Fred Kort, Holocaust survivor, philanthropist and founder/CEO of Imperial Toy Corporation, died on Sept. 6 at the age of 80.
Kort, like fellow philanthropists Jona Goldrich and Max Webb, survived the Holocaust to become one of Jewish Los Angeles’ most prominent and impassioned supporters, as well as a big giver to secular humanitarian organizations. Kort gave millions to dozens of Jewish causes, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University, the Anti-Defamation League and Israel Bonds. He was a founding donor of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and contributed to Goldrich’s L.A. Holocaust Memorial.
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 expelled from Germany. Kort was slated for death at Treblinka in 1943, but bluffed his way into Treblinka’s labor camp. Anticipating a Red Army invasion in 1944, the Nazis began killing Jewish captives. Kort hid in a shed as camp officials massacred 550 prisoners. After 10 hours in hiding, he escaped into a forest, where, for weeks, he scavenged for food. He eventually made it to the Russian front and joined the Polish army.
Despite the genocide, Kort never lost faith.
"If I look back," Kort told The Journal in 2000, "for me to survive, I had to meet with extraordinary circumstances and luck…. 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 in 1947 and settled in Massachusetts, but his employer transferred him to Los Angeles, where manufacturer Martin Feder taught him the toy business.
On April 1, 1969, Kort opened Imperial Toy Corp. on Seventh Street in downtown Los Angeles. His inaugural product: the hi-bounce ball. Kort’s sons from his first marriage, Jordan, Steve and David, all joined their father’s business.
In 2000, he and wife Barbara — a Hong Kong native who converted to Judaism — celebrated their 30th anniversary. The Korts were longtime supporters and members of the Fairfax-area Congregation Beth Israel.
"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 Yad Vashem chair. "She made a beautiful Jewish home for him. They just had a very special home."
The timing of Kort’s passing was bittersweet. The Korts had just celebrated the engagement of daughter Susie, 23, and Kort was looking forward to her July 2004 marriage.
In 2000, 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."
In the summer of 2001, Kort was reunited with Victor Bilski of Valley Village, the only other known living Treblinka survivor, for the first time since the war ended. The pair had reunited at Kort’s Trousdale Estates home, before family and local media.
"Fred had a photographic memory for the Holocaust from his experience," said Ron Solomon, executive director of West Coast Friends of Bar-Ilan University. "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."
Kort was one of the first people philanthropist Stanley Black turned to when he spearheaded the formation of Los Angeles’ American ORT branch. ORT was a particularly sentimental cause for Kort — in pre-Holocaust Poland, Kort took electrical engineering courses at ORT’s Poznan school, which gave him the electrical skills that he used to survive World War II and in post-war Los Angeles.
"This is a tremendous loss for the Bar-Ilan family [and the community]," said Solomon, who added that Bar-Ilan President Moshe Kaveh flew in for Kort’s Sept. 9 funeral service at Hillside .
The Fred and Barbara Kort School of Languages Building is currently under construction at the Bar-Ilan’s Ramat Gan campus, and Kort was looking forward to celebrating its 2005 completion.
In May 2000, Kort, as the newly appointed West Coast chairman of American Society for Yad Vashem, introduced Righteous Gentiles Josef and Theresa Herinx-Pieter and Annie Schipper at a Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel event.
"Working closely with him," said Shaga Mekel, Yad Vashem’s director of development, from New York, "it was a shock to hear that he had passed away. He was so energetic."
Kort made the West Coast affiliate "a much more active chapter," she added. About 500 people attended the first West Coast gala at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in 2001, when Abraham Spiegel and Kort were honored.
"He was a larger-than-life man," said Cheryl Zoller, a friend of the Korts. "The community has lost a great pillar."
"America has been very good to me. My thanks is to give back to society," Kort explained of his philanthropic largess in a December 2000 interview with The Journal.
He was not raised Orthodox, "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.