‘Never give into despair’

‘Never give into despair’

Siggi Wilzig’s children and his biographer remember the survivor, oilman, and banker

It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Nature or nurture. An inherently insoluble question, because you, the questioner, can never recreate the conditions that would allow an answer to emerge.

The question here is whether Siggi Wilzig, who lived from 1926 until 2003, and whose improbable life story has just been chronicled in Joshua M. Greene’s “Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend” — yes, it’s quite a subtitle — would have had the same career, could have reached the same heights, could have encapsulated the American dream in the same way, if he hadn’t developed the extraordinary skills, heightened awareness, and raw courage that helped him survive. (It’s always necessary to acknowledge that luck also played a part in any Holocaust victim’s survival, including Siggi’s.)

Or was it the case that Siggi could not possibly have survived Auschwitz without his inherent brilliance of mind, facility with languages, sensitivity to people and possibilities, and fearlessness? We do know that suffering often sands away people’s surfaces to make them even more who they are.

Or is the answer both? That Siggi Wilzig couldn’t have survived had he not been who he was, and then that he couldn’t have gotten where he got had he been someone else?

Siggi’s biographer and his three children, Ivan, Sherry, and Alan, can’t answer that, but between them they can and do describe an extraordinary life.

The Wilzig family; counterclockwise from bottom right, Naomi, Siggi, Sherry, Alan, and Ivan.

(Please note that we are using first names for the Wilzig family not because we’ve become inappropriately familiar with them, but because otherwise there simply would be too many Wilzigs to keep straight.)

One of the many reasons to want to read his book, Mr. Greene said, is “it’ll make you feel good about being an American again. Siggi always said that the joy and the happiness of his life couldn’t have happened anyplace else in the world. He always acknowledged his American liberators. He said that only in America “could a flatfooted shrimpy Jewish immigrant like me become the head of a banking and oil empire with assets of more than four billion dollars.”

So how did it happen?

Siggi Wilzig — born as Siegbert; Siggi was his own invented stab at Americanizing his name — had been in Auschwitz and Mauthausen for two years, since he was 15. The Nazis killed 59 members of his family, including his parents and all but one of his siblings; his childhood had ended long before he was imprisoned. His schooling ended at around fifth grade.

In the camps, “he was the most daring of prisoners,” Mr. Greene said. “He overheard guards talking about how they needed a bricklayer, and he walked right over to them and said, ‘I had four years of experience as a master bricklayer.’ Of course he didn’t. One guard looked at the other, shrugged, and said, ‘Why waste the experience?’” Siggi was a quick student. He watched the other bricklayers and began to lay brick.

Joshua M. Greene

Another time, when he was getting pneumonia working outside in the bitter cold, he realized that he had to get an inside job. “He heard guards saying that they needed a doctor’s assistant for the prisoners’ hospital, and he walked over and said ‘I had two years of working as a nurse in a hospital in Berlin.’” (One of the bitter ironies of this story is that what the Nazis called a concentration camp hospital was more properly a charnel house.) “‘I knew about as much about nursing as you do about belly dancing,’” he told a Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation interviewer toward the end of his life. But it worked. “He got indoors, and it saved his life,” Mr. Greene said.

“He would say that you should never give into despair,” Mr. Greene continued. “He was on the death march from Auschwitz in January of 1945. He was already suffering from disease and starvation. He was freezing cold. There was snow, sleet, mud, and his shoelaces started to dissolve and break off.

“If you didn’t have shoes, you would get frostbite, and you would die. Your body didn’t have the resources to fight off infection.

“‘What do I have? I have nothing,’” Mr. Greene recalled Siggi saying. “‘All I have is a spoon from the camp.’ He’d taken a spoon with him. And then he looked over — he’d bedded down for the night — and saw a little birch sapling. With the edge of the spoon, he scored bark from the tree and warmed it up in his hands and braided them together and wrapped it around his shoes and it held.

“Literally, a thread of bark saved his life,” Mr. Greene said. Literally, his ingenuity had allowed that bark to save his life.

