It was a very emotional evening for Fred Kort. Two weeks ago, from the stage at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Kort introduced Josef and Theresa Herinx-Pieter and Annie Schipper, righteous gentiles who risked their lives to harbor Jews during World War II.
Kort, the new West Coast chairman of American Society for Yad Vashem, was presiding over his first event since assuming leadership of the organization. But as one of only nine people to survive the concentration camp at Treblinka, Kort knew that the ceremony represented something more for him: a triumph of the human spirit over great adversity, of good over evil, of the present over the past.
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 and sent into a stateless limbo after the war broke out. Kort was slated for death at Treblinka in August 1943 but bluffed his way out of the extermination compound and into Treblinka's labor camp, until the day in 1944 when the Red Army closed in.
"On the 23rd of July, I could hear the sounds of the big guns coming closer and closer," recalled Kort. The Nazis, anticipating an invasion, decided to kill all of their Jewish captives. Kort hid in a tool shed as camp officials massacred 550 prisoners. After 10 hours in hiding, Kort escaped into a nearby forest, where he lived off of berries and roots for three weeks. He eventually joined the Polish underground, made it to the Russian front, and fought with the Polish army.
Sitting today in his massive, accolade-adorned downtown L.A. office at on a sunny December day, Kort, founder and CEO of the thriving Imperial Toy Corporation, 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."
So how does Kort account for a God in those bleak times?
"If I look back," said Kort, "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."
There were little miracles, such as the time he found a bag in a forest clearing. The sack's contents: sausages, a bathing suit, a shaving kit and a loaded gun.
After World War II, Kort reunited with his mother and his sister, who had survived the war in Russia; his father and brother had perished in Germany. Kort came to America and settled in Massachusetts. His employer there transferred him to Los Angeles, and after switching jobs, he learned the toy business from manufacturer Martin Feder.
On April 1, 1969, Kort opened his own business, Imperial Toys, on Seventh Street. His inaugural product: the hi-bounce ball. Imperial, which employs 5,000 peopl, still churns out popular toys such as Miracle Bubbles, Bouncin' Bone-Heads, and that perennial favorite, marbles among its 1,000 products. Licensing tie-ins have had his toys packaged with the likenesses of cartoon icons such as Batman, Marvel superheroes and Hanna-Barbara characters.
Kort amicably divorced the mother of his sons, Jordan, Steve and David, all of whom are also in the toy business. He is now celebrating 30 years with wife Barbara, whom he met in Hong Kong. Of Chinese descent, Barbara converted to Judaism before their marriage. Today, she works as Kort's public relations representative. The Korts have a 20-year-old daughter, Susie, and they reside in Beverly Hills, where they frequently host fundraising parties. They are also active members of Congregation Beth Israel in the Fairfax district.
Kort has donated millions of dollars to dozens of Jewish organizations. He was one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and helped shape L.A.'s Holocaust Memorial at Pan Pacific Park. Kort is also a longtime supporter of the Tel Aviv Foundation, Bar-Ilan University, the Anti-Defamation League and Israel Bonds, among others. Kort has even financed unique projects such as a scholarship that sent 100 postgraduate Chinese students to Bar Ilan. And the American ORT will always stay close to Kort's heart, as it was a German ORT outlet that gave Kort the electrical skills he used to survive during the war and beyond.
Now he's also raising money for Vad Yashem. Built atop Jerusalem's Mount Remembrance, Vad Yashem was born following a 1953 Knesset mandate. Each year, about 2 million people visit the 45-acre institution, currently in the middle of a six-year renovation plan. It houses comprehensive Holocaust-related departments -- historical and art museums, schools and research institutions, extensive archives and library facilities. It also contains a memorial to the 5,000 Jewish communities destroyed during the Nazi era, a Hall of Names listing millions of survivors, and a tribute to the 18,000 people it has designated as righteous gentiles. Kort's predecessor, Abraham Spiegel, personally oversaw the construction of a memorial dedicated to the 1.5 children murdered during the Holocaust.
In Kort, Yad Vashem could not have found a more enthusiastic supporter for their cause.
"We were thrilled when he agreed to succeed Abraham Spiegel," said Shraga Mekel, American Society for Yad Vashem's development director.
"We are confident that Fred will draw upon his unique talents and skills to carry forth Yad Vashem's mission," said Chairman Eli Zborowski, who founded the New York-based American Society two decades ago.
Carol Stohlberg, Survivors of the Shoah Foundation's director of major gifts, said, "He was the first survivor to participate as a major donor to the Shoah Foundation. He's always been a tremendously supportive, wonderful philanthropist."
All in all, Kort did it his way -- not bad for a man who came to America as a very poor immigrant. Said Kort, "America has been very good to me. My thanks is to give back to society."
For more information on the American Society for Yad Vashem, contact Shraga Mekel at (800) 310-7495. Information about Imperial Toys is available online at www.imperialtoy.com.