Everything In History Was Against Them What did it take to survive the Holocaust's death camps and start over with little or nothing in a strange land--and then build enough wealth to give away millions? What it took, these men had.
By Carol J. Loomis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Success stories have warmed the pages of this magazine since its founding nearly 70 years ago. But the accounts of large achievement that follow are unlike any FORTUNE has printed before or will see replicated, no matter how often opportunity and enterprise join. These are the stories of five Jews who survived the Holocaust, came to the U.S. penniless or close to it, and built fortunes.

We found these stories on a granite wall at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The wall holds the names of 106 "founders"--most of them married couples or families--who gave at least $1 million to the museum. Included in the list are about 20 people who are Holocaust survivors in the sense that they were there, on Europe's soil, when Hitler's Final Solution was taking terrible form. Some in that group, however, fled just in time, and others assumed a non-Jewish identity during the war, gaining sanctuary, say, with Catholic or Protestant families. But amazingly, a handful of those whose names are on the wall actually experienced the most awful horrors of the Holocaust, enduring a Nazi death camp or a concentration camp or one of the ghettos that were essentially holding pens for those camps. The five you will read about here lived through such hell. They are Holocaust survivors in the most rigorous sense.

And then, picking themselves up from the very cruelest of circumstances, they traveled to America and prospered as businessmen. They did it, to borrow a phrase from Elie Wiesel, when everything in history was against them.

Surely they were helped by what one of the five calls "the natural optimism of youth"--they were all teenagers or younger when World War II began. But then they were stripped. They were robbed of six years of simply being young and of as many years of education. They were deprived of liberty and shorn of dignity. All lost relatives, and most lost one or both parents. Each of the five was forced to live constantly with the threat of death and the knowledge that next time he might be "thumbed" not into a line of prisoners allowed to live, but into another line headed for the gas chambers. Every survivor of the Holocaust knows the randomness of it all and has faced the question of why he, or she, lived when nearly six million other Jews died. If there are no answers to that question, there is at least a Jewish explanation: "Somebody had to live to tell the story."

That, then, was Part One of their journeys. Part Two was naturally marked with some residues. Coming to the U.S. in the immediate postwar years, most of these young men had little English and less money. They lacked friends and mentors and the familiarities of family and home. They reached, nonetheless, into unfathomably deep pools of resilience and found the drive to succeed.

That is the American dream in action, of course, and they themselves speak with enormous gratitude of what the U.S. allowed them to do. But many millions who were unencumbered by the heavy, exhausting baggage of the Holocaust had the same opportunities and never reached out to seize them as these men did.

Their names? They are well known to fundraisers because each of the five, in the Jewish tradition, has been broadly generous. But only one of this group, Jack Tramiel, a pioneer in the computer business and still a resident of Silicon Valley, has a name of some national renown. The others, representing industries as diverse as toys and medical equipment, are Fred Kort, Nathan Shapell, and Sigi Ziering, all of Los Angeles, and William Konar of Rochester, N.Y.

All five have Polish roots (and most today retain the accent that turns English's "ing" into "ink," as in "givink"). More to the point, all five were, are, and forever will be entrepreneurs. True, two made their money in publicly owned companies and two others had brushes (not happy) with public ownership. But in spirit and heart, all five have been creative, independent, invincibly entrepreneurial souls. Frederick Frank, a Lehman Bros. investment banker who knows two of the men, Shapell and Ziering, describes both as having "a passion for what they do"--and that will serve as a bright ribbon of description to tie around the other three as well.


He's 74 now and has hair that spikes from his forehead as if it were exhibiting surprise at having made it this far. That image fits Fred Kort's life: At Treblinka, the Nazis' killing camp in north-central Poland, somewhere between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews were exterminated, and only nine are believed to have survived. Kort is one of the nine.

Before Treblinka, the youth then called Manfred endured the Holocaust as most of its survivors did, fleeing and barely subsisting. The son of a hard-up Polish Jew who lived in Germany, he was pushed with his family into Poland and then, as the Germans overran that country in September 1939, into a succession of mean ghettos and work camps. Once, when he was 17, he turned small-time entrepreneur, sneaking out of the Warsaw ghetto, risking capture and probable death each trip, to sell baking powder, cinnamon, and other spices on the streets. "When you're young," he says, "you think you're invincible."

He abandoned such thoughts in July 1943, when the Germans summarily collected Kort and 2,000 other Jews and packed them into cattle cars headed for Treblinka. The train crawled for two days, and people perished. Those who didn't were shoved into a selection process aimed at sending around 300 of the strongest to the work camp called Treblinka 1 and the rest to the gas chambers of Treblinka 2. From the grass on which all the Jews huddled, one man rose to plead for the work camp and was immediately shot. Kort nonetheless also rose and in German said rapidly that he was an electrician--true, sort of, since he'd been an apprentice before the war--and could be useful. A German raised his gun. He then waved Kort to the work group.