Once the war was over, Siggi, “who was a native German speaker and had a facility with languages so that he picked up some Polish and Ukrainian, and he learned English” — and had a quick, sharp intelligence — “volunteered to work for the U.S. counterintelligence force,” Mr. Greene said. “He was a Nazi hunter. It was a way of thanking his liberators.” Eventually, “they gave him his own investigator unit, with four men under him.” It also earned him a quick path through Ellis Island once he finally made it to the United States.

When he still was in Europe, working for the United States, he had his first airplane ride — and an epiphany. “He was 20 years old,” Mr. Greene said. “He gets into the plane, and the plane goes up through a cloudbank and then bursts through to the other side of the clouds, into brilliant sunshine.

“He said, ‘In that moment, my faith was reinforced. God was talking to me. Sometimes a cloud gets in between you and me — sometimes Hitler gets in between you and me — but don’t despair. I am always here for you.’”

Siggi Wilzig did retain his faith in God and his fierce connection to the Jewish people throughout his life. As his children make clear, he was tormented by memory, nightmares, loss, and grief, but he held on with belief, will, and a huge capacity for joy. Auschwitz never left him, he said, and he never left it, but that did not mean that he did not live fully and broadly. It’s a complicated balance that most likely no one without his experience can understand fully, but everyone who knew him could see it, could see him walk that taut, high wire.

When Siggi Wilzig got to the United States he had $200, almost no family, even less education, “no business contacts, and no one who could finance him,” Mr. Greene said. “His first job in America was shoveling snow for an hour a day, and then cleaning toilets in a sweatshop. And he went from that to having dinner with President Carter in the White House.”

Some of the Wilzig family in their hometown, Krojanka, in 1932, when Siggi was 6.

Siggi did quite a bit in between the toilets and the White House. He sold ties from the trunk of his car, and then he started driving the car around the country to sell ties, and then “with the little bit of money he made, he started buying stocks,” Mr. Greene said. “That’s the kind of mind this man had. He figured out the workings of the stock exchange. He figures out how to judge a company’s performance. He finds a sleepy little Texas oil company called Wilshire, and he starts buying stock, and he convinces his family and friends to buy stock too.” In case this hasn’t been said yet, another of Siggi’s outstanding skills was selling. He was very, very good at it. “He meets a much more experienced Wall Street broker, Sol Diamond, who also had stock in Wilshire,” Mr. Greene continued. “And this man sees in Siggi, in this little guy” — Siggi’s height, 5 feet, five inches, is a constant source of wonder for everyone who talks about him; everyone says that he seemed much taller, that he seemed massive, but he really was an inch shy of five and a half feet — “the kind of moxie that could lead to a takeover of the company.”

Sol was too old, Mr. Greene said, but Siggi could. And he did.

The oil business was notoriously anti-Semitic, but Siggi, with his mix of implacable determination, brilliance, charm, and fearlessness, eventually won.

“When he went to the board to convince them to cooperate with him, they had doubts,” Mr. Greene said. “‘You are an outsider,’ they said. ‘You know nothing about this industry. You are an immigrant. You are a Jew.’

“So Siggi rolls up his sleeve, points to his prisoner’s number tattooed on his arm, and says, ‘The last person who tried to intimidate me was Hitler, and he didn’t succeed. And neither will you.’

Siggi in June 1946, a year after liberation.

“Siggi takes over the company, becomes president, chairman, and CEO, and quadruples its value in four years.

“Oil and banking were the two most anti-Semitic industries in postwar America,” Mr. Greene said. Once Siggi had conquered oil, he moved on to banking. “Just like he’d read about Wilshire, he read about a sleepy Jersey City-based bank called Trust Company of New Jersey. Just like the oil company, it was run by a board of older men who didn’t have the energy to expand or modernize it. So he galvanizes family and friends, as he had with Wilshire, and they all bought stock in the trust company, and eventually he did the same thing. He proved that he could modernize this publicly owned company and make it more profitable.

“He proved to them that this little shrimp of a Jewish immigrant had the skills to do it.”

