There will likely never again be a businessman like Siggi B. Wilzig, the only survivor of Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Mauthausen to come to America, poor and uneducated, and rise from cleaning sweatshop toilets to becoming CEO of a New York Stock Exchange–listed oil company and a multi-billion-dollar commercial bank. That he did so in two of postwar America’s most antisemitic industries makes his achievements even more astonishing.
Most takeovers of publicly traded companies are led by American-born, Ivy-League-educated men from affluent families with master’s degrees in business. Siggi was an unskilled laborer armed with only a grammar-school education, a foreigner who arrived from Europe with $240 in his pocket and made his first dollar in America shoveling snow.
Everyone interviewed for this book agreed on one point: no one had ever known anyone even remotely like him. While all acknowledged the miracle of his having survived years of suffering during the Holocaust, what interviewees emphasized was how he overcame that tragic history to become a powerful force in American business. He stood less than five-and-a-half feet tall, yet people described him as a towering figure who had no fear of formidable opponents. One former colleague compared his achievements to those of David, the diminutive warrior whose agility and precision brought down the giant Goliath to become King of Israel, and suggested Siggi’s triumph over his antisemitic enemies was no less astonishing than that of his biblical counterpart.
Judging by recordings of Siggi’s public talks, he also possessed King David’s inspired voice. Siggi exercised an oratory ability described by more than one former associate as “Shakespearean.” When, for instance, 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 eloquence that students and seasoned veterans wept. His voice, clear and precise despite a noticeable German accent, rose and fell with the emotion of the moment. 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, attentive to detail, focused on educating his audience—and listeners departed from these encounters inspired as deeply by the man as by his message.
Customers, friends, and business associates described him with the kind of enthusiasm reserved for world leaders, with superlatives such as “unforgettable,” “a volcano,” and “a genius,” while others called him “an irresistible force of nature” and “the most brilliant man I’ve ever met.” No one failed to mention the one descriptive they knew meant more to him than all others combined: Holocaust survivor.
While creating an accurate account of Siggi’s Holocaust experiences was daunting, the greater challenge was piecing together his metamorphosis after liberation into a memorable figure in postwar American business. Every associate, competitor, and employee interviewed had a favorite Siggi story to share, and each astonishing, frequently hilarious, occasionally shocking story contributed to the portrait of a complex man for whom the value of life was found in dreaming impossible dreams and fighting unbeatable foes.
Siggi was fearless: no opponent was too big. When, for instance, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve—the central banking system of the US government—coerced him into divesting either his oil and gas company or his bank, Siggi sued: the first person in history to sue the Federal Reserve. It was a war he could not win, but what made the fight memorable was his passion for righteous battle. To this day, a half-century later, that landmark case is still studied in law schools.
There is much about Siggi’s life that was exclusive to those who emerged from Hitler’s camps. Yet in this immigrant-survivor’s unstoppable effort to overcome a bitter past and build a brighter future we find a message that is universal, inspiring, and quintessentially human.
On the morning of December 12, 1947, in one of the coldest winters America had ever known, passengers on the ocean liner SS Marine Fletcher crowded the deck to gape at the Statue of Liberty extending her torch of freedom three hundred feet into the sky, her face turned toward incoming ships. “In America, life is golden,” they sang with arms linked, “flowers are more beautiful and life is so much better. . . .” It had taken the 36,600-ton steamer thirteen days to make the journey from Bremerhaven, Germany.
Twenty-one-year-old Siegbert Wilzig had been nauseous, vomiting, and losing weight for most of the two-week ocean journey. Hearing the cheers, he climbed weakly to the top deck and took a deep breath. The fresh air was a relief after the bad smells of so many people cramped together on the deck below. Winter had thrown a silver net of snow and clouds behind the Statue of Liberty, no buildings obstructed his view, and Lady Liberty’s oxidized green body glowed in the morning haze. The Marine Fletcher’s engines pulsed, and the deck trembled beneath his feet. Statistics compiled after liberation indicated that nearly all Jews deported to Auschwitz died within four months of arrival. But here he was, alive and in America after having spent nearly two years in that concentration camp.
