The Survivors: From depths of Auschwitz to height of computer industry

Jack Tramiel has a bottom line: "Even if you came out from hell, you can still make it."

Tramiel, founder and former president of Commodore International Ltd. and former chairman of Atari, knows about hell.

The native of Lodz, Poland, survived a crowded ghetto, then Auschwitz and a forced-labor camp in Germany from which only about 60 out of 10,000 inmates emerged alive.

At the camp, the teenage Tramiel watched his father die after guards injected gasoline into his veins to quicken his demise. The Nazis forced Tramiel and his fellow prisoners to dig their own graves; miraculously, the war ended just in time to save them from the pit. Upon being liberated, Tramiel weighed about 70 pounds.

Like a number of survivors whose stories are being told this week during Yom HaShoah commemorations, Tramiel went on not only to re-establish his life but also to thrive. He built a formidable reputation for himself as an ambitious, tough-minded leader in the consumer electronics industry. At Commodore's peak, before Tramiel left in 1984, the now-defunct company was a leading player in the personal computer revolution, surpassing its competition in technical acumen and sales.

"I like to go forward, not backward," says the 69-year-old survivor, now a semi-retired resident of Monte Sereno, near San Jose. A father of three sons, he says, "The most important thing to me was to succeed, to build a new life."

Build a new life he did. Shortly after arriving in this country in 1947, Tramiel (pronounced truh-MEEL) joined the Army — in part, he says, to give back to an institution whose members risked their lives to liberate him and others like him.

Stationed in New York City, he was trained to repair typewriters. After completing his service, he put that knowledge to use, setting up his own small typewriter repair and sales shop in the Bronx, and driving a cab on the side to make ends meet.

Over time, the determined survivor with a fifth-grade education transformed his typewriter business into a manufacturer of electronics products. Commodore, as the company became known, adopted Tramiel's motto: "Computers for the masses, not the classes." In 1977, the company unveiled the Personal Electronic Transactor, a personal computer known as PET.

Believing that the broad knowledge available through computers can help prevent mistakes of the past, Tramiel tapped Germany as his first marketing venue for PET outside the United States.

Traveling there often to introduce the product to prospective buyers, he told his mostly young audiences what he believed to be as important as the nuts and bolts of hard drives: That the computer whiz standing before them had survived the Holocaust.

"They wanted to know more about it — where I was, what happened, was it all true?" recalls Tramiel, who lost countless relatives during the war. "I went directly to the front lines."

Over the next several years, Tramiel would return to the front lines again and again. As chairman of the board of Atari — which he bought after leaving Commodore — he often traveled to Germany for trade shows, sometimes staying near Hanover, where he had once been imprisoned.

"I always separated business from my personal life," Tramiel insists.

Then came 1985 and former President Ronald Reagan's controversial visit to the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi SS storm troopers are buried. In the country for business at the time, Tramiel rebelled against Reagan's action by insisting that an industry press conference be held at the site where Tramiel nearly lost his life decades earlier.

"If a man like the president of the United States does not realize what the Germans did, especially the SS…it was shocking what kind of world we live in, that we do not learn from the past," he says.

In his own way, Tramiel has made it his mission to ensure the world learns from history. He and his wife Helen, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, support the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., among other causes. Several times a year, Tramiel speaks publicly about his experiences.

"I promised some of the people who were dying that I will remember," he says.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.