Kort skinned by for about a year, mainly doing water-carrying duty that got him food from the guards' kitchen. Then one day in July 1944, the Jews in Treblinka 1--about 550 at that point--heard the guns of the advancing Russian army. To them the sound was ominous, because they felt sure their German captors would not let them live to broadcast the story of Treblinka 2's exterminations. On a Sunday morning, July 23, 1944, guards burst into Kort's barracks with a rough command: "Lie down wherever you are." Instead, Kort ran, climbing out a barracks window and hiding in a storage shed.

Guards searched the shed but did not find him. He hid there until nighttime, repeatedly hearing gunfire that he assumed, correctly, meant that Jews were being shot.

And then--we know this scene from fiction, except that this was not--Kort covertly watched the guards patrolling the camp's three rings of fences, discovering that their rounds were at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes. When the moment seemed right, he took a spade and ran for the fences, there finding the ground so softened by rain that he could dig under them easily. As he crossed a corn field outside the fences, sentries in the camp's towers tried to shoot him down, but he zigzagged into woods just beyond. He walked all that night and in the morning discovered that he must have gone in a circle, because he had returned to the camp's edge and to mass graves that held the hundreds of Jews murdered on the previous day.

Shortly, Kort joined up with members of the Polish underground. But Jews were unwelcome there, and within days he risked crossing into Russian-held territory, his hands high as he entreated: "Don't shoot, comrades. I'm a Jew." Russian troops interrogated him for ten days before finally accepting his Treblinka story as true.

Later, Kort entered the official Polish army, then reconstituting itself, and in a battle caught a piece of shrapnel from a German shell. A far deeper wound: His father, his brother, and 60 relatives died in the Holocaust.

Fred Kort, then 24, arrived in the U.S. in 1947 with a nickel. On the boat that carried him, he used the English he'd begun to learn in postwar Europe to ask a sailor what American money was like--and got not just a look but a coin to keep. Beyond the nickel, though, Kort had some resources, because he was under the wing of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee--called the Joint by all who knew it. The Joint put him up in a modest Manhattan hotel, and soon he got a job at Bendix Corp. and entered night school.

Still exploiting those electrical skills, Kort next landed a job at General Electric and in time wangled a transfer to California. Leaving GE, he went to work for Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel as an electrician. On one fateful day, he was called to a guest's room to fix a desk lamp. Engaging Kort in conversation, the guest, Martin Feder, said he was planning to open a toy factory and wondered if Kort knew anybody he might hire. "How about me?" Kort asked, in a question that would chart the rest of his career.

Over the next 20 years he worked for Feder, who specialized in producing the bubble-blowing kits that we all used as kids; started, and folded, a bubbles company of his own; and served as a manufacturers' rep for other toy manufacturers, proving to be a master salesman who could have sold jump ropes to snails. As a rep, he made good money. So he was ready to march when by chance he came upon a tiny, hard-rubber, high-bouncing ball that hadn't been pushed in the market. In 1969, Kort took this irrepressible bit, the Teeny Bouncer, and $50,000 and, with a partner, set up Imperial Toy Corp.

Today the partner's gone, but the original Teeny Bouncer is still a big seller in Imperial's huge line of 880 toys. Most of the items are the year-round, very basic, $1.99-to-$4.99 stuff of everyone's childhood--jacks, marbles, balloons, paddle balls, water guns, rubber snakes, and, yes, bubble kits, of which Imperial is the world's largest producer. Imperial's 1997 sales were just over $100 million, which makes the company a midget compared to Mattel and Hasbro but a steady, important force in an industry teeming with smaller, trend-riding companies. Kort says with particular pride that Imperial has never had "a losing year." That applies even to 1997, though the importance of money in that year was dwarfed by a disaster: a November explosion in Imperial's Los Angeles headquarters (linked to roll caps sold by the company) that killed four factory employees and injured several others.

That tragedy punctured Kort's natural ebullience, but not much else does. From an office decorated in purple--and with that hair going boing!--he runs his business as if he expects to be there forever, which he pretty much does. His son Jordan, one of three sons who work with him and try to match his pace, says his father has "this drive, this incredible drive."

Since the war, Kort has testified in four war-crimes trials and has sketched, from memory, a detailed map of Treblinka 1 that is now at Washington's Holocaust museum. But Kort is in no way locked into the memories of the past. Deeply aware that America has been good to him, he is instead propelled by the thought that he'd just better bounce out there and "do more."


Nathan Shapell's history illustrates two truths about the Holocaust. First, by sharp and courageous use of his wits, a Jew could often greatly improve his chances of surviving. Second, in the end he practically always needed luck as well.

Now 76, Shapell (originally named Schapelski) was the youngest of five children in a family that lived in the western Poland city of Sosnowiec. After the Nazis invaded Poland, though, the father and two of his children scattered, leaving Nathan, then still in his teens, the only male in a household of four. Growing up quickly, he got decent work in the city's sanitation department and also gained the favor of certain German officials by managing to get them scarcities such as textiles and meat. For nearly three years Shapell's standing with these Germans not only kept his family safe but also allowed him repeatedly to help other Jews.

In the summer of 1942, however, Shapell's mother and hundreds of other Sosnowiec Jews were rounded up and incarcerated in a part of the city called Targowa. Frantic but able once more to tap the help of his Germans, Nathan got past Targowa's guards on the pretense that he was going in to survey the sanitation needs of the area. Making his way through crowds of desperate Jews, he finally found his mother, gave her food, and promised her help.

