Unstoppable, Joshua M. Greene. San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2021.
Summary: The biography of Siggi Wilzig, an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor who arrived in the U.S. with $240 and built a fortune in both the oil and banking industries while speaking out against the Holocaust.
His mother immediately went to the gas chamber. His father was beaten to death. In all, he lost 57 extended family members in the Holocaust. He survived by his wits, and he believes, the hand of God. This biography tells the story of Siggi Wilzig, who was not stopped by the brutalities of Auschwitz and a forced march to Mauthausen. Starvation did not stop him. He was not stopped by having only a couple of hundred dollars to his name and sweatshop labor. Nor was he stopped by the anti-Semitic character of both the oil and banking industries through which he made his fortune. He did not let the Fed stop him.
He made three vows. This biography describes how he fulfilled them. He vowed never again to starve. He vowed to raise healthy, productive Jewish children and help his people. And he vowed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
When he arrived, his first job was to shovel snow in front of a Jewish store front. In the late 40’s and 1950’s he worked in sweatshops and various traveling sales jobs. He figured out how to sell anything. He started investing in stocks, including Wilshire Oil. At a party, he met Sol Diamond, another Wilshire investor, and together they hatched a plan to take over the company with Siggi as president. They eventually acquired a significant enough share to influence the board, which accepted Siggi’s proposals to turn around the company. This began the company’s meteoric rise and a subsequent purchase of an East coast electronics firm. The challenge was to find adequate cash without exorbitant loans to fund the continued growth of the oil company.
The solution that presented itself was to acquire a bank and “upstream” the profits. His chosen target was the Trust Company of New Jersey (TCNJ). It was a small but profitable bank in which Wilshire eventually acquired an 87 percent interest. Some of the most fascinating aspects of this book are the accounts of how Wilzig ran the bank. He personally courted customers alternately wooing and cudgeling them to bring all their business to him. Much was highly unconventional, and woe to the person, even a family member, who crossed him! A portrait develops of a highly driven man relentlessly pursuing success, unwilling to take no for an answer. He eventually built a bank with $100 million in assets to one with $4 billion. When the Fed tells him that Wilshire must divest of the bank, he takes them to court. Forced to divest, he develops a scheme where his daughter runs the oil company with his “advice” and he runs the bank.
This brings us to family, and particularly his three children. Sherry is most like him in business savvy, and at 23 runs the oil company. Ivan, who Siggi wants to become a lawyer for the bank, and heir apparent, wants nothing of it, but submerges his desire for a music career for twenty years in the bank. Eventually he achieves his dream with a Billboard hit and second career on Broadway, finally making his peace with his father. Third son Alan eventually takes over the bank. Naomi never breaks with Siggi, although she is distant from a man married first to his work. What all understand and struggle with is the survivor who is never truly free of Auschwitz, plagued with nightmares and traumatic memories.
Finally, Wilzig was devoted to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. He was the first survivor to speak to West Point Cadets. He was named to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Council during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and helped the Council work through a thicket of issues before the Museum was finally opened in 1993. He spoke forcefully against Reagan’s visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg and Reagan’s unintended equating of the German soldiers there with the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Dying of multiple myeloma, through the special efforts of Ivan, he records testimony of his Holocaust experience.
Nothing stopped him from keeping his vows. Joshua Greene renders a complex, multi-faceted person. His genuine interest in customers, his ability to crack one liners one minute, only to launch into a tirade the next, his shrewd ability to assess a balance sheet, his love of his children and grandchildren, his loyalty to friends and employees like partner in survival Larry Martel, and his effort to utterly control their destinies, and his undying commitment to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust all combine in this man who was small of stature, with thick, coiffed hair. This is a fascinating biography of a man I’d never heard of who carried the trauma of the Holocaust but was never stopped by it. Greene’s biography also succeeds in doing what Siggi himself sought to do, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust as the survivors pass into blessed memory.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.