Steamships were too big to dock at Ellis Island, so harbor lights guided the Marine Fletcher to anchor a mile away by the Verrazzano Narrows. Ferries arrived port-side, where the crew received passengers clutching weathered suitcases and shuttled them to Ellis Island for immigration processing.
Siegbert was young, but he knew from his years in concentration camps that appearances could mean the difference between life and death. With a little money earned after liberation he had purchased a fashionable fedora, winter coat, and dress pants, and he managed to enter the processing room looking dignified despite the grueling journey across the Atlantic. Windows in the one-story arrival hall were closed against the winter chill. Three-winged metal fans screwed to the wooden walls kept fetid air circulating. Paintings of American presidents behind glass enclosures decorated the processing hall. Siegbert stopped long enough to study his reflection and comb his thick black hair, which rose up from his scalp like a lion’s mane, into an obedient shape that added an inch or so to his diminutive height.
In his passport, immigration officials noted the government special status stamp, which he had earned working for the US Counter-Intelligence Corps, and waved him through. Siegbert—who later changed his name to Siggi Bert Wilzig, which he considered less European and easier to pronounce—scanned the crowd waiting behind a wooden barrier that separated America from the rest of the world. There on the other side was his older sister, Jenny, who of all the Wilzig siblings most resembled their late beloved mother. Seeing his sister revived memories of spring 1936 when he, Jenny, and the rest of their family had fled attacks by antisemites in their West Prussian village of Krojanke, Germany. After dark, the Wilzigs climbed into an open wagon and made their way to Berlin, where cousins arranged rooms for them in a three-story apartment building at Georgenkirchplatz 20 near the public square called Alexanderplatz.
Once his family was settled in their new home, Siegbert borrowed his brother Erwin’s bicycle and conducted reconnaissance around Berlin. By listening in on conversations in cafés, he learned that some people were managing to escape Europe by securing exit visas. Siegbert visited a dozen consulates, looking for back entrances and open windows in his mission to steal the necessary documents. At one consulate, he watched a woman in the last stages of pregnancy push her way past police lines and run inside. Consulates were safe zones—not subject to German law—and a child born there was eligible for emigration. This woman was desperate to save her child’s life, even if it meant giving birth in the washroom of a government building.
Over the next several weeks, Siegbert risked his life scaling embassy walls, breaking into offices, and gathering up rubber stamps, and with the stolen tools he forged three visas. He offered two to his parents, but his mother, Sophie, declined. “I was born here,” she told him, “and I will die here.” Siegbert gave her visa to his older brother, Joe, who had been a prisoner in concentration camp Dachau but managed to get released. Siegbert figured Joe was already a marked man and needed to get out of Germany quickly. In his youth, Joe had been a boxer, and some letters in the Wilzig archive suggest Siegbert may have written on the visa form that it was being issued for “sports competitions.”
His sister Jenny was pregnant, and Siegbert insisted that she and her husband, also named Joe, accept the two remaining visas. On June 10, 1940, as Hitler’s forces were marching into France, Belgium, and Holland, Jenny and Joe left Germany and settled in Shanghai, China. From Shanghai they later made their way to the Dominican Republic, where they were among eight hundred Jews who set up provisional homes in the northern town of Sosua and eked out a living as dairy farmers.
Somewhere amid the English language books and magazines for sale in Sosua’s tin-roofed shops, Jenny found a copy of the US Yellow Pages. She bought it for three dollars and searched for names of jewelry businesses, calculating that jewelers would have enough money to provide an affidavit of support for her and her husband Joe. Under “Jewelers, Rhode Island” she found the Jewish name Silverman and sent a letter explaining their situation. In the following weeks, they received a favorable reply from Mr. Silverman, who provided the necessary paperwork, and soon Jenny and Joe departed for the United States.