Siggi moved to New Jersey — the family went from Newark to Passaic to Hillside and then to Clifton, where Siggi remained until he moved to Fort Lee at the end of his life.

He was introduced — by a client, a fruit and vegetable vendor — to the family of one of his customers, the Sisselmans, a real estate family with holdings in, among other things, local cemeteries. Siggi took Naomi Sisselman out on a date, early in their relationship. “Siggi told Naomi that he wasn’t wealthy enough to pick her up in a $5,000 limousine, but instead they’d go out in a $20,000 bus.

“He was hilariously funny,” Mr. Greene added.

Siggi Wilzig always dressed formally, even at the start of his American life. He was 23 in this photograph.

The bank flourished. The oil company flourished. There were many ups and downs, better chronicled in a business publication than here, but everyone did very well.

Siggi was a workaholic. He also developed strong relationships with the people who worked for him. “Siggi’s story shows a kind of resilience that allowed him to love again, to find joy again,” Mr. Greene said. “It allowed him to have compassion for everyone, no matter what their status in society was. He was a very busy man. You couldn’t get an appointment to see him. But if he saw a lowly employee coughing, he’d say, ‘What’s the matter? Are you sick?’ and then he’d send them to see his own doctors.

“One of his employees had a son who was suicidal. Siggi went to his home and sat with him all day long. He knew what it felt like when you had nothing and no one. Fifty-nine members of his family had been murdered, including his 5- and 7-year-old niece and nephew. No wonder he gave so much of his time to support homes for the aged.”

Siggi was immensely philanthropic. He supported many organizations that helped survivors, and he funded a range of Jewish organizations. He was one of the forces that powered the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And he always devoted the largest part of his heart to the very old and the very young, the people the Nazis most quickly sent to their deaths.

All three of Siggi’s children have vivid memories of their father, who was a formidable presence in their lives, starkly protective, often terrifying, always loving, always the most powerful person in any room.

His oldest child, Ivan — a lawyer and banker who now is a musician whose professional name is Sir Ivan — remembers his father’s 70th birthday. “I made arrangements for the entire family to sit in the front row for Jackie Mason’s opening night for his show on Broadway,” Ivan said. “Then the immediate family went backstage after the show to meet him in person, and then we went to the party at the Marriott Marquis sponsored by the Hirshfeld family. I told my father not to make any plans tomorrow, and he said why?

Siggi’s passport photo.

“The next day, we took him to Le Marais” — the kosher steakhouse in Midtown — “and in walks Jackie Mason. I’d arranged it, so he sits down with my family and has dinner with us, while he and my father sat there trading jokes and one-liners; as it says in the book, they were competing to see who was the funniest Jew in the room.

“It was classic. He was ecstatic, because almost every day in the bank he’d tell Jackie Mason jokes. He had a Jackie Mason accent, and his sense of humor was identical to Jackie Mason’s. That’s why it was such a one-two punch.”

But actually, Ivan continued, his father’s “sense of humor went so far beyond Jackie Mason’s. He’d make up the most far-fetched stories imaginable, and he’d tell these tall tales, and then he’d confess that he was only joking.

“Whether it was him pretending that the charm on his pocket watch was a Phi Beta Kappa key for Oxford, which he completely made up, or pretending to be a superstar athlete in college, which he completely made up — the punchline was that there were no football teams in Auschwitz.”

His father could be scary, Ivan said. “He scared everyone. With his booming voice — his voice was so loud that people would think that he was angry, they’d ask ‘why are you screaming at me? Why are you angry?’ And he’d say ‘I’m not screaming. I’m not angry.’”

Siggi Wilzig addresses all the cadets and officers at West Point in 1975. He was the first Holocaust survivior to do so.

In fact, Ivan said, “it was his energy and enthusiasm,” which were so intense that they could be frightening.

“My father walked, talked, and thought faster than almost anyone else,” Ivan said. “He was 5 and a half feet tall, and if you were 6’2” or 6’3” you would be challenged to keep up with him. That’s how fast he walked. He was pure energy, and that energy translated into so many different things — into enormous business success, enormous popularity. He was a magnet, whenever he spoke he drew everybody in.”

