April 13, 1998

Everything in History Was Against Them

Fred Kort

Los Angeles
Chairman, Imperial Toy Corp.

Carol J. Loomis

Fred Kort

He's 74 now and has hair that spikes from his forehead as if it were exhibiting surprise at having made it this far. That image fits Fred Kort's life: At Treblinka, the Nazis' killing camp in north-central Poland, somewhere between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews were exterminated, and only nine are believed to have survived. Kort is one of the nine.

Before Treblinka, the youth then called Manfred endured the Holocaust as most of its survivors did, fleeing and barely subsisting. The son of a hard-up Polish Jew who lived in Germany, he was pushed with his family into Poland and then, as the Germans overran that country in September 1939, into a succession of mean ghettos and work camps. Once, when he was 17, he turned small-time entrepreneur, sneaking out of the Warsaw ghetto, risking capture and probable death each trip, to sell baking powder, cinnamon, and other spices on the streets. "When you're young," he says, "you think you're invincible."

He abandoned such thoughts in July 1943, when the Germans summarily collected Kort and 2,000 other Jews and packed them into cattle cars headed for Treblinka. The train crawled for two days, and people perished. Those who didn't were shoved into a selection process aimed at sending around 300 of the strongest to the work camp called Treblinka 1 and the rest to the gas chambers of Treblinka 2. From the grass on which all the Jews huddled, one man rose to plead for the work camp and was immediately shot. Kort nonetheless also rose and in German said rapidly that he was an electrician--true, sort of, since he'd been an apprentice before the war--and could be useful. A German raised his gun. He then waved Kort to the work group.

Kort skinned by for about a year, mainly doing water-carrying duty that got him food from the guards' kitchen. Then one day in July 1944, the Jews in Treblinka 1--about 550 at that point--heard the guns of the advancing Russian army. To them the sound was ominous, because they felt sure their German captors would not let them live to broadcast the story of Treblinka 2's exterminations. On a Sunday morning, July 23, 1944, guards burst into Kort's barracks with a rough command: "Lie down wherever you are." Instead, Kort ran, climbing out a barracks window and hiding in a storage shed.

Guards searched the shed but did not find him. He hid there until nighttime, repeatedly hearing gunfire that he assumed, correctly, meant that Jews were being shot.

And then--we know this scene from fiction, except that this was not--Kort covertly watched the guards patrolling the camp's three rings of fences, discovering that their rounds were at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes. When the moment seemed right, he took a spade and ran for the fences, there finding the ground so softened by rain that he could dig under them easily. As he crossed a corn field outside the fences, sentries in the camp's towers tried to shoot him down, but he zigzagged into woods just beyond. He walked all that night and in the morning discovered that he must have gone in a circle, because he had returned to the camp's edge and to mass graves that held the hundreds of Jews murdered on the previous day.

Hitler's Europe 1942

Shortly, Kort joined up with members of the Polish underground. But Jews were unwelcome there, and within days he risked crossing into Russian-held territory, his hands high as he entreated: "Don't shoot, comrades. I'm a Jew." Russian troops interrogated him for ten days before finally accepting his Treblinka story as true.

Later, Kort entered the official Polish army, then reconstituting itself, and in a battle caught a piece of shrapnel from a German shell. A far deeper wound: His father, his brother, and 60 relatives died in the Holocaust.

Fred Kort, then 24, arrived in the U.S. in 1947 with a nickel. On the boat that carried him, he used the English he'd begun to learn in postwar Europe to ask a sailor what American money was like--and got not just a look but a coin to keep. Beyond the nickel, though, Kort had some resources, because he was under the wing of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee--called the Joint by all who knew it. The Joint put him up in a modest Manhattan hotel, and soon he got a job at Bendix Corp. and entered night school.

Still exploiting those electrical skills, Kort next landed a job at General Electric and in time wangled a transfer to California. Leaving GE, he went to work for Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel as an electrician. On one fateful day, he was called to a guest's room to fix a desk lamp. Engaging Kort in conversation, the guest, Martin Feder, said he was planning to open a toy factory and wondered if Kort knew anybody he might hire. "How about me?" Kort asked, in a question that would chart the rest of his career.

Over the next 20 years he worked for Feder, who specialized in producing the bubble-blowing kits that we all used as kids; started, and folded, a bubbles company of his own; and served as a manufacturers' rep for other toy manufacturers, proving to be a master salesman who could have sold jump ropes to snails. As a rep, he made good money. So he was ready to march when by chance he came upon a tiny, hard-rubber, high-bouncing ball that hadn't been pushed in the market. In 1969, Kort took this irrepressible bit, the Teeny Bouncer, and $50,000 and, with a partner, set up Imperial Toy Corp.