Now reunited on American shores, Jenny told Siegbert the tragic news that her five-year-old daughter, Margit, had died of smallpox in Shanghai before the journey to the Dominican Republic. Siegbert remembered watching hundreds of other children die, forced into gas chambers, their dead bodies later thrown into crematoria fires, and made a mental inventory of his family. He was alive. Jenny and her husband were alive. Their brothers, Joseph and Erwin, had survived. Everyone else was gone, including his four other siblings and their children. In years to come, he would calculate that fifty-nine family members had perished.
In a secret pocket of his suitcase, Siegbert had hidden two hundred and forty dollars. He dug into the pocket and pushed forty of the precious dollars into Jenny’s hands, telling her to buy a bus ticket, visit Mr. Silverman in Rhode Island, and offer thanks in person to the man who had helped her reach America. Jenny tried to turn down the gift, saying she had money of her own. Siegbert insisted she take the forty dollars and visit her benefactor. Offering appreciation was what polite people did, particularly Jews who were lucky enough to make it to America thanks to someone’s good graces.
In the two years since she and Joe had arrived in America, Jenny had found work in a sweatshop on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, a refugee-crowded section of Brooklyn. In the assembly line of bowtie manufacturing, Jenny was a “turner.” She took silk ties with one side open and inserted a metal pointer, like a car antenna, under the seam and turned the bowties inside-out. Once the sewing was done, she used the metal rod to turn it right-side out again, which hid the stitching. That was her job, six days a week, twelve hours a day.
Also waiting at the immigration gate to greet Siegbert was a representative from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), recognizable by a white enamel badge in the buttonhole of her jacket and a navy-blue armband. HIAS had been around since 1881, but none of its efforts at resettling Jewish immigrants came close to what it faced in the aftermath of World War II. There were approximately 150,000 refugees who had managed to escape the Final Solution—the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people—and make it to America, all needing a place to live. The HIAS official explained they had arranged for Siegbert to have a free room at Hotel Marseilles in Harlem for the first few months. His sister Jenny had invited him to stay with her, but the prospect of a space of his own appealed to him more than sharing his sister’s modest apartment. This was his entrance into America, and he would make it on his own terms. He kissed his sister goodbye and promised to call her once he was settled.
He walked out of the immigration building into the worst snowstorm in recent history and boarded a ferry that soon arrived on the Manhattan side. The snowstorm had become so intense that HIAS volunteers used sleds to move suitcases from the dock to waiting buses. Siegbert boarded a Greyhound bus and got off an hour later at 103rd Street and Broadway where he entered the lobby of Hotel Marseilles. Since the stock market crash of 1929, the eleven-story Beaux Arts hotel, built of brick and limestone and crowned with a sloping mansard roof, had lost much of its charm. The forty-year-old building was now a dilapidated halfway house for refugees.
Gazing around the lobby he saw meeting areas, a recreation space, a medical examination room, and a kosher dining hall, meaning that the food served there respected Jewish dietary laws. Conversations were taking place in a dozen languages. He approached a bulletin board and read announcements inviting immigrants to receive free English lessons and attend screenings of films that would orient them to life in America. In one corner of the lobby a large map of the United States hung beneath a sign that read THIS IS HOW AMERICA LOOKS. Tacked to the wall were photographs of city scenes with ribbons stretching to the cities’ locations on the map. He watched arrivals line up in front of a table where volunteers distributed suits and dresses. Then the arrivals were escorted to their rooms. For many, it was the first time in years that they held a key to their own quarters.
Siegbert looked out from his window, down onto pedestrians heading home through blinding snow. Amazement over being in America was quickly giving way to harsh realities.
“What now?” he wondered. He had nothing: no resources and no credentials. He spoke with a thick German accent, had only a grade-school education, stood five-feet-five-and-one-half inches short, and years of torture and starvation were still fresh in his mind. Yet here he was, still breathing, staring out the window at snow-covered New York streets. By comparison with the past, everything here was a paradise. The bus ride to Harlem from Ellis Island had been paradise. The neighborhood grocery stores, high-rise apartment buildings, and beer trucks were paradise. His smelly room in an overcrowded hotel with cockroaches scurrying across the scuffed hardwood floor, the heavy snowfall outside his window, the two hundred remaining dollars in his pocket—which would soon disappear if he didn’t find work—it was all paradise.
