Who Put the Heads on Pez? My Cousin Curt!

Who Put the Heads on Pez? My Cousin Curt!

One of my cousins is a pop culture icon. Or at least the source of one.

Many members of the Kornmehl family have been successful. We’ve got doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers, and writers in the clan, as well as a famous (on the East Coast) chocolatier.  But, as far as public recognition is concerned, no one holds a candle to Curt Allina. You may not know his name but you will recognize his accomplishment: Putting the heads on Pez candy dispensers.

His 2009 passing was remarked by Brian Williams on NBC News.

He also got a full page obituary in the New York Times, though it is far more about the Pez “character” dispensers — and why he is  the person responsible for distributing, if not necessarily creating, them –  than about his life.

Of that, the Times obit says:

Curtis Allina was born Aug. 15, 1922, in Prague, and raised in Vienna. Between 1941 and 1945, he and his family, Sephardic Jews, were forced into a series of concentration camps. Mr. Allina emerged at war’s end as his family’s sole survivor in Europe. Making his way to New York, he worked for a commercial meatpacker before joining Pez-Haas, as the company’s United States arm was then known, in 1953.

I’ll fill in a few blanks — and clarify a few things. It’s an amazing story.

From Vienna to Prague and Back

Curt Allina.png

Curt Allina

As I recently wrote in Rewriting My Childhood: A Tale of Mystery Relatives, the story begins with in Tarnow, Poland, with Aron Juda Kornmehl (b. 1852) and his wife, Rivka Spiegel (b. 1848). They had three children, Siegmund (b. 1875), Helena (b. 1887), and Mina (b. 1894), and moved to Vienna. I’m not sure in which order those events occurred.

I do know the family was in Vienna in 1899, when the oldest son, Siegmund, married my great aunt Anna Kornmehl. Anna was a distant cousin of Siegmund’s, which explains why they were both named Kornmehl.

Another Viennese wedding was celebrated in April 24, 1917, when Mina Kornmehl married Ervin Allina. Ervin was born to Sephardic Jewish parents — his mother was Anna Nalos Allina –  in what is now the Czech Republic. After they married, Ervin and Mina moved near Prague, where Ervin joined his four brothers in the banking business. Mina and Ervin had four children:  Gertrude (b. 1918), Hans/Jan (b. 1919), Curtis (b. 1922) and Erika (b. 1924).

Sadly, Ervin was a bit of a cad. After Erika was born, he went off to America, never to return.  

(Rule to live by: If your name is Mina, do not marry someone with the last name of Allina — or else keep your surname. Talk about adding insult to injury: Mina was stuck with a rhyming name along with bad feelings.)

Left without resources, Mina took the children from Prague to Vienna, where her brother Siegmund ran the Cafe Victoria. Siegmund and Anna also had four children, so they might not have been able to  provide as much financial help as they would have liked, but they apparently did their best.

I love this part: The Allina family moved to 18 Berggasse, which was right across the street from Sigmund Freud’s home and offices — and from one of their cousins’ butcher shops, on the building’s ground floor.  According to Curt’s Shoah testimony – from which much of this information is derived –  Curt and his friends would peer through the window into Freud’s consulting room, where they saw him smoking cigars and listening to the men and women occupying the famous couch.  They were only children, Curt is quick to point out.

To help make ends meet, Mina took in student boarders from the nearby University of Vienna. I wonder if they peered in at Freud, too.

Hans Allina

Jan Allina

Mina’s brother Siegmund died in 1935, and two years later Mina moved back to Prague with the children, Gertrude, Jan, Curt and Erika. The family was deported from Prague to Lodz in 1941.  In Lodz, Gertrude’s boyfriend was told to report for a work detail. Her brother Curt substituted himself so that his sister and her soon-to-be husband could remain together. Curt was sent to Posen and, from there, was deported to Auschwitz.  He managed to survive until liberation.

After the war, Curt went in search of his family. His mother and sister Erika had died in concentration camps and his brother had been shot by the Nazis but, he learned,  his sister Gertrude Allina Hoenigstein had survived.  When Curt went to Bergen-Belsen, her last known location, to be reunited with her, he discovered that she had died of typhus — after liberation, but before he could reach her.

A New Life — and a Ghost from the Past

Curt received permission to immigrate to the USA in 1947 but had to wait until the following year before he was finally able to secure passage on the SS Marina Tiger. He arrived in New York on March 23, 1948.  Imagine his shock: Awaiting him on the dock were his father — whom he did not know was alive — and his aunt Helena Kornmehl Neugasser. She had been living in New York with her husband and their two children since 1929. I don’t know how and when she reconnected with her brother-in-law, but would be very interested to learn.

