It was a rekindling of a friendship that lay dormant for 56 years.
On Memorial Day, at his lavish hillside manor, philanthropist Fred Kort, 77, reunited with an old friend, Victor Bilski, 80, for the first time since May 8, 1945 -- the day World War II ended in Europe. In the Korts' living room, where Chinese figurines and images of Asian courtiers dance across the walls, the pair enthusiastically introduced each other to their families and friends. Upon meeting Bilski for the first time, Kort's 21-year-old daughter, Susie, joked, "You haven't changed a bit."
It was a reunion that nearly didn't happen. After his postwar arrival in Los Angeles, Fred Kort steadily established himself as a business success story in the downtown L.A. offices of his company, Imperial Toys. Meanwhile, for nearly 40 years, Bilski lived in Valley Village, just a short drive away from Kort's home in Trousdale Estates, and worked at Canter's Delicatessen.
"He probably served me corned beef a million times," said an amused Kort, who frequents the Fairfax Avenue deli.
Despite their visibility, Bilski and Kort had somehow managed to elude one another. During Bilski's years working the Canter's counters, he never came across Kort, who attained a high profile in the business and philanthropic world (including support of the Tel Aviv Foundation, Bar-Ilan University, Yad Vashem, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.).
But fate finally intervened. In April, the Los Angeles Times featured an article on Fred Kort as one of two remaining survivors of Treblinka, illustrated by a war-era photo of Kort with an unidentified friend.
Over his morning newspaper and tea, Bilski's son, Paul, recognized his father as the unidentified man in the photo.
Paul and his father contacted Kort, and they scheduled a Memorial Day meeting. "I couldn't sleep the whole night," Bilski said.
With family, friends and press gathered around, the two survivors hugged and retired to the living room to reminisce. They remembered when, during their slave-labor years together, they removed ice with pickaxes from the tracks of the Ostbahn, the Nazi railroad system in the Eastern occupied territory, and when they knocked out a kapo (a Jew co-opted by the Nazis) who threatened to turn them in.
They both recalled being rounded up and locked within the confines of the Lodz ghetto, from which Kort escaped on May 26, 1940. Bilski eventually skipped to Sweden and, after locating his two sisters, emigrated to Melbourne until 1957, when he arrived stateside.
After a few hours reconnecting over albums of old photos, Kort and Bilski retreated to the dining room, where Kort's wife, Barbara, had prepared a lox-and-bagel spread that included pastries from Canter's (Where else?). Throughout lunch, the Kort and Bilski families were still in a state of disbelief over the circumstances of their union.
"I always thought he was in Germany," said Bilski of Kort. "I never would have imagined that he was in California."
Kort promised that they would make up for lost time. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other," he said, putting an arm around his old friend.