His father also was generous. ‘Even the immediate family was unaware of how far his good will and big heart extended,” Ivan said. “When we sat shiva, we couldn’t believe how many people told stories about what he’d done for them.

“He did it because it gave him meaning to help others. He was so helpless in Auschwitz, in Mauthausen, on the death march. He couldn’t save anybody’s life there. But now that he had money and power, he could save somebody’s life.”

The Wilzigs were members of Congregation Adas Israel in Passaic; the family kept kosher and Siggi observed all Jewish holidays. He was shomer Shabbat up to a point — he didn’t go to shul on Shabbat, but he wouldn’t work or drive.

In the White House for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 1981, Siggi lights a candle. The onlookers here include Elie Wiesel, President Ronald Reagan, and Senator Ted Kennedy.

“My mother was very supportive and very sensitive, particularly about things that might trigger a nightmare or a flashback,” Ivan said. “For example, she wouldn’t make him any kind of casserole, where everything was mixed together, because that reminded him of the slop food in Auschwitz. My brother couldn’t bring back a pewter souvenir mug from a field trip, because the pewter reminded him of the metal cups the prisoners at Auschwitz used. We weren’t allowed to wear long black trench coats because they reminded him of the Gestapo.

“She was the perfect wife in that she was sensitive to all his needs.”

Although the Wilzigs easily could have afforded to move to fancier towns, as most of the Jews who made up the Newark diaspora did, they didn’t. “He never felt the need to move to Short Hills in Essex County, or to Alpine in Bergen County,” Ivan said. “He was amazingly down to earth. He never worried about trying to keep up with the neighbors, or about status symbols. No fancy jewelry or fancy cars or taking fancy vacations to San Tropez like other rich Jews.

“He was happy at Kutshers,” the Catskills hotel that drew many survivors, and a kosher hotel in Miami.

“That was his world. He liked to be surrounded by Jews, to have kosher food, to have other survivors around him. That made it feel like family, not like a vacation, and he had so little family.

Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill swears Siggi in as a founding member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. His good friend and fellow council member Elie Wiesel holds the Bible.

“I really miss him,” Ivan said. “I miss my mother. They were both phenomenal parents.”

Sherry Wilzig, who lives in Livingston, agrees.

She talked about how her father the workaholic could not spare much time for the boards of charitable organizations, although he supported the causes and sometimes sat on the boards, but “he was so much more individually oriented. He literally got a doctor to go into the operating room to squeeze the hand of a beloved officer in the company.

“In his personal life, there was nothing but work — maybe he’d play cards once a week, and he’d go to Kutshers, but his everyday life was nothing but work. But these individual missions, and the time he devoted to them personally, meant so much to him. If there was a personal disagreement in the family of someone he knew from work, he would put himself in between them. He would work to try to keep marriages together, and to stop intermarriages if parents called on him to intervene.

“He was at both ends of the spectrum. He could be so strong and scary, and he could be so sensitive, so compassionate, so caring. It wasn’t the part of him that other people knew, but it was a tremendous part of his heart and soul.”

Siggi is in his bank office in Jersey City. The motto above the mantel is his own.

Sherry talked about a story that’s in Mr. Greene’s book; a story that she learned from the book. Although Siggi talked a great deal about his experiences, some stories were too harrowing to share. It was the story of a young man who was with him in the camps; Siggi had seen that this boy’s mother was the victim of a sadistic experiment in the so-called hospital. He did not tell the young man what he’d seen, but made up a less devastating story, hiding the horror of what he’d seen. “I didn’t know that story in his lifetime,” she said. “It was so moving to me to see him in that light.”

She remembered another story, from when Siggi was in the hospital, undergoing experimental treatment for his cancer. (It didn’t work.) “The million children who were murdered in the Holocaust haunted him,” she said. “My father didn’t complain about any of his treatments, about anything he was going through. But what brought him to tears was a little boy going through chemo.” Siggi wanted to do something, anything, for the child; all he could do was give him the money he had in his pocket. He was wearing a hospital gown, and all he had in it was eleven dollars. He gave that to the little boy, but he’d wanted to give him hope and freedom from pain.