For a while, Curt stayed with his father and his aunt Helena’s family in Brooklyn. Then he moved to the Catskills, where he met his first wife, Hanna Hoffman. At one point, he took a job stuffing sausage in a factory, making him yet another Kornmehl relative in the meat business — if only temporarily.

Which takes us to 1953, when he joined the Austrian-based Pez-Haas company. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a history that I confess I find very satisfying. A Jewish boy takes a middling company from Austria, where he grew up, and makes a vast success of it in America, having survived against the odds. So much for Aryan superiority.

 One thing that has puzzled me about the Times obituary: The statement that “[Curtis]and his family” were Sephardic Jews, when in fact Curt was raised by his Kornmehl mother and her relatives, all Eastern European Jews and therefore Ashkenazi.  Then it struck me: Perhaps the newspaper was trying to reconcile an Italian-sounding name, Allina, with his war experiences. Calling him a Sephardic Jew would be a good shorthand.

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10 Responses to Who Put the Heads on Pez? My Cousin Curt!

  1. Anna Redsand says:

    I so love your whole project, Edie, and can’t wait for it to come out in book form. What happened to Curt’s sister Gertrude is exactly what happened to Viktor Frankl’s first wife Tilly. She died in Bergen Belsen after liberation–so heartbreaking. Seventeen thousand of the 60,000 prisoners still living at liberation died as Gertrude and Tilly did.

    But Curt survived to make an iconic impact! What interests me (among other things) is how his relatives knew he was arriving in NY, when, and on what boat. It must mean that they were constantly watching survivor lists. What a difficult and mostly deeply disappointing task that had to have been. How people did that–watch the lists–is a story in itself.

    Thank you for what you are doing, Edie.
    Anna Redsand recently posted..Move #65My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for your very nice and encouraging words, Anna. I often feel overwhelmed by all this, and it’s a real help to know that others are interested.

      I didn’t know that about the typhus epidemic in Bergen Belsen — heartbreaking indeed.

      As for how the relatives knew Curt was arriving, I think there’s probably a simple answer: In addition to his aunt, he had two first cousins with whom he had grown up, Egon and Hetty, who were already in New York, in Hetty’s case before the war. I imagine he was in close communication with them. How his father reconnected with the family is the mystery… But I agree, watching passenger lists would be a fascinating story.

  2. Yep, the Pez title drew me in. But I’m also fascinated by the idea of Curt arriving in NY to find his father waiting for him.

    How many stories have we read or seen on film about sons unable to forgive their fathers for abandoning them? But layer the story against the Holocaust and I’d bet forgiveness comes much quicker.

    Another fascinating chapter. And I’m starting to wonder who you aren’t related to. Or if you have any boring relatives. )
    Pamela | Something Wagging This Way Comes recently posted..Find the Puppy – Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Actually, Curt didn’t forgive his father, according to his Shoah testimony. He was quite bitter. And it was precisely *because* of the Holocaust. If his father had sent for the family before the war or sponsored them during the war, he might have saved their lives. By the time Curt made it to New York, having survived on his own, he had no use for his father.

      I have plenty of boring relatives. I just don’t write about them. Of course, they might say the same about me… ;-)

  3. What a guy! I was most interested in the fact that he volunteered for work camp to help his sister and her boyfriend. And what’s with Kornmehl’s and sausage? Just can’t stay away from it, can they. No doubt that’s why he got into Pez–stuffing things into a tubular casing!

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Yes, I was very moved by that story too.

      Hey, he lived across the street from a butcher shop. Sausage was in his blood, as it were. But the Pez were already in the tubular cases; Curt only gilded the lily… I never did like the candy, but I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

  4. Jill Kornmehl says:

    Curt was one determined relative–he survived many camps and lost his entire family. His path to success in business was marked by the same determination and drive. His story is fascinating and you have done a great job in telling it. Who knew that yet another Kornmehl relative would surface that had that grand trio of associations–candy, meat and Freud. Now what would Freud have to say about that?

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Jill. Of course, you were the one who listened to the Shoah tapes and were generous enough to share your notes on them.

      I know — three cherries in Vegas slot machine parlance. Ding, ding, ding!

  5. Jana Last says:

    Edie,

    What a fascinating story!

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-june-14-2013.html

    Have a great weekend!
    Jana Last recently posted..Follow Friday ~ Fab Finds for June 14, 2013My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for your nice words, Jana — and thanks very much for including me in your wonderful Fab Finds post. I’m in great company!

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