But he also realized that the sanitation arm band he wore might be the key to more rescues. Later that day he told the authorities that Targowa's sanitation needs were large, and secured permission to go into the area at least daily with a small crew. Over the next few days, he and his men entered just before a shift change for the guards, with each member of his crew wearing a sanitation arm band--and with a few more arm bands stuffed into Shapell's pocket. These he gave to male prisoners, who each day exited, trying to appear nonchalant, with the crews and their refuse-loaded carts. The discovery of this ruse would almost certainly have meant death for all concerned, but the guards on the new shifts never caught on.

Next Shapell focused on the huge pots of soup that were each day carried into Targowa and later taken out empty. Shapell and his men instead filled them up with small children (warned to total silence) and then boldly carried out the pots, as if they were simply helping with the day's chores. A half-dozen or so children, most thrust at the men by their parents, were rescued that way and released outside the gate. One, a small girl of 5 or 6, looked up from the street where Shapell had set her and said, "Where shall I go?" He answered, "Child, I don't know. Run, run." As he tried to talk about that moment recently, Shapell broke down, unable to finish.

In a week of arm bands and soup pots, Shapell did not manage to rescue his mother. He finally succeeded, though, on a chaotic day in which the Germans encircled all of Targowa's Jews with a gigantic noose of rope and prepared to load them up for transport. Shapell's mother escaped because Nathan, talking his way into Targowa, found her and made her lie down on a pile of dead bodies. He then contrived to get the job of removing the bodies for disposal and got his mother to safety.

By the summer of 1943, though, the Nazis' vicious campaign to make Europe Judenrein--free of Jews--had wrenched the family apart and sent each of its members to a work camp or a concentration camp. The hellhole of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Nathan's lot, but there his youth and relative vigor got him thumbed into a line of people to work, not die. He was then tattooed with the number he still wears: 134138.

In the nearly two years of captivity, hunger, and oppression that followed, he continued to be sustained by wits, guts, and a steely resolve to survive. He smuggled food out of kitchens, hid when exposure would have meant death, and got himself classified as a carpenter though he could barely drive a nail. But there was a moment near war's end, at a work site called Gintergruber, when nothing else counted but luck. One day a prisoner in his work crew escaped. When none of the other prisoners would admit to knowledge of how he'd gotten out, SS troops lined them up--some 200 men, in ranks four deep. Shapell was in the front row. The SS counted down it, ordering the fifth man to step forward, and then the next fifth man, until ten prisoners were lined up for all to see. The ten were then shot. Shapell, in the 80% of the front line that survived, went back to work.

Shapell was later moved in a forced march to a camp called Waldenburg. Freedom arrived there on May 8, 1945. No German guards came that morning to make their daily head count, and in the afternoon the camp's commandant drove out for the last time, his eyes venomous as he looked back at the prisoners watching in disbelief. The Jews then swarmed out of the camp to scavenge for food, on the way encountering Russian soldiers who were still at war, even though Germany had surrendered the day before.

The world called them "displaced persons," and in the next six years Shapell, 23 at the end of the war, became a leader in aiding homeless Jews who bore the label. His place of work was a small Bavarian town named Munchberg, where he established a model DP community. He oversaw the construction of houses and even set up a large home that took in Jewish children with no place to go. Wrote an American officer who had authority over Munchberg and knew himself fortunate to have crossed paths with this young refugee: "I heartily endorse Mr. Schapelski as an energetic, efficient, trustworthy, and most capable man."

For Nathan, Munchberg meant more than work well done. He was married there (to a Holocaust survivor) and was joined in the town by two siblings who turned out to have survived the war, Sala and David. (The remaining four members of Shapell's family are either known, or believed, to have died.) Eventually Nathan, David, and an Auschwitz friend of Nathan's whom Sala married, Max Weisbrot, secured a permit to start a textile manufacturing and wholesaling business, and it did well.

So it was that when the three men made it to the U.S. in the early 1950s, they had some money. They went first to Detroit because a relative lived there. But Nathan didn't like Detroit, and they traveled in search of another landing spot, thinking that either supermarkets or homebuilding might be their future. They hit California, and for Nathan it was love at first sight. "Just the trees," he says today, "just the smell from the oranges and lemons. It was unbelievable, beautiful."

Through a Detroit connection, they met one night with a young building contractor in Los Angeles, Morley Benjamin. Knowing their English to be inadequate, the three visitors brought with them a taxi driver hired to be a translator--but he kept falling asleep. The meeting came to nothing.

Some months later, though, having picked up more English, the three went back to Benjamin, and this time they struck a deal to build houses together. The Shapell group put in $600,000, and Morley Benjamin and a partner contributed expertise. In two suburbs of Los Angeles, Norwalk and Whittier, they built some 2,400 houses and sold them to veterans for $10,990 each, no money down. Nathan, the leader of his band, badgered the young builder he always called "Mr. Benjamin" to teach him everything he knew about the business. Remembers Benjamin: "Nathan was constantly in my office, constantly wanting to know. Once I said to him, 'Nathan, do not come back for at least an hour.' " But Benjamin says Shapell never asked the same question twice. He was, besides, a whiz with figures.

