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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 30th December 2016 > THE MAN WHO TAUGHT AMERICA TO PLAY

THE MAN WHO TAUGHT AMERICA TO PLAY

THE NAZIS KILLED HIS PARENTS, AND THREE YEARS IN A CONCENTRATION CAMPS ALMOST KILLED HIS SPIRIT, BUT WHEN HENRY ORENSTEIN CREATED SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR TOYS, HE PROVED THAT PLAYING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE

HENRY ORENSTEIN was standing outside his concentration camp barracks, shivering, when the amplified voice of his salvation cut through the frigid air: “All Jewish scientists, engineers, inventors, chemists and mathematicians must register immediately.” It was January 1944, and his fellow prisoners were suffering and dying all around him—beaten during morning roll call for standing half a step out of line; hanged for trying to escape; shot in the head just because. Orenstein had just endured the latest perverse humiliation perpetrated by the SS guards, who had chased 400 wet, naked prisoners from the shower house out into the snow, then pummelled the frozen men as they climbed back inside, one by one, through a small window.

The voice blared out again: “All Jewish scientists, engineers, inventors, chemists and mathematicians must register immediately.”

What could this mean? Orenstein had heard rumors of evacuations and mass liquidations. What were the Nazis planning to do with these highly educated Jews? Experiment on them? Kill them first? He and his siblings (three brothers and a sister) were prisoners at Budzyn, a German labor camp near Krasnik, Poland, and he’d kept himself alive in the years leading up to the war by making insane, desperate bets on the kindness of strangers—sleeping in fields, hiding in empty oil drums—and trusting his sharp instincts. Once, Henry had been caught by the Nazis and was being marched toward an execution pit when he shoved his watch and all his cash into the hands of a Ukrainian police officer, then sprinted down a side street, wondering with every stride if that officer was going to shoot him in the back.

After being interned by the Nazis, the Orensteins had lived in crowded barracks teeming with fleas and lice. They’d worked outside in numbing temperatures, wearing just thin pants and tops, and were nourished by only meager scraps of bread and soup that was little more than leaves and twigs boiled in water. Henry knew that their survival thus far had largely been a matter of luck, and that theirs couldn’t last much longer, so when he heard those words a second time—“All Jewish scientists, engineers, inventors, chemists and mathematicians must register immediately”—he once again gambled with his life, with all their lives.

He walked straight to the office of the prisoner in charge of the camp administration and declared that he, his brothers and his sister were all scientists and mathematicians.

When his siblings found out what he had done, they were horrified. Fred was a doctor and Felix had studied medicine for a couple of years, but Sam was a lawyer, and Henry and Hanka hadn’t even been to college. The Nazis would surely kill them all when they discovered that Henry had lied.

“IN POLAND, THE PENALTY FOR HIDING JEWS WAS IMMEDIATE DEATH FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY.”

Henry didn’t care—he figured the Germans would treat their “intellectuals” better than the other prisoners, and that even a few days of decent work conditions and food meant they’d be able to live just a little while longer. Even if his insane gamble only bought them one more day, it was worth it. He’d worry about tomorrow when it came, if it came.

He did not know then that this special group of Jewish prisoners would be charged with building a superweapon to save the Third Reich. Nor could he have imagined that the entire operation was a hoax. But he was right about one thing: Signing up for this so-called Chemiker Kommando saved his life. It was one of the many risks he took to survive the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II, and it would shape his extraordinary life over the next 60 years. The boy whose teen and young-adult years were ripped from him by the murderous Nazi rampage through Europe would show millions of children and adults how to play, how to squeeze more fun out of their lives.

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About Newsweek International

Henry Orenstein fought adversity throughout his life, however, he saw the potential in a Toy that others didn't. Not only did Transform from vehicle to robot, they also transformed Henry's life. Read inside the full story, there is more than meets the eye...
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