole life. He’d just made a memorial for the victims of World War II. He showed a photo of it to Nathan, who realised this Japanese hippie guy and this French girl from the countryside were really serious about this.
It took more than seven years for my parents to fix the factory and transform it into an art studio and home.
Nathan was my grandfather figure. He would come around and check the building and that we were doing well. His wife gave me the book he wrote, after he passed away. Nathan had made the explicit request that I should not read it until I turned 21, because it would be too traumatic.
I was extremely tempted to read it when he passed away, when I was 19, but I also wanted to respect his request. I read it on the night of my 21st birthday: September 16, 2004.
Getting to know him after his departure changed me profoundly. Reading it felt like time travelling. He was a Jewish Polish immigrant in Paris. He talks about being deported. It was just so painful. The thing that traumatised me was that, in his family, he was the only survivor. He lost 40 people.
He describes people disappearing. Then he writes about going back to Paris, working at the factory and eventually becoming the boss. It’s just such a crazy life: from the very bottom to the very top. It’s such an inspiring story.
I wrote a book about my father’s work in 2006, and recently it got turned into a documentary. It just won a bunch of awards and is about to be released in cinemas. Nathan’s book was the inspiration to write my book.