In 1955 the parties split up, amiably. Shapell, with his relatives, formed S&S Construction and proceeded to build anew in Norwalk. He has always had a belief, he says today, that a prudent man should keep one-third of his money in cash and another one-third in good "stuff," and then if he wishes, put the other one-third at risk. But in 1955 he felt the Norwalk project required the commitment of everything he had. Out of it, though, came a small profit, enough to send S&S Construction on its way.

Since then the company now called Shapell Industries has built 64,000 houses and spread well beyond Los Angeles. The company is known for high-quality building, for astute purchases of land, and for conservative financial behavior in an industry that tends to binge on leverage. Shapell himself dresses down from the elegant suits he wears in his office and "walks" his sites, doing hands-on quality control. He is not apt to stop those inspections soon: For three years a widower, he usually works at least six days a week and has no plans to retire.

In his business history, there is a period that caused him anguish. In 1969, when his company was doing about $30 million in sales and $3 million in profits, he took it public and was immediately sorry. Impatient by nature--"he has the attention span of a gnat," says an acquaintance--he could not abide dealing with securities analysts. He feels, moreover, that the homebuilding business, with its cycles, weather delays, and general ups and downs, is not well suited to a public market that craves consistency. "If you are honest and reporting exactly what happens," Shapell says, "Wall Street tells you goodbye." His company was itself a case history in volatility. In 1981, when interest rates skyrocketed, it lost nearly $10 million on revenues that exceeded $300 million--another period of acute anguish for Shapell. By 1983, though, the company was making $15 million on revenues cut by a third.

So in 1984, Shapell took his creation private, buying in the 28% of the company that the public owned for $33 million. Best money he ever spent, says Shapell: "When we'd done the deal, I felt like a million pounds had been taken off me." It hardly ranks with the first, of course, but he calls that day his "second liberation."


In the years since World War II, Bill Konar, now 68, has talked very little of his Holocaust experience, and as he made the effort recently for a visitor, his face gradually tightened, coming to look as if he could barely squeeze out the words. He was the youngest child of four in a family that lived in the central Poland city of Radom. His father, a leather wholesaler, died when he was 4--but not before the father had identified this son, Welwel by name then, as an uncontrollable piece of work, a stealer from the father's cash register even, who would surely someday "end up in Alcatraz" (indeed, infamous even in Radom).

After the Germans marched into Poland, Radom's Jews were first forced into work, then into ghettos, and ultimately into terrible episodes of separation, with the women and small children taken away and the men left in the ghettos. Bill, though only 12 and slight in build, was put with the men. After the time of separation, in July 1942, he never again saw his mother, his sister, her baby, or her husband (who had refused to leave his family).

Throughout these years, Bill's older brothers, Herszek (now Harry) and Moshe (now Morris), both teenagers, worked for the Wehrmacht. Aware, though, that his youth and small size made him look useless and expendable, Bill hid in ghetto attics for long periods. Later he worked, doing food-depot duty that he remembers as grueling.

By the summer of 1944, the Russians were advancing fast on the eastern front, and the Germans in Radom grew apprehensive that their Jews, many by then well-trained war workers, would escape. So the Konars and hundreds of other victims in the area were put into a forced march for more than 100 miles and at its end herded into railroad boxcars said to be headed for work camps in Germany. The stops turned out to include Auschwitz. There, the Jews were ordered out of their cars and subjected to still another weeding out in which the weak, elderly, and sick were shunted off to the gas chambers, and the others were shoved back onto the train. When the cars pulled out again, Bill was aboard, and so were his brothers.

The three ended the war at a work camp near Stuttgart, Germany, where Bill fell under the protection of a German cook, who liked this imp of a kid, let him sneak food to his family, and, in the final days of war, even helped him hide a brother threatened with transport one more time. On liberation day for the Konars, May 7, 1945, Bill was 15--hardened way beyond his years, but still 15.

Right after the war, Bill got into a school run by a relief agency and began to learn English. That gave him a head start when, in 1946, he became part of a boatload of orphans brought to the U.S. and dispersed countrywide to homes that either wanted or would have them. "They picked Rochester for me," he says, and that's where he's been ever since (along with his brothers, who came later). In the city's leading hospital, Strong Memorial, there is a renowned unit called the William and Sheila Konar Center for Digestive and Liver Diseases that would not exist had not Rochester gotten hold of this 16-year-old.

The U.S. government paid $10 a week to a Mrs. Goldberg to keep him. He somehow passed tests that qualified him to enter the junior class of Benjamin Franklin High School, and in his two years there he played soccer, worked for 25 cents an hour at a supermarket, and otherwise took on the spots--though definitely not the accent--of an American teenager. Once graduated, he even began taking some classes at the University of Rochester.

