Review: Unstoppable

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.

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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.

Brilliant and Bad

In two different books I’m currently reading, I came across the perplexing challenge of the intellectual brilliance of Nazi era Germany combined with its unspeakable moral badness. How does it happen that a nation has both some of the most renown universities, and concentration camps? How can an Eichmann be both so cultured and so complicit in the death of thousands upon thousands of Jews? How can a country known for the excellence of its science turn to diabolical research on human subjects and scientific efficiency in exterminating a people?

I work in the world of higher education where the spoken or unspoken assumption is that education will make us better, more morally discriminating people. There is an assumption that knowledge invariably leads to progress, meaning improvements that enhance our lives and our societies.  I have friends who are working on cures for cancer, designing more reliable jet engines, safer automobiles, and pursuing more just social relationships. There is an element of truth in these assumptions that is undeniable.

Yet I think a danger in all of this is the denial of something yet more basic: that each and every one of us are capable of unspeakable evil.  We want to believe we are basically good. The danger is when individuals and groups become so convinced of the moral rectitude of their causes that they become blind to the evil of their actions. This can happen in all kinds of settings ranging from families to churches, to universities and even governments. More dangerous yet is when a broad swath of “enlightened” society is so convinced of its cause that it turns a blind eye to evil, perhaps accompanied by clever euphemisms where terms like “removal” are substituted for “extermination” or “purification” for “genocide”.

On the one hand, universities can be highly ethical places because of their research ideals. Institutional Review Boards carefully screen research for the consequences to humans or other live subjects, peer review scrutinizes the quality and repeatability of research, and various university regulations prevent invidious forms of discrimination and harassment. Yet I also am concerned that the very moral rectitude in these processes can blind universities to the potential of participating in unspeakable evil in other ways:

  • in the ethical scrutiny of research a blind eye may be cast toward the known potential uses of such research.
  • in the assumption that there is a technological fix for every technological problem, we turn a blind eye to the fact that this could likely create new problems requiring further fixes.
  • rhetoric may be used to divert attention from the true nature of a discussion. For example an expression of moral conviction may be labeled “bigotry” or “narrow-minded” or “puritanical” if it does not conform to prevailing norms. Categorical ad hominem attacks are made on the character of individuals apart from any considered discussion of their moral contention.
  • equally, the incitement of outrage is used to suppress unpopular views apart from any consideration of the cogency of those views. Examples of this include various commencement and other speakers who are “disinvited” because some view they’ve expressed or position they’ve taken was displeasing to some group within the university.

Most thoughtful people looking at the Holocaust respond by saying, “never again”. Yet I believe that the kind of moral rectitude that is blind to the potential toward evil  in some of these examples suggests that evils like the Holocaust could happen here. Whenever rhetoric and outrage clothed in ethical justification is used as a form of powerful suppression of an “other” with whom we disagree, we practice the same kinds of tactics of power used in Nazi Germany. When we assume that we will always use our science benignly we risk becoming sorcerers apprentices who may come to regret what we have unleashed upon the world.

I can hear some of my church friends saying “yeah baby” at this point. I would say to them (and myself) that we are equally in danger of cloaking in moral rectitude political power and political alliances that abuse others. What is striking to me about Nazi Germany is that most of the churches, along with most in universities went along with Hitler. What I wonder is whether the complicity with Hitler arose from the fact that on a smaller scale, both had basically been playing similar power games that Hitler perfected into a brutal art.

What can save us from being brilliant and bad? I wonder if a beginning is acknowledging that this is in fact the human condition. I’m given to understand that the checks and balances in our system of government arose from this assumption, to protect from any one entity so accumulating power to suppress the other, recognizing the basic human propensity to do so. What checks and balances do we need in our life, whether in the church or the university? One might be that of always being answerable to others. Another might be to refuse turning someone who opposes your ideas into a morally inferior demon to be disposed of in one way or another. Yet a third might be to question whether more technology and an increasingly technologized world can always answer the problems of our finiteness and capacity to do ill. Perhaps above all, we need the grace of God, if we believe a gracious God exists.

