Siggi's Triumph

From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream

  • Holocaust Survivor
  • Oil Tycoon
  • Commercial Banker

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Siggi Wilzig

Siegbert (Siggi) Wilzig (March 11, 1926 – January 7, 2003) was a survivor of the Holocaust. He arrived penniless in America in 1947 at age twenty-one and, over the following fifty years, became one of the most successful businessmen in postwar America. “He was short of stature (5’-5-1/2”),” commented talk show host Barry Farber, “but in character he was a giant.” Wilzig rose to heights of the predominantly Protestant industries of oil and banking. The engine that drove him forward was a determination to preserve Holocaust memory. 

He was a two-time Presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Wilzig’s life story reveals the tensions and consequences of Holocaust memory and provides a window into the psychology of those who came out of “history’s darkest hour.”

The Holocaust

Siggi B. Wilzig was born in 1926 in Krojanke, West Prussia. The Wilzigs had roots dating back 300 years in Germany. His father was a decorated World War I veteran and trader in textiles and scrap. In February 1943, after two years of slave labor, Siggi and his family were transported to Auschwitz. His mother and other members of his family were sent immediately to the gas chamber. Siggi survived the first of more than a dozen selections by pretending to be older than sixteen and a master toolmaker. His father was bludgeoned by guards and died in Siggi’s arms. He spent the next twenty-three months in Auschwitz. In May 1945, after two death marches, Siggi was liberated from concentration camp Mauthausen by the American forces.

Post-Holocaust

Siggi felt such gratitude for his American rescuers that he spent the next two years assisting the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in tracking down Nazi guards and Gestapo operatives in Austria and Bavaria. He emigrated to America in December 1947, weighing only 98 pounds, with only a few dollars and knowing no one. His first job was shoveling snow in the Bronx after a heavy blizzard that winter. In the 1950s, he held odd jobs including working as a bow tie presser in a Brooklyn sweatshop, a traveling school notebook salesman and a furniture store manager. He met Naomi Sisselman, nine years his junior, and the two were married in a civil ceremony on New Year’s Eve 1953. The couple had three children over the course of their marriage: sons Ivan and Alan and daughter Sherry Wilzig Izak.

Building an Empire

In the early 1960s, Siggi Wilzig discovered that instincts honed in the camps translated into an ability to find hidden opportunities in business. He invested his meager savings, initially in penny stocks. One stock that particularly caught his interest was Wilshire Oil and Gas. With help from friends and relatives, he led a proxy battle and in 1965 was elected to the Wilshire board of directors. Six months later, at the age of 39, he was elected President and Chief Executive of the company. During his tenure, Wilshire acquired a large interest in the Trust Company of New Jersey, a consumer- and small-business-oriented bank. Siggi became a director in 1969 and was elected Chairman and President two years later. Over the next thirty years, he grew the bank’s assets from $200 million to more than $4 billion. He received honorary doctorates from Cardozo Law School and also Hofstra University, where he endowed the Siggi B. Wilzig School of Banking Law. He retired as president and chief executive in 2002. Prior to his death in 2003 from multiple myeloma, he gave testimony for the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation. Running more than ten hours, it is the longest single testimony in the Foundation’s collection. In 2003, the Trust Company of New Jersey, “The Bank With Heart,” was sold to North Fork Bank for $726 million. He is survived by his three children and four grandchildren.

Philanthropy

In addition to his business interests, Wilzig was active in humanitarian and philanthropic causes, particularly those related to the Holocaust. In 1980, he was appointed as a founding member of the Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington. He was the first Holocaust survivor to lecture at West Point. He was a founding director and fellow of the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University. For his support of the state of Israel, he received the Prime Minister Award in 1975. In recognition of his contributions to the United States, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1998. Siggi’s successes enabled him to support a number of charities.  He endowed the Wilzig Hospital, a state-of-the-art medical facility, in association with Mount Sinai Hospital; the Jersey City Medical Center;  the Daughters of Miriam Home for the Aged; and the Jewish Home and Rehabilitation Center.