But by that time he was working just about every other hour of the day, getting a kick out of paying income taxes, and showing a marked talent for business. He sold canned foods and then kosher pickles to grocers and restaurants. Next, he caught on to a new wholesaling trend: the placing, or "rack jobbing," of health and beauty aids in food stores. He started with goods from Lever Brothers, Pacquin, and Ben-Gay; spread into phonograph records and housewares; and eventually got beyond mom-and-pop stores into the bigger spreads serviced by Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA). By the time he was 23, in 1952, his company, which he owned with a partner, had sales of $1 million. And in another ten years he was minus the partner and on his own, raking in good profits on sales above $3 million. From a street in Rochester on which he rented a building, he'd also lit on a Yankee-sounding name for his company, Clinton.

In business he had all the right entrepreneurial instincts and disciplines. "Cash is king" was a motto, meaning that he unequivocally expected his invoices to be paid when due. Big or not, J.C. Penney, to which Konar wholesaled records, got axed as a customer when it proved to be a slow payer. Konar also habitually worked like a demon. His wife, Sheila, whom he married when he was 24, rolls her eyes at the memory: "He was crazy; I didn't have a husband." Once, she says, their house caught on fire and he was too busy to come home, so he sent one of his managers to help instead.

Konar might have stayed at rack jobbing forever had not his biggest customer, IGA, decided in 1962 to go "direct," which meant it would cut out this middleman and his profits and instead itself supply the goods he'd been selling. The move caught Konar at a terrible time--he'd just bulked up in warehouse space--but he was too independent and too riled to accept IGA's offer to buy him out. Said Konar to IGA's president: "I've been through the war, and I'm not going to take any crap from anybody."

He and IGA began gradually to phase out their dealings, and within months Konar simply went into an entirely new business: owning and operating discount drugstores (which, of course, could be fed from some of his spare warehouse space). His first two stores were in Muskegon and Traverse City, Mich., and from there, he added on another 80 stores stretching east to Rhode Island. His business formula was simple: very low prices, overseen by store managers who got a cut of the profits. It all worked well enough to get him to $12 million in sales in 1968 and $1 million in profits, earned from 64 drugstores and a small but still profitable rack-jobbing business.

And at that point, Konar took Clinton Merchandising public, in a sale that reduced his ownership of the company from 100% to 67% and also brought about $2 million into the company. On paper, the deal made Konar worth about $9 million, not bad considering where he'd come from. But he was no happier with public ownership than was Nathan Shapell, and he soon started listening to acquisition propositions. The eventual buyer was Melville Corp., which in 1972 acquired Clinton (by then up to 84 stores) for about $21.5 million. On paper this deal raised Konar's net worth to more than $14 million.

Melville combined Clinton's retail operation with its own chain of discount drugstores, CVS, and used many of Konar's merchandising ideas to build the highly successful chain that exists today. Konar himself stayed around, working part-time, for nine years. And then, at age 52, he "retired."

His hair has a retirement look, having long ago turned white. But a life of complete leisure has no charms for him; he has spent the past couple of decades building a real estate business in Rochester, William B. Konar Enterprises. The business owns apartments, townhouses, and warehouses, and is constructing an industrial park on the edge of Rochester.

Konar's own house, on the Erie Canal in suburban Rochester, is very nice but not lavish. Nearby, though, is the large and elegant new home of Konar's daughter, Rachel, her husband (who works for Konar), and their two children. Konar played tour guide through the house recently, clearly enjoying the moment. As he finished up and headed for his car, he looked back at the house with a grin, shook his head in wonder at it all, and said, "What a country!"


Only 10 when the Nazis marched into his city of Lodz, Poland, in 1939, Jack Tramiel (then named Idek Tramielski) initially had a kid's thrilled reaction to the sheer spectacle of the scene: weapons glinting in the sun, soldiers goose-stepping, planes overhead. "It was a fantastic thing," he remembers.

Reality crashed down after that. Lodz's Jews--one-third of the city's 600,000 people--were ordered out of their homes and into a crowded ghetto. For nearly five years Jack (an only child) and his parents lived there in one room, scavenged for food, and worked--his father at shoemaking, Jack in a pants factory. The faces that the Tramiels saw in the ghetto changed constantly: Jews left, new Jews came in, often from other countries. Later Tramiel learned that the Jewish leader of the ghetto was parceling out its residents to the Germans, believing that the community would be left in relative peace as long as he periodically delivered up a contingent of its residents for deportation--and no doubt extermination.

In August 1944 the Tramiels themselves were herded into railroad cars, told they were going to Germany to better themselves, and instead shipped to Auschwitz. Jack's most vivid memory of the three-day trip is that each person received a whole loaf of bread as a ration--a feast beyond his imagination. At journey's end, the men were separated from the women (at which point Jack lost track of his mother) and then themselves split into two groups, one permitted for the time being to live, the other sent to Auschwitz's gas chambers. Jack and his father were thumbed into the group that survived.

A few weeks later, Jack and his father were "examined" by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele and thumbed again into a survivors line. "What do you mean--examined?" Tramiel is asked. "He touched my testicles. He judged whether we were strong enough to work." Having passed, Tramiel and his father were transported to a spot just outside Hanover, Germany, and there set to building a concentration camp into whose barracks they themselves moved. In weather that was often bitter cold, they worked in thin, pajama-like garments, and they grew increasingly emaciated on a deprivation diet: watery "soup" and bread in the morning, and a potato, bread, and more "soup" at night.

