#223 Unstoppable Siggi Wilzigs Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend

Summary Notes


In "Unstoppable," Joshua M. Green recounts the extraordinary life of Ziggy Wilzig, an Auschwitz survivor who transformed his harrowing experiences into a drive for success, becoming a Wall Street legend. Starting with nothing but the haunting memories of lost family and the guilt of survival, Ziggy leveraged his indomitable spirit to conquer the worlds of oil and banking. Despite facing the bureaucratic challenges of the most regulated industry, he grew his bank from $180 million to over $4 billion in assets, all while battling the Federal Reserve and other authorities, refusing to be dictated to. His story is one of resilience and the relentless pursuit of opportunity, a testament to the power of self-belief and the enduring human spirit. Ziggy's legacy, marked by a complex relationship with faith and an unwavering commitment to his business, is an inspiring tale of triumph over unimaginable adversity.

Summary Notes

Survivor's Guilt and Memories

  • Survivor's guilt is a common feeling among those who lived through traumatic events while others did not.
  • Vivid memories can be both a blessing and a curse, providing a strong recall of cherished moments but also retaining traumatic experiences.
  • Ziggy has an exceptional memory, recalling details from childhood and the horrors of Auschwitz with equal clarity.
  • He wears two pairs of socks and carries a safety pin as reminders of survival tactics from the camps.

"Any survivor who has a heart and brains lives with guilt that they survived and others didn't."

This quote highlights the psychological burden of survivor's guilt, questioning why one person lives while others perish.

"I remember everything since I was three and a half years old."

Ziggy's exceptional memory serves as a testament to the lasting impact of traumatic events and the clarity with which they can be remembered.

"I wear two pairs of socks... Because in the camps, a pair of socks could make the difference between living and dying."

The significance of the two pairs of socks is symbolic of the hardships faced in the concentration camps and the small margins between life and death.

Ziggy's Arrival in America and Family History

  • Ziggy arrives in America in 1947, sick from his journey but relieved to be alive after surviving Auschwitz.
  • He is about to reunite with his sister Jenny, who had escaped Europe before the war.
  • Ziggy had played a crucial role in securing his family's escape from Germany by forging exit visas.
  • Despite his efforts, many family members, including his parents and siblings, were killed in the Holocaust.
  • Ziggy arrives in America with little to his name, determined to seize opportunities and not let the past overshadow his future.

"21 year old Ziggy had been nauseous, vomiting and losing weight for most of the two week ocean journey."

Ziggy's physical condition upon arriving in America underscores the toll of his experiences and the challenging transition to a new life.

"Ziggy risks his life scaling embassy walls... With the stolen tools, he forged three visas."

His resourcefulness as a child in securing his family's escape showcases his courage and determination from a young age.

"The $200 in his pocket would soon disappear if he didn't find work."

This quote emphasizes Ziggy's precarious financial state upon arrival and the urgency to establish himself in America.

Ziggy's Time in Auschwitz

  • Ziggy's survival in Auschwitz was not due to education but rather the perceived protection of a higher power.
  • He describes the camp's conditions, the cruelty of the guards, and the strategies that helped him survive, including lying about his age and skills.
  • Ziggy's mental resilience and self-confidence, even in the face of utter dehumanization, were crucial to his survival.
  • The book details the brutal reality of the Holocaust, including the separation of families and the murder of children.
  • Ziggy's story is a testament to the human spirit's capacity for endurance and the haunting nature of such traumatic memories.

"How did I remain alive for almost two years in Auschwitz? It wasn't by education. It was the hand of the Almighty."

Ziggy attributes his survival to divine intervention, reflecting on the inexplicable nature of why he lived when so many others did not.

"The guards were sadist, and they looked for any reason to kill... I always felt superior to them."

Despite the horrific circumstances, Ziggy maintained a sense of self-worth and mental fortitude, which he believed helped him survive.

"Between 1.1 and 1.3 million people were murdered in Auschwitz."

This statistic underscores the scale of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz and the miraculous nature of Ziggy's survival.

Ziggy's Post-Holocaust Perspective and Mindset

  • Ziggy's nightmares and memories of the Holocaust provide him with a stark contrast between life and death, reinforcing the value of his current life.
  • His experiences shaped a powerful mindset that refused to succumb to despair, focusing instead on survival and future success.
  • Ziggy's self-confidence, developed in childhood, played a significant role in his ability to navigate both the horrors of the Holocaust and later business ventures.
  • The story of Ziggy's life serves as a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of perspective in the face of adversity.

"As terrible as it sounds, I don't think I could live without the nightmares."

