Published on June 9, 2020
Uncle Nick: From Stalin death camp to Wall Street millionaire
Uncle Nick was my favorite uncle. An Ukrainian escapee from the Stalin death camps, he was never really fluent in English, but he learned enough to make millions on Wall Street, then lose it before making it back again.
As a 10-year-old kid, Nick became my favorite because he sneaked chocolate to me and gave me a few bucks during our visits to his low-rent flat in a run-down section of Buffalo, New York. It was a one-bedroom, unadorned apartment that always stunk of natural gas because the landlord had hooked up the kitchen stove wrong.
I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo on a small farm. Dad worked on the railroad and moonlighted during the weekends as a horseshoer. That provided enough income to visit the ‘old neighborhood’ in Buffalo, where we had moved from, and see Nick occasionally.
He was a slight man with thin eyebrows that would arch themselves into question marks when he was trying to explain to me the intricacies of his stock-market picks.
“Look, see Frankie, look at this company,” he would say pointing to the agate type in the financial newspapers. “That’s a good company. That will be worth lots of money some day.”
Nick pushed a broom around one of the automobile-stamping plants in Buffalo during the day, but he would study the financial columns at night. That fact that he was alive to study those figures was something of a miracle.
After the end of World War II, the death camps created by Soviet dictator Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, began to empty. They were part of Stalin’s attempts at Ukrainian extermination.
Survivors were given an expedited route to U.S. immigration, and our family sponsored Nick, largely because his last name was Watach, which was my mom’s maiden name. It’s a wonder he survived.
He was skin-and-bones, 86 pounds, and very sick when he got to Buffalo. When I asked mom what was wrong with him, she just said “everything.”
So Nick was not a real uncle, but we called him that as part of our tradition of an extended nuclear family. You don’t have to be blood to be family.
I only learned of the death camp connection, and his immigration, when I asked mom about his strange tattoo on his forearm; it was in blue ink and was a long row of numbers.
She said that was his concentration camp ID number, which usually also indicated where you were in the line for the execution chamber. It was only much later that I realized that he was not a prisoner of Hitler’s Nazis, but of Stalin.
Determined to make a better life for himself than what the auto plant could provide, and driven by a Ukrainian sense of stubbornness, Nick taught himself the stock market.
He would study small companies, whose stock was cheap, and buy them in the hopes of reaping big rewards when their prices exploded. I guess he would be called a day-trader today, but back then he worked through a stock broker.
Nick took me and mom to the stock-broker’s office in downtown Buffalo one Saturday. The broker was there, and he talked to us about Nick.
“Son,” he said to me, “I don’t know what kind of crystal ball your Uncle Nick has, but I wish I had one just like his.”
As I got older, the trips to see Uncle Nick were gradually replaced by high school baseball, girls and plans for college. As I was getting ready to go to college, as a gift, Nick gave mom a substantial number of stock certificates in my name that were eventually worth some money years later when I cashed them in.
After making millions in the market, he lost it in a crash in the early ‘70s. Undeterred, he made it all back again before sickness and old age took him years later. He never had the tattoo removed. I think he considered it a badge of honor that he survived.
He never moved from the stinky apartment, although he could easily afford it.
Only later, I realized that Nick was a living example of how you really can be anything you want to be.