Best business books 2021: an unstoppable force

Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey From Auschwitz Survivor And Penniless Immigrant To Wall Street Legend
by Joshua M. Greene (Insight Editions, 2021)


Every word of the long title of the wonderful new book by Holocaust scholar Joshua M. Greene resonates in the finely crafted text: Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey From Auschwitz Survivor And Penniless Immigrant To Wall Street Legend. This is why this fascinating tale of suffering, persecution and triumph is the best business book in the form of a historical narrative this year. Born in 1926 in Poland, Wilzig lost his parents, three brothers and a sister to the Nazis and barely survived Auschwitz himself before coming to America and reaching great heights in two industries in which the anti-Semitism was common.

Wilzig’s survival at a time when so many dead – almost all Jews deported to Auschwitz perished within four months of their arrival – was due to a mixture of daring, pragmatism, a certain propensity for the bull and a luck bordering on the miraculous that would mark his entire life. life. When he arrived at the camp, the 16-year-old declared himself a master toolmaker, despite the fact that he had never practiced this trade. As a result, he was ordered in line with those who would be sent to work rather than those who would be killed immediately.

After the war he went to work for the Americans, helping to track down the Nazis. His captures included Hans Goebbels, the younger brother of Joseph Goebbels. And his job earned him a visa to the United States. He arrived in 1947 at the age of 21 with only US $ 240 and no education beyond elementary school. “The Almighty had saved him, and now his job was to salvage the remains of the rubble of his life and reconstruct them into a building whose size and shape are yet to be determined,” Greene says in one of the many. examples of beautiful writing in his book. Wilzig got his first snow shoveling job for $ 2 a day.

America was a safe haven for a Jew who wanted to engage in certain types of business. “By way of reference, until the 1960s, Jews made up only about 1% of top executives in finance, heavy industry, communications, transportation, and utilities,” Greene writes. “An American Jewish Committee survey of the 25 largest banks in the United States in the 1970s found only one Jew among 377 commercial bank executives in senior positions.

Wilzig created opportunities for himself. A “world-class storyteller, comedian and charmer” who wasn’t afraid of failure or hard work, he could tell people with perfect panache that he had been a quarterback or a track star. , according to its audience. They would believe it. Then he would show them his Auschwitz tattoo.

Wilzig could tell people with perfect panache that he had been a quarterback or a track star, depending on his audience. They would believe it. Then he would show them his Auschwitz tattoo.

“If business students studied the business methods of Siggi B. Wilzig, they might conclude that success is matched by nerve and stress,” Greene writes. Nevertheless, these chances that Wilzig created for himself met a very prepared mind.

At an early 1960s dinner for Sol Diamond, a prominent Newark, NJ entrepreneur, Wilzig, then a fledgling investor, discovered that he and Diamond had both started buying shares in a small oil company called Wilshire. Oil Company of Texas, which owned land in Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming and California. The business was very poorly run, and Wilzig and Diamond had both spotted an opportunity, but Diamond said he was too old to lead a takeover. Would Wilzig consider doing it for him?

Wilzig enlisted friends, family, and anyone else he could find to rack up enough stock to threaten the board with a takeover. In less than a year, after impressing the board with his plans and after the previous chairman died of a heart attack, Wilzig became president and CEO.

Soon after, in 1969, Wilzig used similar tactics to take over a bank called the Trust Company of New Jersey. “The fact that he did this in two of America’s most anti-Semitic industries after the war makes his accomplishments even more astonishing,” Greene writes.

The acquisition of a bank by Wilzig was not at all random. Indeed, Wilzig was channeling his contemporary Warren Buffett, who bought his first insurance business in 1967. Buffett’s brilliant idea was to use the “float” of insurance premiums to fund other businesses; Wilzig saw how he could use money from a bank for similar purposes. If Wilshire could acquire 80% or more of the bank’s shares, the bank could “ride” to Wilshire taxpayer money that was otherwise owed to the government. This money could help Wilshire finance its growth. (Perhaps no coincidence, Wilzig was ahead of its time in other respects as well: The Trust Company of New Jersey may have been the first bank to offer stock options to everyone, including entry-level administrative workers.)

Wilzig couldn’t stand being told no. He announced his takeover of the bank just as the Nixon administration was putting in place emergency measures to break inflation under the leadership of a tough new Federal Reserve chairman named Paul Volcker. One of the rules was that any non-bank company that owned or operated a bank had to cede banking or non-banking operations. Wilzig – and all the other bankers – had a decade to comply. When the time came, the Fed told him that it had notified nearly 400 parent companies that they had to get rid of their bank subsidiaries. Wilzig was the only one who refused to do so.

At this point, Wilzig sued the Federal Reserve. Of course, he ultimately lost this impossible battle. In the meantime, he gave his daughter Sherry responsibility for the oil business, which meant the surrender was only in name.

His bank flourished. In 2004, the year after Wilzig died from advanced multiple myeloma, it was sold for $ 753 million, which was a “mind-boggling” 6,755% gain from the date of the spin-off in. 1983.

The book, of course, is more than the story of a successful businessman despite obstacles. It’s also a book on faith — not easy faith, but complicated. “I have a mixed relationship with God,” Wilzig told his son Alan. “I go to the synagogue on all Jewish holidays to give thanks to the Almighty. Without the will of the Almighty, there is no way that a shorty like me survived the Holocaust. But I don’t go to synagogue every week. I find it hard to be thankful for the murder of 1.5 million Jewish children, or the murder of my innocent 7 year old nephew and 2 year old niece.

His success did not allow him to escape his demons. In 1979, academic Helen Epstein published Children of the Holocaust, in which she says she “set out to find a group of people who, like me, were possessed by a story they had never experienced.” Wilzig exhibited many of the characteristics mentioned in Epstein’s book. “If we dared to question or disobey, he would pick on it in a cruel way, for example by pretending to withhold his love,” his son Ivan once said. “He always loved us, but that wasn’t always the case. “

In an interview with Steven Spielberg for the USC Shoah Foundation, Wilzig said: “When people ask me this question, ‘How did you survive?’ I am leaving out one small thing, which is not really small. Namely, any survivor who has a heart and a brain lives in guilt, that they have survived and others do not… here I am, and they are all dead.

He never let go of his anger either, even though it was buried in humor, gratitude and challenge. When he spoke at the US Military Academy at West Point in 1975, the first Holocaust survivor to do so, he asked, “Why has the world stood idle and done nothing?” … The government knew about it. They knew it as early as 1943.

But he also knew who had won. He was once asked what he would say to Hitler. “Nothing would hurt him more than to see the rebirth of the nation of Israel,” replied Wilzig. “We survived him… just as we survived the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Stalin and the murderous PLO. I would show him beautiful little Jewish children and I would have nothing to say.

Honorable mentions:

Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment
by Maxine Bedat (Portfolio, 2021)

This biography of a humble piece of clothing – a pair of jeans – provides a window into the global economy and sheds light on its efficiency, inequalities and interconnections. Part of a non-profit organization that aims to green the fashion industry, Bedat traces the journey of raw cotton from Texas to factories in China and garment factories in South Asia, and finally to markets in Africa. where second-hand pants find a second life.

Accomplishment: Win and lose in America with one click
by Alec MacGillis (Macmillan, 2021)

The click of a single button on an e-commerce site triggers a huge chain of events and, over time, creates immense social and economic impacts. In Accomplishment, MacGillis, a reporter at ProPublica, takes a look at the ecosystem that has been built around Amazon, including warehouses in Baltimore, office towers in Seattle, and data centers and logistics outposts throughout the world. country.


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