Sam Zell’s parents and older sister arrived in the United States four months before he was born. Eventually they would land in Chicago, where Zell still runs his real estate investment empire, but their circuitous 21-month journey to get there included a near miss with the Nazis, a courageous diplomat and a stint in Japan.
The elder Zell worked as a grain merchant in Poland prior to World War II. He would travel to Russia by train; his travels convinced him earlier than most that Europe was taking a turn for the worse, especially for Jews and especially in Poland. When he read of the German-Soviet Nonagression Pact in August 1939 (which Adolf Hitler ultimately used to invade Poland without opposition) the older Zell quickly shuttled his wife and daughter out of the country.
Also on Forbes:
He returned to Poland to try to convince the extended family to come with them. They declined and just hours after Sam’s father left for the last time the German army bombed the tracks that ran through the family town. The rest of the family died in Auschwitz.
Ultimately Sam Zell’s mother, father and sister made it to the U.S. by way of Japan, thanks in part to Chiune Sugihara, the Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania. Sugihara went against his instructions from Tokyo and issued transit visas to almost 6,000 refugees that they used to enter and exit Japan.
Recommended by Forbes
IBMVoice:Three Pitfalls Of Leading A Digital Team (And How To Avoid Them)
FORBES spoke to Zell about how being the child of immigrants has impacted him and contributed to his business success. Here is an excerpt from that conversation.
How has having immigrant parents impacted you and your approach to entrepreneurship?
I think being the child of immigrants, particularly immigrants of that recent vintage, number one, there was an extraordinary appreciation of how lucky you were to have been in the United States at that time. You were very aware of how valuable the opportunities were, that [these opportunities] were not available in so much of the rest of the world. My father used to say that in the United States the streets were paved with gold and he never lost his appreciation for how lucky he was that he and his family were allowed to come here and prosper. Therefore they worked very hard and were very patriotic and certainly instilled that in us.
How did your father make a living in the United States?
He originally came to Chicago because he was a grain broker in Europe. One of his customers was Quaker Oats that was based in Chicago. He came to Chicago thinking he would some way or another get back into the grain business. He eventually went into wholesale jewelry and built a very successful business.
Did understanding how lucky you were to be here drive your success in anyway?
You wanted to be sure the challenges they went through to get here were worthwhile?
Let’s say they made sure that they communicated to me that they had made enormous sacrifices in order to get here and that they expected their children to excel and perform accordingly.
Do you think that is a common attitude among immigrant parents?
I think very much so. Immigrant parents to a large extent come here because they want a better life, but particularly a better life for their children. Therefore there is a lot of incentive to both encourage and assist their children in reaching objectives that weren’t available to them.
You brought up the idea of “intelligent immigration”; in the past you’ve made a distinction between illegal and legal immigration, can you elaborate on that?
First of all, I’m not in favor of illegal anything–including illegal immigration. As far as intelligent immigration, the focus of our immigration should be to encourage the best and brightest to both come here and stay here. I’m not as sympathetic about providing grandmothers immigration as I am about allowing people that we train to stay here and add to our economy.