From Australia’s Jewish past: Johanna, George and Judit Korner – a family international beauty business

September 26, 2023 by Features Desk
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Johanna was born on 21 July 1891 at Fogaras, Hungary (Romania) to Alfred Adler, a photographer, and his wife Helena.

Judit Korner

Following in the footsteps of an aunt, Johanna trained as a beautician in Paris, Vienna and Berlin and was known as a leader in the beauty industry in Europe.  She married lawyer and bridge master Jeno (Eugene) Korner on 3 November 1916 in Brașov, Romania.  The children were brought up in a cultured household during the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1936, Johanna was running one of a number of family-owned beauty salons in Budapest.  Her son George Gabriel –  a cosmetic chemist –  was already involved in the business.   With the onslaught of the Second World War and Hungary being an ally of Germany, Johanna’s husband was forced into a Jewish labour battalion and sent to the Russian front.  He survived the German retreat from Moscow and made his way back to Budapest and rejoined the family after the war, as did Geroge, who had also managed to survive.  By 1943, the family had fled to France, and Johanna – in the name of Madame Korner – had established a business in the Place Pigalle and George and his sister Magda lived with their parents in Paris.  George and his married sister had moved to Australia by 1951 and, Johanna who had thought about moving her business to Beirut, was encouraged by George to join the children in Sydney, arriving in September 1955.

George’s first job in Sydney was as a labourer in the Dalgety wool stores. While there, he devised a grading system that continued to be used well into the 1980s.  He also established a business around the waste trimmings from sheepskins sent to Europe, rented a tanning plant in the inner-western suburbs, working on weekends loading the trimmings into the plant’s tanning vats. He skimmed the wool off the acid bath and baled it for sale to foreign markets.  He then moved on to a by-product of wool – Australian lanolin.  At this time, the wool scouring companies almost gave away the raw lanolin to British processors for reshipment back to Australia as a women’s skin care product at the cost of ten shillings a jar. George knew that he could refine the product in Sydney and set up a business, and sold lanolin for half the price.  He had labelled the produced “Genuine Australian Lanolin” but it wasn’t a good seller without an expensive price tag and therefore solved the problem by lifting the price to fifteen shillings.  His company set up to manufacture lanolin, eventually becoming part of the core of Marrickville Holdings, the margarine manufacturer and, at one stage, on of Australia’s major manufacturing companies.

From there, George, with the help of a strict exercise campaign and his love for life spirit, acquired a reputation as a playboy, but by day, was working seriously in having set up a business in his mother’s name and the first Madame Korner Beauty Salon opened in the fashionable St James Building, Elizabeth Street, Sydney, in 1953. Although David Jones’s department store had hosted an Elizabeth Arden salon from 1936 and regularly had visits from overseas experts in the use of cosmetics, Australian women knew little of skin-nourishing creams or beauty treatments.  Early clients were from European backgrounds and were soon joined by Australian-born women – all of whom were keen to be introduced to skin care products other than the soap and water that had been used previously.

The Madame Korner Beauty Salon continued to grow and prosper with more salons opening across Sydney. In 1954, George opened a beauty training school to teach his mother’s methods, and in 1956, he launched the Madame Korner Skin Care range of products for use in professional salons and at home.  The beauty school curriculum was Johanna’s philosophical and ethical ideas, believing that beauty could be achieved with thoroughness and patience and that all clients should be treated with the same respect and given the same service.   Her students were instructed to be honest with clients, to avoid making promises to clients, to develop a thorough knowledge of cosmetology, to believe in the profession sincerely and to practise it conscientiously.

Eugene died on 4 March 1965 in Sydney.  Johanna died from the effects of barbiturate and bromine poisoning, self-administered, on 30 March 1969 at her home at Double Bay.  In 1987, George established a student scholarship at Sydney Technical College in his mother’s memory.  George had married a student beautician, Judit Botta, who was almost thirty years his junior, and they had three daughters, all of whom had been involved with their mother in continuing the Madame Korner Beauty Salons.   Judit has been acknowledged as one of Australia’s premiere businesswomen.  One of her greatest achievements has been in her efforts to draw attention to the life-threatening effects of the sun’s rays on the skin.

George passed away in 1985 at the age of seventy-seven.  The last salon in Pyrmont closed its doors in 2002 and two of her three daughters continued to run online sales for the range.  The third daughter lives in London and manages the Korner Skincare products – an affiliated brand.

One lovely story quoted by Judit was included in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald – 16 September 2002 – ”The week we closed, one of our clients came in and said she had first come in to have her eyelashes and eyebrows done for her wedding and that, tomorrow, she would celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary.”  She also said that ‘’I feel Madame Korner has helped in building the message of caring for your skin by avoiding the sun,” Mrs Korner said.

An extract from a further article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 24 December 2011 by Emily Dunn is as follows:-

‘’Fifty years ago, beauty treatments were an indulgence reserved for the idle rich.

Elegant women, toting crocodile skin handbags and wearing strings of pearls, would visit the Madame Korner salons in Elizabeth Street or the Chevron Hilton Hotel for regular facials, manicures and personal grooming sessions, surfacing just in time for lunch.

”The people who visited the first salon in the St James building used to come in with hats and gloves and stockings. Now people come on their bicycles and wearing thongs.

Thirty years ago, the average woman wouldn’t have had a manicure. It was something you had to tell them about. These days, everyone has their nails done.” retiring proprietor Judit Korner said. 

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story:-

Australian Dictionary of Biography – Rachel Grahame; various articles in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia that might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or

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