Staff Reporter

In the early '50s, a businessman who had recently arrived in the United States from Poland met with a Los Angeles builder. The businessman brought along a taxi driver as a translator because his English wasn't yet very good.

The man, Nathan Shapell, was hoping to strike a deal to build homes.

Unfortunately, the driver fell asleep, and no deal was inked. But Shapell returned a few weeks later and reached an agreement. He put up $600,000 to build some 2,400 homes in Norwalk and Whittier.

That relatively modest venture was the beginning of S & S; Construction, now part of Shapell Industries, a company that has built more than 62,000 homes since its founding in 1955. In addition to being the developer of Porter Ranch, S & S; has nearly 20 master-planned communities under development from the Santa Clarita Valley to San Diego.

Shapell took his company public in 1969, when it had about $30 million in annual sales and $3 million in net income. The public offering had a wild ride on Wall Street, as interest rates jumped and the company experienced major losses. But by 1983 the company was again profitable, and Shapell decided to return it to private status by buying back the public's shares for $33 million.

Shapell would later say the expense was his "second liberation."

His first came during World War II, when he survived two years at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and was freed at the end of the war. In 1942 his family, along with hundreds of other Jews in his town, were rounded up and held in a nearby ghetto. Shapell himself escaped that fate because he was able to secure a job as a sanitation worker. He brought crews into the ghetto, and slipped armbands to people imprisoned there that allowed them to sneak out later and escape. He also concocted a plan that allowed his crew to carry out children in large soup pots.

Shapell was able to save a number of people that way, risking his own life in the process.

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