By December 1944 the Tramiels were assigned to different work crews and seeing each other only occasionally. At one of their meetings the father told the son that many young people in the camp were managing to smuggle food to their elders--and why hadn't Jack done that for his father? Stung, Jack studied for days how to deal with an electric fence that stood between him and an SS kitchen and finally succeeded in burrowing his thin frame under it to steal food--one potato and some peels. But when he got the food to his father, malnutrition had gripped the older man and grossly swollen his body. He could not eat. Soon after, he died in the camp's infirmary. Later, Jack learned that the death was directly caused by an injection of gasoline into his father's veins.

As the winter stretched into the spring of 1945, Jack Tramiel himself grew increasingly fatalistic. But then a strange end-of-the-war tableau unfolded. First, the Germans vanished from the camp; second, the Red Cross moved in briefly, overfed the prisoners to the point that some died, and then left; third, the Germans returned and then vanished again. On their heels came two American soldiers--"20-foot-tall black men, the first blacks I'd ever seen," says Tramiel--who loomed in a barracks door, peered at the prisoners hiding beneath the straw of their bunks, said something in English that one Jew gleaned as "More Americans will be coming," and left. Next a tank rolled up. In it stood a Jewish chaplain in dress uniform, who declared in Yiddish: "You are free," and told the tank to move on. These were troops of the advancing American Army, the month was April 1945, and Tramiel was 16.

Tramiel, today 69 and a fireplug in build, stayed in Europe for more than two years after his liberation, and many of his recollections of those days concern food: how he tricked his way into a sanitarium to a rich, and shamefully fattening, diet; how he gorged happily while working in an American Army kitchen; how he did other odd jobs for "money or food." But he also learned during this time that his mother was alive and back again in Lodz. He saw her there but then left, resolved by that time to marry a concentration-camp survivor he'd met, Helen Goldgrub, and go with her to the U.S.

The two wed in Germany in July 1947. They got to the U.S. separately, though--he first, in November of that year. His confidence, strengthened by what he'd survived, bordered on hubris: "I figured I could handle just about anything," he says. He started out living at a Jewish agency, HIAS, in New York City; got a job as a handyman at a Fifth Avenue lamp store; learned English from American movies; and at their end pigged out on chocolate instead of eating regular dinners.

Then, in early 1948, he did the improbable, joining the U.S. Army. By the time he left it four years later, he'd been reunited with his wife and fathered a son (the first of three). The Army had also pointed him to a career by putting him in charge of repairing office equipment in the New York City area.

When Tramiel checked back into civilian life, he entered a long period of close encounters with machines that typed words and manipulated numbers. He first worked, at $50 a week, for a struggling typewriter-repair shop. Using his Army connections, Tramiel got the owner a contract to service several thousand machines. "The guy flipped," says Tramiel, but did not give his enterprising employee a raise. "I have no intention of working for people who have no brains," said Tramiel to the owner, and quit.

Tramiel then bought a typewriter shop in the Bronx. He did repair work for Fordham University and, when he once got a chance to buy scads of used typewriters, rebuilt and resold them. He next prepared to import machines from Italy but found he could get the import exclusivity he wanted only by moving to Canada. It was in Toronto, in 1955, that he founded a company he called Commodore, an importer and eventually a manufacturer of both typewriters and adding machines. Why Commodore? Because Tramiel wanted a name with a military ring and because higher ranks, such as General and Admiral, were already taken.

Commodore went public in 1962 at a Canadian bargain-basement price of $2.50 a share--a deal that raised funds Tramiel needed to pay off big loans he'd gotten from a Canadian financier named C. Powell Morgan, head of Atlantic Acceptance. Deep trouble erupted in the mid-1960s when Atlantic, to which Commodore was almost joined at the hip, went bankrupt, amid charges of fraudulent financial statements, dummy companies, and propped stock prices. Tramiel was never charged with illegalities, but an investigative commission concluded that he was probably not blameless. In any case, the Canadian financial establishment ostracized him. Struggling to keep Commodore itself out of bankruptcy, he was forced in 1966 to give partial control of the company to Canadian investor Irving Gould.

Commodore's line then was still typewriters and adding machines, but the electronics revolution was under way and setting up shop in Silicon Valley. Tramiel himself moved there in the late 1960s and soon, displaying a speed-to-market talent that has characterized his whole life, had Commodore pumping out electronic calculators. In time, one product, a hand-held calculator, grew so popular that it was self-destructive: The company that supplied Commodore with semiconductor chips, Texas Instruments, decided to produce calculators itself--selling them at prices that Commodore couldn't match.

With Commodore again reeling, Tramiel vowed never again to be at the mercy of a vital supplier. In 1976 he made a momentous acquisition: MOS Technology, a Pennsylvania chip manufacturer that also turned out to be extravagantly nurturing about 200 different R&D projects. Tramiel, a slash-and-burn, early-day Al Dunlap in management style, killed most of the projects immediately. But he listened hard when an engineer named Chuck Peddle told him the company had a chip that was effectively a microcomputer. And small computers, said Peddle, "are going to be the future of the world."

