While spring cleaning in my garage, I came across an old academic paper written for a developmental psychology class when I was thirty-five, forty-one years ago. It profiled Nathan Zepell, a Latvian Jew almost twice my age who had spent four years in a Nazi concentration camp before embarking on a rags-to-riches odyssey in America via his patented invention, the ballpoint pen. Leafing through the old paper again felt like an exercise in time travel. At the time I wrote it, I did not fully grasp how it would eventually impact my view of human courage and hope. As it turned out, it propelled me on a journey that would help put into perspective both my past family background and future aspirations. Rediscovering the paper also made me feel like I needed to locate Nathan’s family and relate to them what I had chronicled long ago, so they would have a record for their family legacy. Through research, I found a grandniece to whom I told the following story.
I met Nathan while working at the Japan Trade Center in downtown Los Angeles. I had spent my twenties in Japan as a graduate student in sociology at a Japanese university, as well as a teacher of English as a second language and an apprentice to a well-known photojournalist. At the time, I was also flirting with a graduate psychology program that required a class in developmental psychology for which the final assignment was to interview an older person from the perspective of the later stages of life, which meant first finding an appropriate subject.
One day when I had returned from a lunch break, I learned we had had a visitor, an inventor of ballpoint pens who had survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. I called Nathan Zepell that very evening, and after listening to what I sought from him, he agreed to be the subject of my paper. I was about to chronicle—and ultimately be transformed by—Nathan’s journey, often marked by horror, tragedy, then eventual freedom from hate and revenge.
The early Sunday morning drive to the home of Nathan and his wife June in Santa Barbara, from the South Bay area of Los Angeles County, took two hours, giving me time to reflect on my father. He and Nathan would have been about the same age. In the early to mid-1940s, my father had owned the largest grocery store near downtown Los Angeles, a precursor to the chain supermarket that would soon quash his business. Adding to our family’s difficulties, my mother passed away in 1948, just after the failure of the grocery store. As a result, my father slipped into a depression and never quite seemed to recover his spirit. He got a factory job for which he had no passion and married a woman he didn’t love so that my sister and I would have a stepmother. He was a changed man with little self-confidence and only a marginal interest in me. He died when I was nineteen years old. The father I needed had existed only in fantasies or in portrayals of superheroes in movies and comic books. By contrast, Nathan, to me, would be a superhero of sorts.
Upon my arrival at their hillside home, June Zepell met me at the front door. She was a lovely woman with a porcelain complexion that complemented her silver hair. “So nice of you to come,” she said. “Nathan has been looking forward to this.”
Nathan welcomed me with a handshake and gave me a tour of their house, escorting me through the living room, the dining room, his office, and, finally, his favorite place of all, the pool area with a view of the Santa Barbara Mountains. June ushered us to the kitchen table for her freshly brewed coffee. “Richard, I‘ve heard Nathan’s stories many times, so I’m going to sit in the other room while you two talk. Let me know if you need anything.”
Nathan had a hushed dynamism about him that, along with his gentle Latvian accent, revealed a sweet-tempered persona. While I listened and tape-recorded his often tragic, though inspiring stories, I wondered to what degree my life would have been different had I grown up with Nathan as a father.
Nathan Zepell was born to a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, on January 6, 1915. In those days, the chaos of the Russian Revolution cast a shadow over everything, creating hard times for the citizens of Riga. People were hungry, and laboring mothers as well as their infants often did not survive childbirth, including Nathan’s brother, who died in utero. An only child, Nathan spent his early teenage years helping his father and acquiring an education in electro-mechanics, training that would prove to be lifesaving on more than one occasion.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression devastated the economy of Latvia, just as it had in America. Nathan, then in his early twenties, felt he could no longer burden his parents, so he struck out on his own, wandering the streets trying to figure out how to survive. One day he happened upon a display in a hardware store window of lavishly crafted galenite door handles imported from Germany. He decided there was no reason he couldn’t make such door handles for much less than the 12 lats for which the imported merchandise was selling. He approached the galenite manufacturer and procured samples. In a borrowed workshop, he labored day and night to produce 122 door handles then took them to a hardware store owned by a friend of his father’s. The owner was impressed with the workmanship and purchased all the door handles for 244 lats.
“I’d never had so much money in my life,” Nathan gleefully exclaimed.
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“I invested in more production; and within two years I had my own factory, equipment of my own design, and sixty employees to whom I paid double the current wages,” Nathan proudly responded.
The Russians put an end to the good times for young Nathan. They nationalized all private enterprise and sent business entrepreneurs to Siberia. When Russian investigators arrived at Nathan’s factory, they made him stand outside while they met with his employees. Upon emerging, the investigators announced that he was now the new manager of his former business. He commented, “At least I was alive and in Latvia.” Apparently, his employees had convinced the Russians that the factory could not operate without him. He had taken good care of them, paid them well, and, in return, they had shown their appreciation and loyalty.
“Your education in electro-mechanics really paid off,” I said.
