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Concentration camp to poker hall of fame: The remarkable life of Henry Orenstein

Introduction of Transformers to the US also down to the late Polish toymaker

Henry Orenstein was born on October 13th, 1923 in Hrubieszow, Poland. He died from Covid-related complications in a hospital in Livingston, New Jersey on December 14th.

In the 98 years in between, he survived five concentration camps by passing himself off as a scientist, introduced America to the joy of toys called Transformers, made it into the Poker Hall of Fame having revolutionised the game as a televised sport, and sponsored the winning car at the Indianapolis 500 in the livery of a best-selling dinky called Johnny Lightning. He is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter, and a reputation for wringing every last drop out of life.

Deep into his 90s, he hosted an invite-only, high-stakes game of five-card stud in his apartment overlooking Central Park three days a week. The first hand was dealt at three in the afternoon, the last was supposed to be at 11pm. His eyesight was fading so he relied on the other sharks to honestly identify the cards in play. They wouldn’t lie to him because each knew too many stories of Orenstein’s charitable giving, his largesse extended to everybody from down on their luck card sharps to struggling Holocaust survivors.

The latter were family to him, of course, forever bound together by the horror of their shared experience. The Nazis took his parents to the Jewish cemetery in Hrubieszow, forced them to strip naked, shot them through the head and pushed their corpses into an empty pit.


He and his brothers spent years on the run, carrying a straight razor just in case they needed to slit their wrists to avoid further suffering at the hands of the Germans. A neighbour once secreted them in a false wall inside her house, where Henry passed the time reading a copy of Gone with the Wind that was missing the last 20 pages.

"I always remembered how regretful I was that I would never know what happened to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, " said Orenstein, "because I probably wouldn't survive the war."

Scientific background

Eventually, they ran out of food and places to hide, surrendered, and were sent to the camps. At Budzyn in the winter of 1944, things were looking particularly grim until the Germans went looking for prisoners from a scientific background for a so-called “Chemical Commando” squad charged with fashioning a gasoline to cripple the engines of the Allied forces.

Emaciated and weak, Orenstein brazenly signed himself and his brothers (one of whom did have a medical degree) up and they quickly discovered the Nazis in charge hadn’t a clue what they were doing and may have invented the entire operation to avoid being sent to the Russian front themselves.

Although one brother was later killed, the ruse got the Orensteins working inside rather than out in the snow and kept him and two of his siblings alive long enough to be liberated.

Within two years of the war ending, he sailed into New York, having spent the waiting period learning 2,000 English words so he could start work immediately. He lugged bales of cotton for 85 cents an hour, got a job in a grocery store, and as a canned food sales rep. Solid work until he came up with an idea for a best-selling children’s doll that became his entrée into the toy business, an arena where his creativity and imagination allowed his upstart Topper company to go toe-to-toe with the long-established Mattel until the early 70s.

A decade later, he happened upon an obscure toy car from Japan that could be turned into an airplane in a child’s hands. Knowing the president of the company that manufactured it, he convinced him this was a perfect opportunity to blend Japanese ingenuity with American marketing. He took the idea to Hasbro and convinced them an entire range of something called Transformers could be based upon this very simple premise. A billion dollar hunch.

“Ideas don’t come in little pieces,” he said of his eureka moment with Transformers. “It’s in, it’s out, it’s there. It’s like a sparkle. I was just an inventor. You needed a big company to do what I thought should be done: making real transformations from complex things to other complex things.”

Commercial potential

Hasbro listened to Orenstein because they knew he'd made millions from previous brainwaves like the Johnny Seven One Man Army toy gun, Betty the Beautiful Bride Doll and Johnny Lightning cars. This was a character who convinced Louis Armstrong to sing the jingle for a commercial touting his line of Suzy Cute dolls in 1964, and tapped into the early commercial potential of the fledgling Sesame Street to sell Walking Letters.

Late in life, he turned his innovative eye to poker, at which he became so skilled that he won the 1996 World Series seven-card stud tournament. At 73. Wanting the rest of the world to share his excitement for the game, he invented a table with tiny cameras underneath each player’s station and special non-glare glass to allow viewers at home to see the cards in play live. What was up to then a niche sport suddenly became a much more compelling spectacle and started to garner serious television ratings. Perhaps nobody did more to popularise it.

“The Nazis took away his childhood,” wrote Newsweek of Orenstein some years ago. “So, he taught the world how to play.”

A worthy epitaph.