Willing to take a limited gamble, Tramiel told Peddle that he and Tramiel's second son, Leonard, then getting a Columbia University astrophysics degree, had six months to come up with a computer Commodore could display at an upcoming Comdex electronics show. They made the deadline. "And everyone loved the product," says Tramiel, relishingly rolling out its name, PET, for Personal Electronic Transactor. Unfortunately, this was potentially an expensive pet, carrying a lot of risk--and demanding, says Tramiel, "a lot of money I still did not have." So he determined to gauge demand by running newspaper ads that offered six-week delivery on a computer priced at $599, a seductive figure on which Tramiel thought he could still make a profit. The ads appeared, and a hugely encouraging $3 million in checks came back.

Commodore got to the market with its computer in 1977, the same year that Apple and Tandy put their micros on sale. In the next few years, Tramiel drove those competitors and others wild by combatively pushing prices down and down, to levels like $200. He also became famous for rough treatment of suppliers, customers, and executives--and about it all was fiercely unrepentant. "Business is war," he said. "I don't believe in compromising. I believe in winning."

Which is what he did in those early years for computers, leading Commodore to $700 million in sales in fiscal 1983 and $88 million in profits. At its peak price in those days, the stock that Tramiel had sold in 1962 at a price of $2.50 a share was up to $1,200, and his 6.5% slice of the company was worth $120 million.

But then, in early 1984, just as annual sales were climbing above $1 billion, Tramiel clashed with a Commodore stockholder mightier than he, Irving Gould--and when the smoke had cleared, Tramiel was out. The nature of their quarrel was never publicly disclosed. Today, however, Tramiel says he wanted to "grow" the company, and Gould didn't.

Commodore was really Tramiel's last hurrah. True, he surfaced again quickly in the computer industry, agreeing later in 1984 to take over--for a pittance--Warner Communications' floundering Atari operation. But in a business changing convulsively as IBM brought out its PC and the clones marched in, Atari was a loser and ultimately a venture into which Tramiel was unwilling to sink big money. Eventually he folded Atari into a Silicon Valley disk-drive manufacturer, JTS, in which he has a major interest but plays no operational role.

Today Tramiel is basically retired and managing his money. From four residences, he's cut down to one, a palatial house atop a foothill in Monte Sereno, Calif. In its garage are two Rolls-Royces, a type of luxury to which Tramiel has long been addicted.

Naturally, charity fundraisers look Tramiel up. When those for the Holocaust Memorial Museum appeared, he at first thought of it as just one more philanthropic cause to be supported. But his wife, Helen, 69, who spent her concentration camp days at Bergen-Belsen, is intensely aware that both she and her husband survived what millions of other Jews did not. "No," she said adamantly, "for this one we have to go all out."


Holocaust survivors, the saying goes, are conditioned not to cry. But on May 8, 1997, when the founders of the Holocaust Memorial Museum met for a reunion--and when the flags of 32 U.S. Army divisions that had liberated the concentration camps were paraded into the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol--Sigi Ziering, today a serious, reflective man of 70, wept. He spoke of this moment in a speech: "Today I cried because the worst memory of the ghetto and the camps was the feeling of total isolation and total abandonment by the rest of the world. This feeling of utter despair and hopelessness weighed more heavily on us than the constant hunger, the beatings, and the imminent death facing us every minute." His tears, he said, were for the millions who never got to see the flags.

His own ordeal began in Kassel, Germany, where his father, a Polish citizen, was a clothing merchant. In 1939 the father fled to England, expecting his wife and two children--Sigi (then officially Siegfried), 11, and Herman, 12--to follow as soon as they, too, could get visas. Instead, they became trapped in Germany.

The three scraped by until late 1941, when the Germans summarily transported 1,000 Jews, the Zierings included, to Riga, Latvia. Some of the adult men in the group were sent directly to a nearby death camp, and the rest of the Jews were installed in a ghetto bloodstained from murders just carried out. Of the entire 1,000, Sigi Ziering believes that only 16 survived the war, among them, besides himself, his mother and brother.

In Riga the boys actually went to school for a while. But their mother, wanting the Germans to think them useful, required them to drop out and work. Once Sigi had a plum job in a "fish hall," from which he was able to smuggle food back to the ghetto. As he sneaked in with the food, he would sometimes pass dead Jews who had been caught doing the same and been hanged in the streets as an example.

Toward war's end, with the Russians closing in on Riga, the Germans began to move their Jewish captives around. Ziering believes that the SS in fact connived to keep small groups of Jews alive, so that the need to guard them would keep the Germans from being sent to the front.

The Zierings were moved to a German prison, Fuhlsbuttel, on the outskirts of Hamburg. Prison living conditions were a distinct step up. But every week the Germans would load eight or ten Jews into a truck and transport them to Bergen-Belsen for elimination. "With German precision," says Ziering, the guards went at their job alphabetically--and never got to "Z."