“Well, it much more than paid off. It saved my life and my friends’ lives, too,” he asserted.
Nathan thought for a moment as he gazed out at the mountains beyond the pool. He then recounted a Christmas story about events that had occurred in a Nazi concentration camp many decades before. He spoke with an ease that somehow transcended the horrors of what he had witnessed, a voice born of years of eventual reconciliation and pride of accomplishment.
It was two months before Christmas at Magdeburg, a branch of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp along the Elbe River. Nathan and his fellow internees could see the SS commandant coming toward their barracks carrying a sheet of white paper. Such a paper was usually a list of numbers that corresponded to names of men who would be sent to the gas chambers. Fortunately, this time the white paper was a request from the commandant’s wife explaining that Berlin had been bombed out and their children would have no presents to brighten their Christmas. She wondered if artisans in the camp could make a toy for her children. The commandant then stated, “I’ll let you live a little longer if you make a toy that brightens my children’s Christmas.” There were thirty workers in the camp, many of whom Nathan had trained to do technical jobs to escape slave labor. They all understood that their lives depended on making a toy, one that had to be exceptional.
“It’s pretty special what we accomplished,” Nathan said. “We had only wood and a few simple tools, including a hand drill. We turned the drill sideways and made it into a lathe by forming a pace line where each person turned the drill for one minute then went to the rear of the line as the next person took over the drill, repeating the sequence. We finally produced a toy chef that, using a system of counterweights disguised as flour sacks, ascended and descended a tower six times in succession. The commandant was pleased with the outcome. Several weeks later he read a letter from his wife that said the toy had indeed brightened their children’s Christmas.” Nathan nodded reflectively then asserted, “That toy saved thirty lives.”
“Nathan, your effort did not just involve skill with tools. It took ingenuity and especially a powerful resolve,” I said.
“Yes, resolve more than anything else kept me alive. Without that, I couldn’t have made it. As it happened, I summoned my resolve early in my concentration camp days and have held on to it ever since.”
On December 4, 1941, a day Nathan said he would never forget, he had been on a labor detail working outside of camp. “When I returned,” Nathan said, “I saw what I hope I’ll never see again, not even in my worst nightmares. Piles of dead bodies lined the street, as if swept aside by a bulldozer. The streets were wet, and the gutters were full, like in the aftermath of a sudden rain, but the dampness wasn’t water. The ground was red with human blood.” A great sadness befell his voice as he added, “The Nazis killed thirty-two thousand that day, including my mother, father, and most of my friends.”
Two days later, according to Nathan, a friend whose pregnant wife had also died on December 4 approached him smiling. He told Nathan their problems were over. He had traded his gold watch for two portions of poison—one for Nathan and the other for himself. “In those terrible days,” Nathan said, “doctors and pharmacists were very popular because they had poison.” Nathan ultimately spent a lot of time convincing his friend, and himself, to throw the poison in the latrine.
“Someone must live to tell this story,” Nathan recalled advising his desperate friend. Many years later Nathan was the first guest at the friend’s home in New York, where he toasted his new wife and son-to-be.
“You know, Nathan, when you relate your stories there’s sometimes an unexpected twinkle in your eye and easiness in your voice,” I commented, puzzled by this apparent levity in light of the horror he was describing.
“I do hope so. I am on the other side of hate. I couldn’t live with that kind of hate,” he replied.
“How about revenge?”
“Well, the thing about revenge is that it never truly satisfies the one seeking it. Bitterness is all that remains. I did come to terms in my own way with what one might call revenge, though I wasn’t really looking to do so. It happened after I was freed.”
The Russian occupation forces liberated Nathan in 1945, just twenty miles from the Berlin border, where the Nazis were taking him for slaughter. Despite hard-won optimism, he had thought this day would never come. In the days that followed, the Russians asked Nathan to translate because he spoke both German and Russian fluently. The Russians did terrible things to the Germans, he told me, but never as bad as what the Germans had done to the Jews.
One day two Russian guards asked Nathan to accompany them to a house not far away. They forced open the door and had him translate to two frightened German parents that the guards wanted their daughter, who cried and begged for help.
“The mind and heart work quickly in such situations,” Nathan recalled.
He told the Russians that he hadn’t had a woman in four years and that he wanted the girl for himself, a ploy to allow Nathan time to help her. There were plenty of young German girls, so the guards consented. Nathan told her to dress like an old woman then escorted her to another town, where she would be safe. Three or four weeks later, as he was walking down a street in that town, two figures approached him—the German girl and her boyfriend. The girl pointed and said, “That’s the man who saved my life.” To Nathan, this was more soul soothing than anything he could have imagined.
“This is how I got my revenge,” he explained.
After his liberation from the Nazis, when Nathan was asked where he wanted to go, the only place he considered safe was Palestine. An American lawyer found him there and convinced him that the United States was a secure place with people of many races and religions living together, and that America would welcome Nathan and the innovative ballpoint pen concept he had been developing.
