Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore computers, Lodz survivor, dies at 83

Jack Tramiel was the ultimate survivor.

That’s how Sam Tramiel described his father: cast as a child into the Lodz Ghetto and, later, Auschwitz, only to emerge into freedom in America, where he built a pioneering computer company into a global giant.

Fate dished out its worst and its best to Jack Tramiel, who always took charge of his own destiny. The founder of Commodore computers died of heart failure on April 8 in Palo Alto. He was 83.

“Nothing could get in his way,” said Sam Tramiel, who worked alongside his father in the family business for decades. “That was one way he survived. He thought he was blessed and on this earth to do something.”

Most prominently, that meant getting into the desktop computer industry at the ground floor, turning Commodore products into the first successful mass-produced home computers, especially the Commodore 64 in the early 1980s.

Jack Tramiel

For a time, Commodore beat out all competitors, including Apple. This was due directly to Tramiel’s finely tuned, low-to-the-ground business instincts.

“He had an amazingly agile mind,” his son added. “If he saw something going in one direction and realized it was wrong, he could make an 180-degree turn on a dime, and go in the correct way. He was just very flexible, and wouldn’t let his ego get in his way.”

Born Jacek Trzmiel in Lodz, Poland, Tramiel grew up celebrating Shabbat at his maternal grandfather’s home. But with the 1939 Nazi invasion, life turned upside-down.

At age 11, Tramiel and his family were herded into the city’s infamous Jewish ghetto, where they lived until 1944. From there, the family was transported to Auschwitz, where only Tramiel and his mother survived.

He encountered another survivor and Lodz native, Helen Goldgrub, in Hanover, Germany, after the war. Espying her from across a crowded room, Tramiel knew then and there he would make her his bride.

The couple married in 1947, later moving to New York, where Tramiel took his first tentative steps into the typewriter business. Moving to Toronto in the 1950s, he expanded the burgeoning company — by then called Commodore — into a broader office machine enterprise.

By the 1970s, he became aware of the incipient personal computer industry, and he wanted in. He introduced his first computer — called a Personal Electronic Transactor — in 1977.

“The first one we had used a cassette tape to record data,” recalled Sam Tramiel. “It had a 4-kilobyte memory. When it was so young, none of us knew the real potential. He was guessing as well. Who knew how big this would be?”

It would become very big. In the early 1980s, the company issued the first home computer to retail for less than $300, and with the Commodore 64 (so named for its 64 kilobytes of memory — barely the quantity found in children’s toys these days) he had struck gold.

As reported in the New York Times, Commodore stock soared from under $2 per share in 1977, to more than $70,000 a share six years later.

Tramiel got out while he was ahead. He stepped down as president and CEO in 1984, long before Commodore lost market share to Apple and other manufacturers. From there he bought the video game company Atari, the market leader at the time.

“One of his phrases was ‘Business is war,’ ” said his son. “He also wanted to make himself the biggest competitor.”

After he sold Atari, the resident of Monte Sereno (near Los Gatos) spent his time with family, managing his holdings and devoting himself to philanthropy. Because of his standing as a Holocaust survivor, supporting Jewish causes topped his priorities.

Key among them were the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — of which he was an early benefactor — as well as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, for which he served on regional and national boards.

“To him it went back to the Holocaust,” Sam Tramiel said. “He was always trying to show the world: There is no reason to hate any ethnic minority; we’re all the same.”

Jack Tramiel is survived by his wife, Helen Tramiel of Monte Sereno; sons Leonard Tramiel of Palo Alto, Sam Tramiel of Palo Alto and Garry Tramiel of Menlo Park; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Donations may be made to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org.