Ziggy views his nightmares as a grounding force, reminding him of the preciousness of life and the importance of resilience.

"It was obviously a touch of arrogance, and some of it was justified, and some of it not justified."

This reflection on his mindset highlights the complex interplay between self-confidence, arrogance, and survival instincts.

"I have nothing to complain about... I have an espresso machine that makes espresso anytime I want it."

The contrast between Ziggy's past suffering and his present comforts serves as a powerful reminder to appreciate the relative peace and prosperity many people experience today.

Ziggy's Early Experiences in Auschwitz

  • Ziggy's father died due to poisoned potatoes, and Ziggy believes he might have inadvertently contributed to his father's death.
  • Ziggy covered his father with a blanket to preserve the memory of him alive rather than as a corpse.
  • Ziggy and his family had been in Auschwitz for less than 40 days when this occurred.
  • A few weeks later, Ziggy learned of his mother's death in the gas chamber upon her arrival at Auschwitz.
  • Older prisoners encouraged Ziggy to give up, but he refused to accept that he was doomed.

"I wanted to remember him the way he looked in life, not the way he looked in a pile of corpses."

This quote illustrates Ziggy's desire to retain a dignified memory of his father, despite the horrific circumstances of his death.

"He just refused to believe that he was doomed."

Ziggy's determination to survive is highlighted, showing his resilience in the face of hopelessness.

Ziggy's Interaction with a Prisoner Doctor

  • Ziggy met a prisoner doctor in Auschwitz who was described as a philosopher.
  • The doctor's advice was to follow instincts when making decisions, as the "right" choice was often unclear and could lead to death.
  • Ziggy sought advice from the doctor regarding an SS recruitment for carpenters, fearing it might be a trick.

"You're a smart young fellow, the doctor said, follow your instincts."

The doctor's advice to trust his own judgment became a lifelong principle for Ziggy, shaping his future decisions.

The Death March from Auschwitz

  • Ziggy and a small group, including his friend Lothar (later Larry), had to make life and death decisions under great uncertainty.
  • They hid under barracks to avoid the death march but eventually decided to join the march rather than risk freezing to death.
  • Out of nearly 6000 prisoners who started the march, only 1600 survived, including Ziggy and Larry.

"Better they all agreed to take the chances on the march rather than freeze to death."

This quote underscores the dire situation Ziggy and others faced, having to choose between potential death scenarios.

Ziggy's Loyalty to His Friend Larry

  • Ziggy felt a strong sense of obligation to Larry, who had previously saved lives, including his own.
  • Larry was weak and feverish during the march, and Ziggy helped carry him, ensuring his survival.
  • Ziggy advised Larry to claim he was a metal worker to increase his chances of survival.

"He saved my life. I have this obligation to do the same for him."

Ziggy's commitment to reciprocating the life-saving actions of his friend Larry is evident in this quote.

Ziggy's Post-War Survival and Liberation

  • Ziggy survived by using the bodies of deceased prisoners to obtain more rations.
  • He awoke one morning to find the Germans gone and American soldiers liberating the camp.
  • Ziggy, weighing less than 90 pounds, was evacuated to a Red Cross hospital in Austria.

"The next morning, ziggy slowly raised himself up and peered out of the barrack window. The Germans were gone."

The moment of liberation is captured, marking a significant turning point in Ziggy's life.

Ziggy's Reunion with Larry and Post-War Life

  • Ziggy and Larry were reunited in the same hospital.
  • Larry's parents discovered their son's survival through a newspaper photo.
  • Ziggy volunteered for the US Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC), which later helped him immigrate to the United States.

"Fate had assigned them to the same hospital."

This quote reflects the extraordinary circumstances that led to Ziggy and Larry's reunion after the horrors of the Holocaust.

Ziggy's Work with the CIC and Hunting Nazis

  • Ziggy's team in the CIC was tasked with capturing former Nazi oppressors.
  • They successfully apprehended Hans Goebbels, the brother of Joseph Goebbels, and turned him over to the Americans for questioning.

"Let's go hunt some Nazis."

Ziggy's role in the CIC was proactive and involved direct action against former Nazis, showing his commitment to justice.

Ziggy's Arrival in America and Early Struggles

  • Ziggy arrived in New York with minimal resources but was determined to build a new life.
  • His first job was shoveling snow, followed by work in a sweatshop, and then as a necktie salesman.
  • Ziggy's entrepreneurial spirit led him to start his own business manufacturing change purses.

"21 years old, no education, thick accent, $200 in his pocket, no skills, really, to speak of, and a mind tormented by just witnessing the darkest period of maybe human history."

