Michael Blumenthal was born in Oranienburg, Germany, in 1926. When he was 12, the Nazis arrived and burned all Jewish-owned stores, including his family’s dress shop. Blumenthal’s father was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, but his mother, having sold the family’s remaining possessions, was able to bargain for his freedom. Along with thousands of other Jews, the family escaped to Shanghai, which offered Jews safe haven.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Blumenthals became trapped in China for eight years. They often had little to eat, and Blumenthal still remembers seeing corpses in the streets. To help feed his family, Blumenthal worked in a chemical factory for $1 a week. When American troops entered Shanghai in 1945, the U.S. Air Force hired him as a warehouseman. Two years later, at the age of 21, Blumenthal and his sister got visas and arrived in San Francisco with just $60 between them.
Blumenthal enrolled at San Francisco City College and worked at a host of odd jobs: truck driver, night elevator operator, busboy, and movie theater ticket-taker. When he finished at the University of California at Berkeley, he accepted a scholarship to Princeton University, where he earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in economics. He stayed on at Princeton and taught until 1957.
Soon after taking a position with Crown Cork International, Blumenthal became a vice president of the company. In 1961, he went to Washington, D.C., to serve as President John F. Kennedy’s deputy assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, and later he became an ambassador and chief U.S. negotiator at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks in Geneva.
Blumenthal left the government in 1967 to join Bendix Corp., and became chairman and CEO within five years. But in 1977, Washington beckoned again, and Blumenthal returned under President Jimmy Carter as treasury secretary. He served for more than two years, then resigned to return to the corporate world as vice chairman of Burroughs Corp., rapidly assuming the posts of CEO and chairman.
In 1986, Blumenthal masterminded the merger of Sperry Corp. into Burroughs to form Unisys, a provider of communications information systems, defense systems, and related services. At the time, the merger was the largest in the computer industry’s history.
In 1990, Blumenthal retired from Unisys, and for the following five years, he was a limited partner of Lazard Freres & Co. He also spent several years writing a book, The Invisible Wall: German and Jews, A Personal Exploration, which was published in 1998. The story is organized around seven of Blumenthal’s relatives, starting in the 17th century and ending with Blumenthal’s father, who once served in the Kaiser’s elite guards. In 1998, Blumenthal accepted an invitation from Berlin—the city he and his family had fled in 1939—to supervise the building of Europe’s largest Jewish museum, which is dedicated to depicting 2,000 years of German-Jewish history.
In 1999, Blumenthal received Germany’s Grand Cross of Merit, though he says his Horatio Alger Award remains one of his greatest honors. “What counts,” he says, “is what comes from within you, your inner resources, not your name or your family, or what you inherited.”