Book Excerpt

Prologue

THERE NEVER WAS AND THERE NEVER WILL BE another man like Siggi B. Wilzig. He stands alone as the only person to survive Nazi extermination camps Auschwitz and Mauthausen, come to America, and take over an oil-and-gas-producing company and a commercial bank. Most corporate takeovers of publicly traded companies on Wall Street were led by American-born, Ivy-League-educated men from affluent families with masters degrees in business. By contrast, Siggi was an unskilled laborer armed with nothing more than a grammar-school education, a foreigner who arrived from Europe with only $240 in his pocket and made his first dollar in America shoveling snow.

In Nazi-occupied Europe he survived two years of forced labor, two death marches, and a dozen life-or-death selections in two of Hitler’s most infamous concentration camps. In these many treacherous circumstances, Siggi demonstrated foxlike survival instincts for recognizing danger and then knowing what to say, what do, and when to do it—intuitions that helped him not only survive the Holocaust but later become President, Chairman of the Board, and Chief Executive Officer of two publicly traded corporations in postwar America’s most antisemitic industries.

Judging by more than 100 interviews conducted for this book, no one had ever met a man like Siggi. He had miraculously survived unimaginable tortures, but what astonished customers, business associates, politicians and fellow survivors even more was how he overcame that tragic history to become one of the most successful, powerful, mesmerizing figures in postwar America. He stood less than five-and-a-half-feet tall, yet people remember him as immense: a towering figure who took on and defeated formidable opponents. His achievements merit comparison with those of David, the diminutive warrior whose agility and precision allowed him to bring down the giant Goliath and later became King of Israel. Siggi’s skills were no less astonishing and his saga is every bit as epic as that of his biblical counterpart.

Siggi possessed another of King David’s gifts: a divinely inspired voice. When speaking in public, he exercised an almost magical oratory ability. More than one admirer described his language as “Shakespearean.” Because he was such a fascinating speaker, he was invited to be the first Holocaust survivor to address the officers and cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point. As reported in the New York Times, his talk was “vivid” and “personal” and conveyed the horrors of Auschwitz with such eloquent pathos that both students and seasoned veterans wept. When speaking on radio with Barry Farber, one of America’s most popular talk show hosts, Siggi resolved the complex issue of faith-after-the-Holocaust with imagery so succinct even a child could understand. “The Almighty may have created rats and poisonous snakes and Nazis,” he told listeners, “but He also created beautiful birds and butterflies.” 

In speeches, his voice—clear and precise despite a noticeable German accent—rose and fell with the emotion of the moment. His arguments were logical, convincing, his mannerisms effective. He knew when to lift a finger for emphasis, when to pause, when to grip the sides of a podium and when to lean toward listeners for greater intimacy. Siggi spoke the way he lived: with all his being, fully vested, attentive to details, intent on educating the next generation. Listeners departed from these encounters mesmerized, marked for life, inspired as deeply by the man as by his message. Years after his death, colleagues continued to recall his Olympian energy and captivating speech.

Customers and friends remembered him with the kind of enthusiasm reserved for great world leaders, with superlatives such as “unforgettable,” “bigger than life,” “a volcano,” and “a genius.” Others exalted him with highest praise such as “an irresistible force of nature” and “the most brilliant man I’ve ever met.” Without exception, interviewees mentioned the one attribute they knew meant more to Siggi than all other honorific titles combined: Holocaust survivor. When we began this book, writing about that part of Siggi’s life was facilitated by recorded testimonies; interviews taped for radio and television; and transcripts of speeches, lectures, and conversations.

The greater challenge was writing about the miracle that occurred after liberation, namely his metamorphosis into one of the most memorable, influential, and larger-than-life figures of the twentieth century. Every former employee, business associate, family member and acquaintance had a favorite Siggi story to share. And each hilarious, shocking, unbelievable Siggi story contributed to the portrait of a complex man for whom the value of life lay in dreaming impossible dreams and fighting unbeatable foes.

