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
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.
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.