Do you think that the danger of being brilliant and bad is a real one for individuals and institutions? What do you think can save us from this danger?

Review: A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

a problem from hell

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

Samantha Power gives a compelling account of the twentieth century history of genocide and American responses (largely non-responses) to this horrendous evil. She covers a sobering reality with a journalists skill of both careful documentation and rendering a riveting narrative.

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Samantha Power

She begins with the life of Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who became fascinated at the crimes against humanity wrought by the Turks against Armenians in World War 1. Fleeing Poland when he recognizes the same patterns in the Third Reich, he suffered the loss of most of his family and became a lifelong advocate against these crimes, to which he gave the term “genocide”. His crowning achievement was to participate in the drafting of the UN conventions against genocide.

And so we come to the US response. Lemkin died in 1959 without seeing the US ratify these conventions, which would have done so much to strengthen the world’s response to genocide. We see the bloody regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the war-weary non-response of the US. Ultimately, our former enemies, the Vietnamese brought down this bloody regime and exposed their crimes. Only in 1985, after Reagan’s disastrous visit to Bitburg did he push for the passage of the genocide conventions, although in a qualified form to protect the US against genocide charges.

Sadly, even the Holocaust, even Cambodia are insufficient to arouse the conscience of the US. Power documents a studied avoidance by our political leaders, that discounts evidence of genocide, that equivocates on calling these crimes “genocide”, that fails to use even US diplomatic and economic influence against genocide, and is unwilling to risk American lives to save the lives of the thousands who died in the successive genocides she chronicles in Kurdish Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. By and large, Power chalks this up to a determination that American interests were not directly involved, resulting in the moral equivocations to justify inaction.

The latter part of the book chronicles what can happen when the US does act, as it finally did in Kosovo. Goaded by political opposition, the Clinton administration authorized US involvement with NATO bombings and subsequent peace-keeping efforts that brought an end to the Milosevic regime’s efforts to exterminate or “cleanse” the land of Albanians in Kosovo. And subsequently it supported the seizure of Milosevic and many other war criminals to be tried for genocide at the Hague. Very belatedly Rafael Lemkin’s dream is realized.

The book ends in 2002, just after 9/11. Since then we have witnessed genocide in the South Sudan, and a current ominous situation in the Central African Republic. Samantha Power is now US ambassador to the United Nations and a senior official in the Obama administration. It will be interesting to see whether Power can change from the inside the culture of inaction she decried from the outside.

Who is Raphael Lemkin?

If “Raphael Lemkin” was a Jeopardy answer, the question might be, “who coined the word “genocide”? I’ve been reading Samantha Powers’ A Problem From Hell and the first part of the book is a fascinating account of the life and struggle of this Jewish lawyer from Poland to awaken the world’s conscience to systematic efforts to exterminate groups of human beings and to prevent further occurrences of such events.

His earliest exposure to this issue came with his study of Turkish efforts to eliminate the Armenian population in Turkey. In 1933, as an international lawyer, he made a presentation on The Crime of Barbarity at a League of Nations conference in Madrid. Nothing was done, and little did he, or the other delegates realize that they would soon witness one of the greatest examples of “barbarity” in human history–one Lemkin barely escaped and which took the lives of his parents and several other family members when the Nazis invaded eastern Poland.  All told, he lost 49 relatives to the Holocaust.

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In the US, he became a tireless crusader to raise awareness of the Holocaust and create international structures to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Along the way, he recognized that there was no single word that adequately captured the particular phenomenon of seeking to extermination of a particular people that was universally adequate. Lemkin, who knew fourteen languages, and was something of a philologist recognized the power of words and arrived at the term “genocide” combining the Greek genos (family, tribe, race) with the Latin -cide (killing).

He succeeded in enshrining this word in the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 and saw it ratified by over 20 countries (but not the US) before his death in 1959.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and so it seems fitting on this day to remember Raphael Lemkin, who did so much to fight genocide, and who lost so much to the Holocaust.

[This post was written in 2014. In 2015 Holocaust Remembrance Day was April 16. A calendar of Holocaust Remembrance Days for subsequent years may be found here.]