On the street below his window, weary pedestrians fought driving winds and six-foot-high snowdrifts, evoking for Siegbert harsh memories of other blinding storms when starving men and women trudged forward on death marches wearing nothing more than thin prisoner uniforms. Traffic in the New York streets snarled and drivers honked their horns, impatient to get to wherever they were going. Even to a twenty-one-year-old newcomer like Siegbert it was clear that Americans, who never knew the inside of a concentration camp, were alive in every sense, moving purposefully toward some vision of tomorrow. He liked that. He would do that, too: grasp opportunities and not allow the darkness of the past to rob him of a bright future.
In that seminal moment of his new life, Siegbert made three promises to himself. First, he would never go hungry again. Second, he would marry a Jewish woman, have children, and help rebuild the Jewish people. Third, he would preserve Holocaust memory and speak up whenever he witnessed injustice. He had no illusions about such vows. He knew better than to think he could change the world. Antisemitism would never go away and Jews would always be persecuted. That was just business as usual. Still, the Almighty had saved him, and now his job was to grab whatever scraps remained from the rubble of his life and cobble them back together into an edifice of yet-to-be-determined size and shape.
Staring down from the window of his room in Hotel Marseilles, Siegbert remembered a promise he had made after liberation. His best friend in Auschwitz had been a young man six years his senior named Lothar Nartelski. Siegbert had promised Lothar he would visit his parents once he reached America. Lothar had a sad history. He was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other. When he walked, he hobbled, which was sufficient in 1932 to disqualify him for an exit visa with his parents, since most nations refused to accept refugees who were physically hampered or could not work. Lothar’s parents had no choice: if they were ever going to save their child, they had to leave Germany and arrange some other way to secure a visa for him. The Nartels left Lothar in the care of a sympathetic family, wept in fear for his future, then hurriedly boarded a boat for America. Sometime after arriving in New York, the Nartelskis changed their name to Nartel and moved into a home in the Bronx, a few subways stops from Hotel Marseilles.
HIAS officials in the hotel lobby explained to Siegbert how the New York subway system worked. He buttoned his overcoat against the cold, walked to the nearby subway entrance, put a nickel in the wooden turnstile, boarded the next train, and made his way to the end of the line, Van Cortland Park. He found the Nartels’ home and knocked, and Jacob Nartel’s wife, Katie, opened the door. The Nartels knew about Siegbert from letters their son had sent home and when Siegbert introduced himself, Katie screamed.
“Oh my God! Jacob! It’s Siegbert! He’s here!”
“In those days people still opened their door to strangers,” Siggi recalled for an interviewer. “The Nartels had a small place, a three-room apartment that was typical German-Jewish, sparkling clean. Lothar’s father, Jacob, sold neckties. He sold everywhere, including barbershops and shoe stores, three ties here, five there, a dozen somewhere else. They were in shock seeing me, but what a fantastic dinner they gave me! They wanted to know everything—what happened, how their son survived, how I survived.”
Siegbert had not yet told anyone his story. What could the Nartels or anybody else possibly understand of concentration camps, of lice and filth, of torture and starvation and piles of dead bodies? The gap of understanding between those who had been there and those who had not was insurmountable. People in the 1940s were accustomed to movies about the war—Hollywood had been working that angle for years—but movies had a beginning and a middle and an end. There was no “end” for people who had survived the Holocaust. Still, Siegbert had made a promise to Lothar, whose visa had not yet come through, that he would find Lothar’s parents and tell them what happened, and here they were. They were entitled to know.
So, as he would do many years later for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation—a preeminent archive of survivor testimony—and as he would do in dozens of lectures for other organizations during his lifetime, he swallowed the pain and told them the story.