“My friends had assured me that the pen companies would be pounding at my hotel door to acquire my patents [see previous note],” said Nathan. But during the nine years he chased after the Scheaffer and Parker pen companies they told him his ideas were too complicated and sophisticated for the American public. “It was a good thing Hitler taught me how to starve,” he quipped. Eventually, even his patent attorney advised him to give up and get a job.
It was then that Nathan met Bert Strauss, the owner of a small manufacturing business called Columbia Pen & Pencil Company. Bert liked Nathan’s ideas and wanted to form a partnership. Bert’s father acted as attorney for both men, and it wasn’t long before Nathan began successfully marketing his ideas. Then, unexpectedly, he received a call from Scheaffer himself, asking Nathan to work for his company. A short time later, Scheaffer procured Nathan’s patents.
The rest of Nathan’s story is about working hard and having more successes than failures. He even got married, something he never thought he would do because of the love he maintained for his nineteen-year-old fiancée who had died at the hands of the Germans.
“Nathan, you really had to struggle to prevail here in America, too,” I observed.
“Yes, but I’ve been rewarded and awarded many times over in this wonderful country.”
“What do you mean rewarded?”
“Even though it was tough getting my business and concepts off the ground, this country has been very good to me, and I never tire of telling others how I feel.”
“Have you ever written about the gratitude or appreciation part?”
“I did put it into words once. I can still remember every word I said in a three-minute acceptance speech I made in 1976 for an award bestowed upon me by the American Academy of Achievement: “Forty-five lashes, forty-five lashes is not easy to take, especially when it’s given by a cable six feet long with rubber on the outside and steel on the inside. After twenty minutes, the Nazi enforcer got tired and asked his colleague to continue. Another slave also got forty-five lashes; he died right there. The crime I committed that, according to them, fit the punishment was: I’d saved the most valuable thing I had, the picture of my mother and father, who had been killed three years earlier. Now, thirty-two years later, I am standing here a free citizen of the world’s most democratic nation, a land of achievement, surrounded by achievers and counted as one of them. So who says miracles don’t happen? To be with you, two hundred and four of the most outstanding youth in the nation, is especially for me a great joy. Hitler prevented me the joy of having children of my own. That is why being with you is an unforgettable experience. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.”
I turned off the tape recorder, and we sat in silence for a few minutes. It then occurred to me there was another veiled aspect of Nathan’s psychological makeup that came across without conscious effort from him.
“Nathan, you know, you’re a pretty tough guy,” I remarked.
“How astute of you, Richard. You’re right about that. Hitler murdered most of those I loved and cared about and almost killed me. I vowed I could never let him beat me; and he never could. I prevailed and got the better of him, because he could not steal my spirit or my soul. And I’ll tell you, Richard, Hitler is still in the nightmares that disturb my sleep every night, but he has never been able to embitter my spirit or any of my relationships, including my new friendship with you.”
Just then June called us to a late lunch. After a meal of baked omelet and blueberry muffins, we both sat back in silence staring out over the pool and the Santa Barbara Mountains in the distance. As I was gathering my things to leave, Nathan told me that not all his captors were terrible people.
“Nathan, what do you mean? This is important, and I’ve run out of tape,” I said.
“I’m going to tell you anyway,” he insisted.
As it turned out, I didn’t need the tape recorder. I remembered Nathan’s final story almost word for word: During the early days of the German occupation of Latvia, we were under the watch of the Hitler Youth—teenagers sent to guard us. It was our job to carry sacks of sugar and salt from the ships to the railroad cars. The sacks were very heavy, but of the two, the salt sacks were the worst. They absorbed moisture and didn’t form to our backs like the sugar bags did. The first two or three days were terrible. The German youths made us run with our burdens, and if we slowed they split our heads open with metal pipes. We weren’t worth the expense of a bullet. Many died those first few days. On the third day, I was running with a sack of salt, panting heavily, and one of those kids was right behind me. He was panting, too. I thought this was the end, but then I heard him call out to me, “How come you are the same as we are?”
“We are all human beings,” I yelled back.
“Oh, no,” he said. “That’s not what the party told us.”
Nathan continued: The next day, running behind me again, he told me to look in back of the garbage can and I would find a sandwich. He advised me to pick it up when no one was looking.
“He had put himself at great risk to help me,” Nathan concluded. “I often wonder if our brief interaction affected his fate, and if so, how. I never blamed him or any of these young people. They also were victims of this madness.
Over the next year, I saw Nathan two or three more times. He passed away in 1982. In the garden at the Children’s Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I now live, a bright yellow placard bears a portion of a Native American poem, which reads: “We don’t inherit the land, we borrow it from our children.” These words reflect how Nathan lived his life and cultivated his successes. He knew our greatest virtue was in caring for our descendants and others—our fellow concentration camp inmates, friends, strangers, our community, our planet—rather than pursuing individual entitlement and personal gain. We find our purpose and accounting, I imagined him saying, by serving and elevating others. This wisdom is the gift that Nathan, my de facto father, still whispers in my ear forty plus years later. His spirit has propelled me through every endeavor I have undertaken.