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.