Because he lived life so fully, Siggi also lived with chronic tension, and from the cauldron of that tension emerged a man of quixotic character. Those close to him never knew if he was about to cover them with hugs and kisses or explode in a verbal tirade that would make them wish they’d never been born. Those who knew him best understood his purpose: when he yelled it was not just to berate people but to force them into looking more closely at the consequences of their actions.

When the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, the central banking system of the U.S. government, forced Siggi into choosing between his oil-and-gas company and his bank, Siggi became the first person in history to sue the Federal Reserve. It was a war he could not possibly win, but what made the fight memorable was his passion for righteous battle, no matter how slim the chances of winning. To this day, a half-century later, that landmark case is still studied in law schools.

Read on and discover a different kind of superhero: one whose triumphs defied all odds, who confronted enemies not with physical prowess but spiritual strength, and whose impact on the lives of those fortunate enough to have known him has only grown since his passing.

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faqs

Frequently Asked Questions

Like people I’ve written about in the past, either celebrities or innovators, Siggi Wilzig’s life is surprising, moving and has an unpredictable ending. In outline form, it tells a familiar story: a young Jewish refugee arrives in America with nothing and climbs to the top of the material mountain. In detail, it is a modern-day David and Goliath adventure. In the Biblical account, David was this little guy who takes a sling and five stones from a brook, comes before this pagan giant and shouts out, “This day I will strike you down, that all the earth may know there is a God in Israel.” Well, that was Siggi: five-foot-five-and-a-half inches short, a survivor of Hitler’s inferno, who takes on the giants of oil and banking, and builds a kingdom so that people will listen when he declares to the world that there is a God in Israel. There is this great painting of David and Goliath by nineteenth-century artist Osmar Schindler. That’s the image I have of Siggi.

Siggi would never have said he was different or better or smarter than anyone, certainly not a fellow survivor. In fact, the book’s title plays on that dissemblance. When he said, ‘I’m a genius,” it was sarcastic. His next sentence would be, “I’m no genius.” What did distinguish him was becoming the only Holocaust survivor to commandeer the takeovers of an American oil company and a commercial bank — to say nothing of being the first person in history to sue the Federal Reserve. There was a volcanic drive behind those campaigns. He refused to remain silent when anyone, including the American government, perpetrated an injustice. He was also an extraordinarily eloquent speaker when it came to Holocaust memory. He had a razor-sharp mind, an uncanny facility for language and the intuitions of a fox. Did he acquire those qualities in Auschwitz? Maybe. They were certainly honed to a fine edge there. But like all of us, he was a flawed human being. The best biographies paint a realistic portrait of ordinary people who somehow become extraordinary. Siggi Wilzig was an extreme case of that.

Over and over again in talks and lectures, he said he was “writing” a book. Why? What was his purpose? I found three life goals that were most important to him: provide for his family, protect memory of the Holocaust, and care for the wellbeing of children. Everything he did was to achieve those three ends. But there was a moment when his father laying dying in his arms in Auschwitz, and I think his father’s last word were the theme of Siggi’s life: “Don’t be bitter, and stick to your principles.” To the end of his days, Siggi had nightmares. But he wasn’t bitter. There was a marble plaque on his office wall that said it all: FREE MEN WHO FORGET THEIR BITTER PAST DO NOT DESERVE A BRIGHT FUTURE. He urged people never to forget their bitter past, but he never encouraged anyone to dwell in it. And along with memory of the past came unshakeable faith. Despite every reason to abandon faith in God, he never did.

Siggi never wrote anything down. There was no “Wilzig archive” to work from. He never even wrote letters. So everything had to be pieced together from interviews and historical research. Siggi did give his testimony to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation—in fact, his is the single longest testimony in the Shoah Foundation’s 50,000 hours of recordings. That, plus talks he gave to schools and community groups, add up to nearly 800 pages of transcripts. Those were critical, since they gave me his remembrances in his own words.

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