This quote paints a picture of the challenges Ziggy faced upon arriving in America, setting the stage for his later success.

Ziggy's Personal Life and Prejudice Encountered

  • Ziggy's relationship with his future wife Naomi faced opposition from her wealthy family due to his refugee status.
  • Despite his own experiences with prejudice, Ziggy later exhibited similar biases towards his children's potential partners.

"She lunged at Siggy and smacked him in the face. Get out. She yelled, you're not welcome here."

The quote illustrates the prejudice and rejection Ziggy faced from his future wife's family, despite his ambitions and survival story.

Ziggy's In-Laws' Initial Skepticism and Acceptance

  • Ziggy's in-laws initially skeptical due to his lack of Ivy League education.
  • They later recognize his work ethic and dedication as he becomes integral to their business.
  • Ziggy's focus and workaholic nature are key to his eventual success.

"So eventually, his in-laws do come around. They realize, okay, he's very motivated. He works extremely hard. He's a workaholic."

This quote highlights the eventual change in perception by Ziggy's in-laws, acknowledging his motivation and work ethic.

Ziggy's Entry into the Stock Market

  • Ziggy studies the stock market in his spare time while working in the family business.
  • He invests in stocks, notably in Wilshire Oil Company, indicating his preference for concentrated investments over diversification.
  • Ziggy's wife, Naomi, expresses concern over the focus on stock accumulation despite financial pressures.

"In his spare time, he studied the stock market. And with the money earned from selling bronze plaques and granite headstones, he purchased modest amounts of stocks."

This quote describes how Ziggy began his journey into the stock market, using his earnings to invest, which sets the stage for his future business ventures.

Meeting Sol Diamond and the Path to a Business Empire

  • Ziggy meets Sol Diamond at a community event, a turning point in his life.
  • Diamond, an experienced entrepreneur, sees potential in Ziggy and suggests a takeover of Wilshire Oil.
  • Ziggy, despite lacking experience, accepts the challenge, demonstrating his willingness to learn and take risks.

"Diamond had been a member of the New York Stock Exchange, and after retiring, he parlayed his familiarity with the market to become a major shareholder in mining companies and other businesses."

The quote provides background on Sol Diamond, establishing his credibility and influence on Ziggy's decision to pursue a takeover of Wilshire Oil.

Ziggy's Relentless Pursuit of Success

  • Ziggy's perseverance is a recurring theme; he continually seeks new opportunities after setbacks.
  • His ability to convince others to invest in Wilshire Oil highlights his exceptional salesmanship.
  • The process of gaining control of Wilshire Oil is slow and methodical, involving grassroots efforts to build an investor group.

"Ziggy needed to purchase large amounts of company stock. For years, he aggressively solicited family, friends and acquaintances, enrolling everyone he could to purchase shares of Wilshire and join his investor group."

This quote emphasizes Ziggy's dedication to his goal, meticulously building a base of investors to gain control of Wilshire Oil.

Ziggy's Leadership and Growth of Wilshire Oil

  • Ziggy's assertive approach and risk-taking lead to his rapid ascent in Wilshire Oil.
  • His strategy involves expanding operations and increasing the number of wells.
  • Ziggy's narrative to stockholders focuses on the company's untapped potential and future growth.

"Gentlemen, you're looking at a man who had the foxlike instincts to survive history's darkest hour."

This quote from Ziggy to the Wilshire board showcases his self-confidence and positions him as a survivor and a visionary leader.

Acquisition of the Trust Company of New Jersey (TCNJ)

  • Ziggy's ambition extends to the banking sector, aiming to provide a steady cash flow for Wilshire's growth.
  • He takes over TCNJ, growing it significantly, and it becomes a central focus in his career.
  • His legal battle with the Federal Reserve over the relationship between Wilshire and TCNJ is a notable event in his life.

"The more Siggy learned about the nation's complex tax codes, the more he saw one great benefit in Wilshire taking over the bank."

This quote explains Ziggy's strategic reasoning for acquiring a bank, highlighting his understanding of tax advantages and financial growth strategies.

Ziggy's Customer-Centric Approach

  • Ziggy's banking philosophy involves doing things that don't scale, prioritizing customer satisfaction.
  • His personal interactions with customers and attention to their needs contribute to the bank's word-of-mouth growth.
  • Ziggy's eccentric personality and entertainment value are part of his unique management style.

"It would not do to penalize someone because she had not understood the rules. Why give her a reason to switch to another bank?"

