Henry Orenstein, a Holocaust survivor who spotted the Japanese toy that would become the basis for Hasbro’s wildly successful Transformers line, died on Tuesday from COVID-19. The long-time Verona resident, who also transformed television coverage of poker tournaments, was 98.
Orenstein was born in Poland, and as obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post noted, barely survived the Nazi invasion and concentration camps that claimed the lives of his parents, a sister and a brother. Orenstein told the story of his time in the concentration camps in an autobiography, I Shall Live: Surviving Against All Odds.
After emigrating to the United States in 1947, Orenstein worked a variety of jobs in a variety of industries before landing in the toy business. In the 1950s, he founded Topper Corp., which created the Suzy Homemaker toy appliances and grew to be the fourth-largest toy company in the U.S. Despite its successes, Topper eventually landed in bankruptcy and Orenstein reinvented himself again, by spotting an obscure Japanese toy at the New York Toy Fair and convincing Hasbro that there was potential in a car that could turn into a robot.
Though Orenstein held many toy patents, it was his invention of a way to broadcast poker players’ hole cards that led to his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2008. Orenstein had become a competitive poker player in his 60s and won the 1996 World Series of Poker seven-card stud tournament, but thought that the way the game was televised was boring. PokerGoNews did this video on how Orenstein came to invent the hole card camera.
Orenstein’s life and accomplishments were chronicled in many publications over the years, but a 2016 Newsweek cover story may have captured them best, saying, “The Nazis took away his childhood, [so he] taught the world how to play.”
Orenstein is survived by his wife, Susie; his son, Mark; and daughter, Annette.