Fred Kort, 80; Holocaust Survivor Ran Toy Company
Fred Kort, a successful Los Angeles toy manufacturer who was one of the few Jews to survive Treblinka, the Nazi death camp in Poland, has died. He was 80.
Kort, who arrived in America penniless in 1947, died of a heart attack Saturday at his home in Beverly Hills.
Kort was the founder, president and chairman of the Los Angeles-based Imperial Toy Corp., which has factories in Los Angeles; Memphis, Tenn.; Mexico; Canada; and the Far East.
The company produces more than 800 different toys, ranging from jacks and bubble-blowing kits to stuffed animals and makeup kits for girls, which are sold throughout the United States and in more than 80 foreign countries.
Kort’s attraction to the toy business, he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001, may have been a subconscious desire to re-create the lost years of his childhood.
The son of a Polish-born traveling salesman, Kort was born in Leipzig, Germany, on July 8, 1923.
Kort, who shortened his given name, Manfred, to Fred, after arriving in the United States, spent his early years with his parents and older brother and sister near Heidelberg.
At 10, he was sent to a village near the Swiss-German border to get a Jewish education; he later studied electrical engineering at a technical school in Karlsruhe, Germany. His electrical background would later help to save his life.
Kort and his family were deported to Poland in 1938. The family was separated after Germany invaded Poland a year later.
Kort wound up in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, where he survived by removing the Star of David patch from his arm and crawling under a fence to resell spices that he bought on the street. To survive, he told The Times in 2001, “You had to be creative in your thinking.”
By July 1943, Kort was living in a labor camp near Warsaw when German soldiers packed him and about 2,000 other Jews into cattle cars on a train bound for Treblinka.
Many perished inside the cramped cattle cars even before they arrived at their destination two days later.
Kort, who testified at the Nuremberg war tribunal and whose hand-drawn map of Treblinka served as a reference throughout the proceedings, later recalled that an SS colonel made a chilling announcement as they arrived at the camp.
“We want you to know this is Treblinka,” Kort quoted the colonel as saying, “and if you don’t know what Treblinka is, then smell it.”
It was the unmistakable stench of burnt flesh, Kort testified in the 1997 federal court trial in Chicago of Bronislaw Hajda, a retired machinist accused of working beside the SS as a guard at the camp. The U.S. was attempting to strip him of his citizenship for lying to immigration officials about his wartime activities.
After arriving at the camp, about 300 of the strongest prisoners were chosen to go to the work camp known as Treblinka 1; the others were sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka 2.
During the selection process, Kort recalled in his Times interview, one man sitting next to him defied the order to remain seated and was immediately shot to death.
But that didn’t stop Kort from jumping to his feet and quickly saying in German, “I’m young. I’m an electrician. And I can do all this work.”
A German soldier raised his gun at Kort, then waved him over to the worker group.
Kort spent the next year working as a water carrier, which enabled him to obtain leftover food from the guards’ kitchen.
In July 1944, the approximately 500 remaining prisoners in Treblinka heard the sound of artillery fire from the Russian front.
“We knew our days were numbered,” Kort told the Jerusalem Post in 1993. “The Germans could not afford to let us live.”
Kort, who said he was near the latrines, ran back to his barracks, climbed out a back window and hid in a lumber shed.
From his hiding spot, he noticed that the German guards walked by at 10-minute intervals. Around midnight, when the guards were out of sight, he made a run for the camp perimeter fence.
Although he had grabbed a spade and a pick-ax to tunnel under the fence, he found that the ground was so soft from the rain that he could dig with his bare hands.
“I walked all night in the forest and told myself that I was the only Jew left alive in Europe,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “At dawn, to my surprise, I found myself facing the mass grave where everyone had been shot the day before outside Treblinka. I must have been walking in circles all night.... Afterward, I learned that two had managed to crawl out of that grave and survived.”
Between 750,000 and 870,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka. Peter Black, senior historian for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has said that Kort was one of only about 15 people from the camp who survived the war.
Kort spent three weeks in the woods, living on berries and food provided by farmers before he crossed the border into Russian territory. After encountering Russian troops, he underwent interrogation for 10 days before convincing them that he had escaped from the camp.
Kort volunteered for the Polish army in November 1944 and served until the end of the war.
After returning to Germany, he was reunited with his mother and sister, who had been caught in Russian territory with German papers in 1939 and spent the war in Siberia. His father, brother and more than 60 other relatives had died in the Holocaust.
After arriving in New York in 1947, Kort landed a job with Bendix Corp. and then General Electric, which transferred him to California.
While working as an electrician at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, Kort was called up to a room to repair a guest’s desk lamp.
The guest said he planned to open a toy factory and wondered if Kort knew anybody he might hire.
“How about me?” Kort asked.
After many years with that company, Kort launched his own toy company in 1969.
Over the years, the Kort family and Imperial Toy Corp. have donated generously to numerous charities in the United States, Israel and other parts of the world.
In 1993, Kort was appointed honorary ambassador to the Tel Aviv Foundation. He also was the first Holocaust survivor to join in partnership with Steven Spielberg in supporting the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
In 1998, Kort received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University in Israel for his lifetime commitment to humanitarian causes.
“With the passing of Fred Kort, the world Jewish community has lost an important component of the eyewitness ‘mosaic’ of Holocaust remembrance,” said professor Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University, in a statement.
Kort is survived by his wife, Barbara; his children, Jordan, Steven, David and Susie; and seven grandchildren.
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