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Jewish Journal

Fred Kort

Philanthropist and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 80

by Michael Aushenker

November 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Fred Kort, Holocaust survivor, philanthropist and founder/CEO of Imperial Toy Corporation, died on Sept. 6. He was 80.

Over the years, Kort had cultivated a reputation as one of the Jewish Los Angeles's most prominent and impassioned supporters. Like fellow philanthropists such as Jona Goldrich and Max Webb, Kort survived the Holocaust to contribute substantially to L.A.'s Jewish and secular humanitarian organizations. He was one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and contributed to Goldrich's establishment of the Holocaust Memorial at Pan Pacific Park. Kort gave millions to dozens of Jewish causes, including Bar-Ilan University in Israel, the Tel Aviv Foundation, the Anti-Defamation League and State of Israel Bonds.

Fred Kort was born in Leipzig on July 8, 1923, to parents of Polish-Austrian descent. He and his family were among 22,000 Polish Jews kicked out of Germany. Kort was slated for death at Treblinka in August 1943 but bluffed his way into Treblinka's labor camp, until the day in 1944 when the Red Army closed in. Anticipating an invasion, the Nazis decided to kill their Jewish captives. Kort hid in a tool shed as camp officials massacred 550 prisoners. After 10 hours in hiding, Kort escaped into a forest, where he scavenged for food for three weeks. He eventually joined the Polish underground, made it to the Russian front, and fought with the Polish army.

Despite the genocide, Kort never lost faith in God.

"If I look back," Kort told The Journal in 2000, "for me to survive, I had to meet with extraordinary circumstances and luck again and again and again. So many things happened to me when I was this close that I knew someone was watching over me."

After World War II, Kort learned that his father and brother had perished in Germany. He reunited with his mother and his sister, who had fled to Russia.

Kort came to America and settled in Massachusetts, but his employer transferred him to Los Angeles, where he learned about the toy business from manufacturer Martin Feder.

On April 1, 1969, Kort opened Imperial Toy Corp., on Seventh Street in downtown L.A. His inaugural product: the hi-bounce ball. The company, which employs 5,000 people, produces 1,000 different toys and games.

In 2000, he celebrated 30 years with wife Barbara, whom he met in Hong Kong. Of Chinese descent, Barbara, who converted to Judaism, worked as Kort's public relations representative.

"He was so devoted and crazy about his wife and she took such good care of him," said Rita Spiegel, daughter of Abraham Spiegel, who preceded Kort as Vad Yashem chair. "She made a beautiful Jewish home for him. They just had a very special home."

The Korts, longtime supporters and active members of Fairfax-area Congregation Beth Israel, have a 23-year-old daughter, Susie. Kort's sons from a previous marriage, Jordan, Steve and David, all joined their father in the toy business.

The timing of Kort's passing was particularly bittersweet. The Kort family had just celebrated Susie's engagement the night before, and Kort was looking forward to her July 2004 marriage.

Carol Stohlberg, Survivors of the Shoah Foundation's director of major gifts, said in 2000, "He was the first survivor to participate as a major donor to the Shoah Foundation."

In the summer of 2001, Kort was reunited with Victor Bilski of Valley Village, the only other known survivor of Treblinka, for the first time since the war ended. The pair were reunited at Kort's Trousdale Estates home, before family and media coverage.

Kort was one of the first people philanthropist Stan Black turned to when he spearheaded the campaign to start an American Ort branch in Los Angeles. ORT was a particularly sentimental cause for Kort -- In pre-Holocaust Poland, Kort took electrical engineering courses at ORT's Poznan school that gave Kort the electrical skills that he used to survive World War II and in post-war L.A., before he founded Imperial Toys. The training gave Kort the skills and the self-esteem that would ultimately propel him to the top.

"He was a very nice guy, very sociable and always supportive," Black said of Kort, adding that he never hesitated to get involved in Jewish causes.

Ron Solomon, executive director of West Coast Friends of Bar-Ilan University, recalled the West Coast Friends co-chairman as a committed partner who in 1998 "brought 100 Chinese post-doctorate fellows in many different fields to conduct their research with their Israeli counterparts."

The Fred and Barbara Kort School of Languages Building is currently under construction at the Bar-Ilan's new campus in Ramat Gan, and Kort, who received an honorary doctorate degree in 1998, was looking forward to returning to Israel in two years to celebrate its completion.

"This is a tremendous loss for the entire family of Bar Ilan," said Solomon, who added that Bar-Ilan's president, Prof. Moshe Kaveh, flew in to attend Kort's Hillside funeral services on Sept. 9.

"Fred carried himself on a very high level ethically and had a photographic memory for the Holocaust from his experience," Solomon said. "The only map that exists of Treblinka [burned down by the Nazis before the war's end] is one that he drew from memory for a Nazi war crimes trial in Chicago that he testified in. And that map was used throughout the trial. He also testified at Nuremberg."

In May 2000, Kort, as the newly-appointed West Coast chairman of American Society for Yad Vashem, introduced Josef and Theresa Herinx-Pieter and Annie Schipper, righteous gentiles who risked their lives to harbor Jews during World War II, to a community turn-out at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

"Working closely with him," said Shaga Mekel, director of development at American and International Societies for Yad Vashem, from New York, "it was a shock to hear that he had passed away, especially since he was so energetic."

Kort, said Mekel, helped make Yad Vashem's West Coast affliliate "a much more active chapter for us." Kort sponsored several Yad Vashem fundraisers at his home, and more than 500 people attended Yad Vashem's first West Coast Tribute Dinner at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in 2001, when Abraham Spiegel and Kort were honored. The evening raised nearly $500,000 for Yad Vashem.

"He didn't want to be [honored]," Mekel said. "We said, We need you to be honored to make sure this event is a success."

"He was a larger than life man," said Cheryl Zoller, a friend of The Korts. "The community has lost a great pillar."

In Dec. 2000, Kort, sat down with The Journal in his Imperial Toys office. Of his philanthropic largess, Kort explained, "America has been very good to me. My thanks is to give back to society."

Kort said that he was not reared in the Orthodox tradition, "but I consider myself a good Jew. I'm religious in my own way, and I believe in God. And I think God paid special attention to me -- he wanted me to survive."

Kort is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughter, Susie; and sons Jordan, Steve and David.

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