Still, Siggi loved to be silly. “My father said that he was in the French navy, and he had a silly marching dance step and tune that we’d do together. He’d grab my hand and we’d do it together. We were in the hall in Kutshers and we were doing it, and a man opens the door, and my father says, ‘I told that nut and the children to be quiet.’ And then the man closes the door, and we can hear him, through the door, saying, ‘Honey that nut is there again.’”

Siggi always dressed formally, Sherry said. “He always wore a suit. My mother made him get a pair of shorts once, in Florida, to wear on the beach, but he also always wore his socks. So there he was, wearing his shorts and socks.

“He always wore two pairs of socks, and he’d never throw out a safety pin,” Sherry said. That’s because those things could have saved his life on the death march.

Ivan Wilzig

Everything traced back to Siggi’s being a survivor — his confidence that having survived the Germans meant that he’d survive everything else, including cancer; his pride in being Jewish; his feeling of deep kinship, in that word’s literal sense, with other survivors. It was the deepest part of his identity, Sherry said. “When he would introduce me to a stranger who was another survivor, I would lean over and kiss them hello. But it’s like growing up with a movie star parent; at home that’s not a movie star, it’s just mom or dad. We grew up with him being a monumental salesman, but we were in a normal home.”

He didn’t watch much television except shows about wildlife, Sherry said, but there was one exception. Hogan’s Heroes. “He loved watching them make fools of the bungling Nazis.

“But we grew up pretty much normal, even though we knew we were different. We knew that other people had grandparents.”

That was the constant tension in the family’s life — they were partly entirely normal, partly absolutely not.

It was not normal, in the second half of the 20th century, to grow up in suburban New Jersey with a father whose formal education ended in fifth grade. “One of the last things he learned about was the fulcrum and the lever,” Sherry said. “It wouldn’t matter what I was doing — maybe it was trig — and he would look over my shoulder and say fulcrum and lever in German, something like drehpunkt und hebel, and that was his teasing way of saying that he understood it.” Which of course he did not. At least in its specifics.

Alan Wilzig

“But at the same time, this man, who never used a calculator in his life and couldn’t do long division on paper, could solve a problem and go to four decimal points in his head.

“He used to say that there were many who were smarter, bigger, stronger, and they all perished,” Sherry said. “He knew that it could all have gone either way. He had a bit of genius, and a bit of luck.”

Alan Wilzig, Siggi’s youngest child, also remembers his father’s 70th birthday party, the one that featured Jackie Mason, but he has another insight into it.

“Jackie Mason always was my dad’s favorite comedian, and like most comedians Jackie Mason felt that he got screwed. He was a miserable, unhappy person, a guy carrying a lifelong bitterness, a grudge because he didn’t become as famous as fast as he thought he should have. And here he is sitting across from a man who came from the background that we all know, and who maintained a sense of humor and a purely altruistic desire to make others smile and be happy. A man who wanted to love and be loved.”

Alan remembers being in the audience when his father delivered one of the most memorable speeches he ever gave (and remember, Siggi addressed many audiences). It was when Siggi lectured at West Point. It was 1975; Ivan and Sherry were away, in college, but Alan was in his early teens and of course still lived at home. “He was the first survivor to speak at West Point, and he lectured to the full officer and cadet corps,” he said. “He spoke for an hour and 45 minutes, and they kept him for another two hours for questions and answers.

Siggi with his younger son, Alan

“Many of the things they asked him were to try to relate what he told them to themselves. Questions like ‘How does what you just shared with us impact how you live your life day to day?’ He went from the mundane — ‘We go with our best friends, the Wachtels, to dinner, and usually to a movie. But no matter how much we want to see the movie, if there is a line of more than 20 or 30 people, Naomi and Rosanne and Ernie know that we instead we will just go for coffee and cake. Because those lines bring me back to the selection lines at the camps.’

