David Shapell dies at 94; immigrant was devoted to Holocaust remembrance

David Shapell, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who became a successful California real estate developer and gave millions of dollars to organizations focused on Holocaust remembrance, has died. He was 94.

Shapell was hospitalized in Tel Aviv while he and his wife, Fela, were visiting Israel to celebrate the birth of a great-grandchild. Suffering from lung cancer and pneumonia, he died Feb. 8, his daughter Rochelle Shapell said.

Shapell, his brother Nathan and his brother-in-law Max Webb started Shapell Industries, a firm that over five decades built some 70,000 homes throughout the state. The company, whose projects included Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, was sold in 2014 for about $1.6 billion.

In 1979, Shapell’s three children persuaded him and his wife to revisit the Polish hometowns that held painful memories for them. Fela, who was imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was from the town of Auschwitz. Shapell was from Wolbrom, where the Nazis removed several thousand Jews and shot the remaining 300 men after marching them to a mass grave. His father was probably among them.

At the site of the mass killing, David Shapell saw signs of recent digging — apparently the work of treasure hunters who believed that Jewish murder victims might have carried gold and jewels to their deaths.


“What he did afterward was so symbolic of his personality,” Shapell’s son Irvin said. “He somehow found a way to get the gravesite cemented over so there could be no further digging.”

Nearly every year since, a Shapell family member has visited Auschwitz or Wolbrom, recited the Kaddish prayer of mourning, and lighted a memorial candle.

In 2014, David and Fela Shapell gave $15 million to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to help with the construction of a massive repository for Holocaust artifacts.

“If you don’t have evidence to support the memory, the memory changes over time,” Irvin Shapell has said in explaining his family’s donation. “It withers slowly, and in the end you’ve just got some sort of legend.”

Shapell also donated to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Yad Vashem center for Holocaust research and other organizations.

Born in Poland on Feb. 4, 1921, David Czapelski was one of five children of an impoverished farmer who raised geese to sell their meat, fat and feathers. During World War II, he eluded the Nazis but wound up in Soviet labor camps until he was conscripted into military service.

After spending a few postwar years in Germany, he immigrated to the U.S. with Fela in the early 1950s. He and his brother worked at a relative’s grocery store in Detroit before founding their Los Angeles real estate company in 1955. They changed the spelling of their family name to Schapelski and then adopted Shapell after settling in the U.S.

Although Nathan Shapell became well-known for his political and civic activities, David was a low-key figure who schooled himself in architecture and engineering.

“He was a land guy,” Rochelle Shapell said. “He loved to find the raw dirt and envision what it would look like to create a community out of that dirt.”

Nathan Shapell died in 2007.

David Shapell is survived by Fela, his wife of 65 years; daughter Rochelle; sons Irvin and Benjamin; 13 grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and four great grandchildren. One grandchild predeceased him.

Deeply religious, he helped establish a school in Jerusalem called Yeshivat Darche Noam/David Shapell College. The school, established in 1978, draws international students who do not necessarily come from strict religious backgrounds.

“Many see it as an island of unity in an increasingly fractured Orthodox world,” the Jerusalem Post said, noting that the school is known colloquially as “Shapell’s.”

Twitter: @schawkins