Today the partner's gone, but the original Teeny Bouncer is still a big seller in Imperial's huge line of 880 toys. Most of the items are the year-round, very basic, $1.99-to-$4.99 stuff of everyone's childhood--jacks, marbles, balloons, paddle balls, water guns, rubber snakes, and, yes, bubble kits, of which Imperial is the world's largest producer. Imperial's 1997 sales were just over $100 million, which makes the company a midget compared to Mattel and Hasbro but a steady, important force in an industry teeming with smaller, trend-riding companies. Kort says with particular pride that Imperial has never had "a losing year." That applies even to 1997, though the importance of money in that year was dwarfed by a disaster: a November explosion in Imperial's Los Angeles headquarters (linked to roll caps sold by the company) that killed four factory employees and injured several others.

That tragedy punctured Kort's natural ebullience, but not much else does. From an office decorated in purple--and with that hair going boing!--he runs his business as if he expects to be there forever, which he pretty much does. His son Jordan, one of three sons who work with him and try to match his pace, says his father has "this drive, this incredible drive."

Since the war, Kort has testified in four war-crimes trials and has sketched, from memory, a detailed map of Treblinka 1 that is now at Washington's Holocaust museum. But Kort is in no way locked into the memories of the past. Deeply aware that America has been good to him, he is instead propelled by the thought that he'd just better bounce out there and "do more."

Quelle: Fortune, 13.4.98

Press Release

August 7, 1997

100 Chinese Students to Study at Bar-Ilan University

Los Angeles Businessman Fred Kort
to Subvent the New Post-Doctoral Program

Ramat Gan -- Academic and scientific ties between Chinese universities and higher education in Israel are about to take a giant step forward. Bar-Ilan University is to absorb 100 Chinese post-doctoral students in the arts and sciences over the coming years. The program has been made possible by a special scholarship fund established at Bar-Ilan University this week by Fred and Barbara Kort of Los Angeles.

The Chinese students each will spend one to two years conducting research in one of Bar-Ilan University's 68 research centers and 38 departments. The university hopes, in particular, to attract top-flight Chinese researchers in physics, bio-chemistry, mathematics, social sciences and even Jewish studies. The students, who will begin arriving later this academic year, undertake to return to China upon completion of their fellowship in Israel.

"China is opening up to the broader world, and we have discovered that there's a very high level indeed of scientific research underway in their institutions of higher learning," said Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Moshe Kaveh, in announcing the establishment of the fellowship program. "On a recent visit to China, we signed five research cooperation agreements with Chinese institutions. I'm convinced that our scientists and graduate students will be enriched by the interface with top-level Chinese post-doctoral researchers," added Prof. Kaveh.

Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Moshe Kaveh (left), with U.S. businessman Fred Kort and Chinese Ambassador to Israel, Wang Changyi, upon finalizing the pact which will bring 100 Chinese post-doctoral students to study at Bar-Ilan University.
Credit: Meshulam Levy
Israel Ambassador to Beijing Ora Namir today commended Bar-Ilan University on the breakthrough. "Profound congratulations on this welcome initiative. I'm convinced that this program will serve to strengthen the diplomatic, cultural and scientific ties between the two countries."

Fred Kort is one of only nine Jews to have survived the Treblinka concentration camp, and today is a well-known philanthropic supporter of Yad Vashem, the Shoah Foundation, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Anti-Defamation League and Israel Bonds. He is known on the West Coast of the United States as the "Bubble King" because of the small bottles of bubbles his Imperial Toy Company manufactures for kids. The Company employs over 1,000 people in its Hong Kong, Mexico and U.S. manufacturing facilities.

"We Jews share one thing in common with the Chinese -- a deep appreciation of history and heritage," said Fred Kort earlier today. "Bar-Ilan University, much like the Chinese, seeks to blend tradition with modern science, and I'm convinced that the match-up I'm sponsoring will prove to be a boon for the scientific development of both countries."

"As a native of China, I am personally moved by this initiative," Barbara Kort told the Chinese ambassador to Israel. "We are two unique peoples, with great futures ahead of us," she said.

Quelle: Pressemitteilung der Bar-Ilan-Universität, Ramat-Gan (Israel) vom 7.8.1997