“From the simple to the most touching,” Alan continued, “I was about 12 years old, and he said, ‘You see my youngest son, sitting there? We call him the baby.’ And he said, ‘Every night since he’s been born, he goes to bed and I go in and I kiss him good night, because I am his father and I love him.

“‘And then I watch another hour of news and then I go into his bedroom again and I kiss him a second time, because I love him that much more than just being his father.

“‘And then I have some chocolate ice cream, and I watch some more news, and before I am ready to go to bed I go into his bedroom and I kiss him a third time, for the million and a half Jewish children who were murdered and never got kissed again.’

“And the whole place — all the future leaders of the military, the biggest, strongest goys you have ever seen — they all took the thumb of their right hands and wiped away a tear. It was if a general had walked in and they had done it on command.

Siggi with his daughter, Sherry

“It was the most viscerally powerful thing that I have ever seen.

“My father said that he remembered every day of his life, from the time he was 5. I have inherited his brain, and I remember every one of those kisses for more than a decade, from the time I was sentient to the time I was 18 years old.”

His older brother looks just like their mother, Alan said, and his sister looks like their father. So does he, and the resemblance is even stronger because he’s a man. But Alan is 6’2’’. He towered over his father. “Who knows how tall he would have been if he hadn’t been starved during his formative years?” Alan said.

Still, Alan’s height made Siggi a little apprehensive, Alan said; it was weird for his father to see his own features on a relative giant. “He looked at me and saw our nose, with a little crease at the end, and a defined jawline, the same lips, the same rectangular forehead, the same hair.”

Siggi’s determination to stay as Jewish as possible, even when rabbinic advice pointed in a direction other than the one he took, sometimes was hard on his family.

Although the Orthodox Union, to which his shul, which he loved and supported, says that Jewish law demands the acceptance as Jewish of someone who has converted to Judaism under its auspices, following all its halachic requirements, and although his beloved rabbi, the shul’s Rabbi Dr. Leon Katz, strongly supported the OU’s position, Siggi could not stomach the idea of any of his children marrying a convert. So although Alan and his now ex-wife, Karin, lived together for 12 years, and although Karin would have converted then, Siggi refused to accept her as his daughter-in-law.

After Siggi died, Karin studied for conversion. She waited, Alan reported her as saying, “because I never want to feel or wonder if I am converting to make an impression on your father.”

When she was ready, she and Alan went to the beit din, the rabbinic court that would rule on her request to become a Jew by choice. “Karin passed with flying colors,” Alan said. “And then they asked me how I grew up. I said, ‘We grew up in a modern Orthodox household, keeping kosher, and shomer Shabbes.’ Then they asked if I grew up laying tefillin, and I said ‘no, I didn’t.’ ‘Did you go to shul every Shabbat?’ ‘No, but we went for every festival.’

“And then one of them said, ‘Don’t you know that Shabbat is more significant than Yom Kippur? That it is the foundation of Judaism? How could you say that you grew up modern Orthodox — whatever that means — if you didn’t go every weekend to shul?’

“And I said, ‘You have to understand that we didn’t make the rules, and we didn’t make our customs. My father was unique. He was a strong man. He believed that even the smallest festival had to be observed, and he went to shul, but he couldn’t go to shul every Friday and Saturday and praise and thank God who allowed his niece and nephew and the other 59 relatives to be murdered.

“‘And I am the child of my father, and this is how we were raised.’”

Siggi Wilzig’s life was extraordinary. The power and influence he earned were far-reaching, and he used much of it to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, both not to blot out the memory of its victims and to keep it from happening again. He was deeply scarred by the horror he survived, and he was able to use it to propel rather than embitter him. He managed to seem larger than life, literally much bigger than he was — people now keep calling him short, it seems, to remind themselves that what they had seen so clearly was an illusion, power taking up space. He was charismatic, a master salesman, a brilliant thinker who merged analytic and intuitive styles.

And he was a father and grandfather whose descendants miss him deeply, nearly two decades after his death.

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