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Obituary of Alicia Kornitzer Karpati: Holocaust survivor, businesswoman

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 24, 2010 - Alicia Kornitzer Karpati, who built a successful business in the United States with the skin-care formulas she had developed and protected as she and her family escaped the strife of the 1956 Hungarian revolt, died Friday following a long illness. She was 92.

For the past two decades, Mrs. Karpati had made her home in Palm Beach, Fla., and with her daughter, Noemi Neidorff, in St. Louis. Before that, she had lived and worked much of her life in New Jersey, minutes from the Statue of Liberty that had welcomed her and her husband and their 8-year-old daughter to America. They arrived in the United States in 1957, just months after escaping from the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary.

Mrs. Karpati was born in Hungary on Oct. 18, 1917. Before World War II, she and her family moved to Budapest, where she studied with one of Eastern Europe's leading dermatologists, Dr. Tibor Haller. She later collaborated with Haller in the formulation of some of her complexion care products. After the war, she worked as a doctor's assistant at the Budapest medical center.

The Courage to Survive

In 1946, she married George Karpati, who headed one of Hungary's leading textile import-export businesses, Karpati, Foldes and Co. One of the company's customers included renowned composer Bela Bartok. 

Mrs. Karpati, too, had been a customer. Eleven years his junior, she became George Karpati's second wife. His first wife, Beatrice, and their young son, Peter, had died at Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp. He had survived Mauthausen concentration camp and returned alone to rebuild his successful business.

Mrs. Karpati was never in a concentration camp, but she, too, was a Holocaust survivor -- and a Holocaust heroine. She assumed a new identity -- Eva Gal -- and refused to wear the yellow Star of David, without which known Jews were killed. She used her obscured identity to scrounge for food in the streets of Budapest and to rescue and hide family members during the Nazi occupation.

She continued to work at the medical center after she married. In 1954, she opened her own cosmetics business.

"My mother always wanted to work," said Noemi Neidorff, Mrs. Karpati's only child. "She said she needed a profession because the country was unstable."

Hungary wasn't merely unstable. It was under siege. The communists quickly crushed the rebellion and the Karpatis' company was one of the casualties of the war.

Mrs. Karpati and her family were among more than 200,000 Hungarians who fled for their lives.

Walking To Freedom

They purchased false identifications and paid expensive bribes to secure their escape. When stopped by Russian and Hungarian soldiers, the family members pretended to be en route to a peasant wedding. They were traveling in the back of a wagon driven by a drunken farmer who took them directly into Russian territory. There they were caught and threatened with deportation to Siberia.

"By a miracle of God and my mother, we convinced the head of the police station to let us go back home with the promise to never try to escape again," Neidorff said.

They returned to their beautiful home, now a mere facade of prosperity. George Karpati's company had been seized and his spirit broken.

"Mom came home one day and he was slumped over his desk with his head buried in his hands, repeating, 'It's over, we've lost everything'," Neidorff remembered. "She put her arms around him and said, 'We have each other. We have Nolcha (Neidorff's nickname). We have everything. We will build again.'

"She was so strong. She gave him back his life," Neidorff said.

One week after their capture, on December 16, the Karpatis broke their coerced promise and made their second and final escape from Hungary, slogging through the bitter cold ice and snow a day and a night to reach Austria.

With another family of three -- a father, mother and little boy -- the Karpatis fought the cold, hunger and fear of capture. George Karpati carried his daughter until he was exhausted. Mrs. Karpati insisted he let her walk to preserve his energy and prevent frostbite. Neidorff said years later, her mother would recount how she had prodded her daughter to help keep her alive.

"She told me," Neidorff said, crying at the memory of her mother's pain, "If you don't pick up your feet and start to walk, I'll leave you here."

They traveled light, taking only two knapsacks that included a flask of whiskey for thirst and warmth. But hidden inside one bag was the family's future: Alicia Karpati's formulas for her skin-care products.

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Coming to America

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The family stayed in Austria for a couple of weeks, then, with formulas in hand, the Karpatis immigrated to the United States. Ten months after arriving, they reopened Alicia Karpati Cosmetics, Inc. in New Jersey.

They opened their first retail store in Scotch Plains, N.J., and later opened a larger store in Westfield. Her husband handled the business and she handled the product, marketing it to several pharmacies.

A 1972 print ad, which featured a picture of Mrs. Karpati, exemplified her marketing acumen and her humor. The headline read: "Vote for my light make-up -- works for Republicans and Democrats."

"She was a walking ad for her product," Niedorff said. "She worked morning noon and night."

The company was the recipient of medals in the Monde Selection international competition for quality products.

Mrs. Karpati worked with ghostwriters on two books: "Awaken Your Sleeping Beauty," a book on complexion care published in 1967, and "Walking in the Shadow of Tyranny: A Memoir," published in 2003.

Mrs. Karpati and her husband created the Drew University endowment for the Bela Kornitzer Award, in honor of her brother's achievements as a noted journalist, author and historian in Hungary and the U.S. In 1991, they also donated the archives of her brother's work to the Drew University Library. In 2007, in keeping with Mrs. Karpati's wishes to honor her husband, Niedorff and her husband, Michael, established the George Karpati Lectureship endowment at Drew University to enable the library to host notable authors and scholars from the fields of Holocaust and Jewish studies and Eastern European history.

In addition to her husband, who died in 1992, and her brother, Mrs. Karpati was preceded in death by her parents, Maria and Solomon Kornitzer.

In addition to her daughter and son-in-law, both of St. Louis, she is survived by two grandchildren, Monica Neidorff and Peter Neidorff of St. Louis.

Services were held Sunday, March 21.

Memorial contributions preferred to the Wellness Community, 1058 Old Des Peres Road, St. Louis, MO 63131, or the Leukemia Research Fund, Washington University School of Medicine, Siteman Cancer Center, 660 South Euclid Ave., Campus Box 8109, St. Louis, MO 63110.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter forAfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

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