British troops then closed off Bergen-Belsen, and the Germans marched their remaining Jews to a Kiel concentration camp, whose commandant's first words upon seeing them were: "I can't believe that Jews still exist." The camp's grisly conditions killed 40 or 50 inmates daily. Another 35 males were murdered when they could not run a kilometer while carrying a heavy piece of wood. Sigi and his brother passed that test.

Then, as the Zierings heard the story, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden offered to pay Heinrich Himmler $5 million for 1,000 Jews. (Whether the Count indeed made this offer or paid the money is not clear.) A German officer told the Ziering boys, who believed it not at all, that they were to be included but were unpresentable in the striped clothing they wore. Sigi and his brother were taken to a mortuary, where they were directed to strip the clothes from the corpses that lay there and make them their own. And on May 1, 1945, Red Cross workers arrived to take the 1,000 to Sweden. The route lay through Copenhagen, and at its railroad station, the Jews heard excited shouts: "Hitler is dead."

As if he'd suddenly awakened from a nightmare of unimaginable horror, Sigi then entered into a world of near-normalcy for a 17-year-old. His family managed to reunite in London, where the father--"a fantastic businessman," says Sigi--was doing well as a diamond merchant. Sigi, a bare five years of elementary education behind him, entered a tutorial school and then the University of London. He wished to be a doctor but found that almost all medical school spots were reserved for war veterans--the kind who'd worn military insignia, not tattooed numbers.

Hunting opportunity, the Ziering family made it to the U.S. in 1949, settling in Brooklyn. Working part-time, Sigi earned a physics degree at Brooklyn College and then two advanced degrees at Syracuse University. In those college years, he met the woman he soon married, Marilyn Brisman. When they first met, she says, he was "quiet, sweet, introspective," and, with his blond hair, blue eyes, and accent, so resembled the archetype of a young German that she briefly thought him one.

Exiting academe in 1957, Ziering did nuclear-reactor work with Raytheon in Boston and then space projects at Allied Research. The entrepreneurial urge hit, and with a friend he started a company called Space Sciences to carry out cost-plus government contracts.

It was the heyday of avaricious conglomerates, and in 1968 Whittaker Corp. bought Space Sciences for about $1.8 million. That made Ziering, not yet 25 years removed from the terrifying alphabetical lock step of Fuhlsbuttel prison, well-to-do. But the deal also made him a California-based research executive restless in Whittaker's conglomerate culture.

He left and tried one entrepreneurial venture, the making of fishmeal, that failed. Then, in 1973, he heard by chance of a chemist working out of his Los Angeles kitchen, Robert Ban, who'd developed radioimmunoassay (RIA) diagnostic kits that permitted the measurement of infinitesimally low concentrations of substances--drugs and hormones, for example--in bodily fluids. Ban, a man with big ideas and a corporate name to match them, Diagnostic Products Corp., had been advertising in a professional journal that he had upwards of 30 different RIA kits available. Some of these, says Ziering, "do not exist to this day," but that was not known to the journal's readers, and sacks of orders--though only morsels of money--landed in Ban's kitchen.

Ziering, warmed to the gamble by his long-standing interest in medicine, put $50,000 into the business and moved the chemist into a small factory that mainly produced one kit of particular commercial value. The business took off. But the partners were not getting along. So Ziering bought the chemist out for $25,000 and settled back to working with a more compatible partner, his wife, who has throughout the years been a DPC marketing executive.

Today their company, competing with such giants as Abbott Laboratories, has more than 1,400 employees and is a leading manufacturer of both diagnostic kits and the analytical instruments needed to read their findings. The company had 1997 sales of $186 million and profits of $18 million. DPC went public in 1982, though Ziering wishes it hadn't--the company has never really needed the money it raised, and he doesn't like the volatility of the market or the second-guessing of analysts--and he, his wife, their two sons (both in the business), and two daughters own about 24% of its stock, currently worth about $95 million.

Through most of its years, DPC has done well internationally, a fact that has required Ziering and his wife to travel often to Germany. Yes, it bothers him to go back, but he thinks that his encounters with young Germans disturb them more than him. When they get a hint of how he spent the war, he says, "you can feel the static electricity in the air."

In his business, says Marilyn Ziering, her husband is patient and visionary, but also a risk taker when he needs to be. He himself says he's a workaholic and muses as to why. He wonders whether the "training" of the Holocaust--"unless you work, you are destined for the gas chamber"--may not have permanently bent him and many other survivors to work.

The license plate on Ziering's Jaguar reads "K9HORA." That's a rough phonetic rendition of kayn aynhoreh, a Yiddish expression meaning "ward off the evil eye." It is customarily tacked to the end of a thought, as a superstitious precaution.

For these five survivors, who picked themselves up from the worst and darkest of beginnings and triumphed in the best tradition of the American dream, we might say, for example: "Since the Holocaust, the lives of these men have been good--kayn aynhoreh."

Or we might stitch those words to a larger thought. Of the Holocaust, Jews and the world say, "Never again." In the histories of these five men, there is a ringing, opposite kind of message: "Ever again." Evil weighed down their early lives. But it did not--and cannot--crush the human spirit.

Kayn aynhoreh.