This quote illustrates Ziggy's customer-centric philosophy, showing his willingness to go beyond conventional business practices to ensure customer happiness and loyalty.

Ziggy's Eccentric Behavior

  • Ziggy had a vibrant personality, often singing and dancing in public places, indicating a zest for life.
  • His actions led people to believe he might own the places where he performed such acts, but he was simply expressing his joy for living.
  • Ziggy's behavior was a source of pride for his family, despite others finding it odd or laughable.

"But he'd sing at the oddest times. He would sing in restaurants and public places. He would dance in aisles. He would be oblivious to everyone around him. The whole world was his stage."

This quote exemplifies Ziggy's carefree nature and his tendency to treat the world as his stage, regardless of the setting or the presence of an audience.

Ziggy's Approach to Hiring and Work Pace

  • Ziggy had high expectations for his employees, emphasizing speed in walking, talking, and working.
  • He believed in efficiency to the point of not engaging in common courtesies like saying goodbye, which was reflected in his abrupt departures from conversations and phone calls.

"You're not going to walk as fast as me, talk as fast as I do, or think, or work as fast as I do, but you have to do all those faster than you think is possible."

The quote indicates Ziggy's belief in pushing employees beyond their perceived limits, emphasizing a fast-paced work environment.

Ziggy's Customer Recruitment and Loyalty Strategy

  • Ziggy focused on individual customer recruitment and offered exceptional service to create a word-of-mouth referral system.
  • He spoiled certain customers with great rates and service, expecting them to become goodwill ambassadors for his bank.
  • This strategy was employed repeatedly to grow the customer base organically and sustainably.

"You will be referring at least one new customer to me each month. And that's how I'm going to make up for the losses I take with you."

This quote reveals Ziggy's strategic thinking behind giving special treatment to customers, which was to leverage their networks for business growth.

Differentiating Between Employees: Workhorses vs. Racehorses

  • Ziggy categorized employees as either workhorses or racehorses based on their performance and potential.
  • Workhorses did the minimum and followed routine, while racehorses showed initiative and ambition.
  • He believed in the importance of both types but recognized that trying to change an employee's inherent nature was futile.

"A workhorse was someone who did the minimum, followed the same routine day in and day out, and rarely came up with a great idea. A racehorse was someone with potential, an individual who showed initiative, ambition, and the ability to go beyond the call of duty."

The quote distinguishes between two types of employees, emphasizing the need to recognize and utilize each type according to their strengths.

Ziggy's Personality and Influence

  • Ziggy was known for his large ego, which was both a driving force in his success and a source of contention.
  • His ego led to confrontations with authorities but also instilled a sense of self-confidence that empowered him to learn and master various trades.
  • Ziggy's harsh demeanor was coupled with humor, often using amusing putdowns, yet his humor did not overshadow the traumatic experiences of his past.

"So that's why I started laughing him. Those who knew him best understood that the humor did little to erase the nightmares of his past."

This quote acknowledges Ziggy's use of humor as a coping mechanism for his past traumas, suggesting that his wit was a complex part of his character.

Ziggy's Relationship with Religion and the Holocaust

  • Ziggy had a complicated relationship with his religion and God, shaped by his experiences during the Holocaust.
  • He struggled with the concept of a benevolent God in the face of such atrocities, particularly the murder of children and his own family members.
  • Ziggy sought counsel from Rabbi Katz, who acted as his therapist and confidant, discussing existential questions and business matters.

"How to reconcile a benevolent God with the murder of more than a million children in the Holocaust."

The quote reflects Ziggy's struggle to understand the coexistence of divine benevolence with the horrors he witnessed, a central theme in his life.

  • Ziggy often clashed with regulatory bodies like the FDIC, the Fed, and the SEC due to his disdain for rules and authority.
  • He was forced to make changes to his business practices but maintained a critical view of the banking industry's regulations.
  • His legal battles were a testament to his combative nature and belief in his own judgment over that of regulators.

"I should have my head examined for picking the most regulated business in the world."

This quote captures Ziggy's frustration with the heavily regulated banking industry and his regret over choosing a field that often clashed with his independent spirit.

Ziggy's Parenting Philosophy and Legacy

  • Ziggy was demanding of his children, believing that enduring his tough personality would prepare them for future challenges.
  • He imparted wisdom about resilience, emphasizing that only death is permanent and all other setbacks can be overcome.
  • His success was evident in the growth of his bank and his substantial estate at the time of his death.

"Never give up. Only death is permanent. Everything else can be fixed."

This quote serves as a powerful summary of Ziggy's philosophy on perseverance and resilience, which he shared with his children and lived by throughout his life.

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