Joshua M. Greene is an American author, filmmaker and speaker. For 30 years, he has worked on a wide array of pieces related to the Holocaust. His most recent book is a biography of the life of a Holocaust survivor turned business mogul titled, “UNSTOPPABLE: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend.”
Greene, who was in town last week to discuss the book, said that he started writing about the Holocaust when he was introduced to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust testimonies at Yale University, which was endowed by his father-in-law, former jewelry and home furnishings CEO Alan Fortunoff.
“It kind of stuck with me that this was something I wanted to be a part of,” said Greene.
The documentarian and biographer became aware of Wilzig when he received a phone call from Ivan Wilzig, son of the late entrepreneur who said Greene was the man to write his father’s biography because of his prodigious past work.
After Ivan mentioned what his father had gone through in concentration camps and death marches, the author stopped him and said he was flattered. But, he added, he had ceased writing Holocaust stories.
“This was a book I actually never thought I was going to write,” said Greene. “I had done maybe a dozen biographies and as many documentaries on the Holocaust and I was finished. It was too much darkness, too much gloom, too much tragedy.”
He recalled Ivan exploding over the phone, saying that his father was a beacon of light to every immigrant who ever came to America and a ray of hope for anyone who has been through tragedy.
“I did some research, and I found out that Ivan, Siggi’s son, was not exaggerating. That his father was really one of the most extraordinary stories in post-war American history,” said Greene.
After being liberated by American troops in Austria’s Mauthausen death camp in April 1945, Wilzig weighed 80 pounds and had no education. In 1947 at 21 years old, Wilzig came to New York and worked all kinds of jobs, from shoveling snow to selling furniture. Later, he went into the banking and oil industries.
“By the time he was done, he had built an oil and banking empire with more than $4 billion in assets,” said Greene. “You gotta ask yourself, how did he do that? That’s what this book is all about. It’s the story of this volcano of a guy who had stared into the abyss and found a way to manage [memory of the Holocaust], not get past it.”
According to his son Ivan, Wilzig was diagnosed with stage four multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. He said his father fought the disease for two years before he passed away in 2003 at age 76.
He left behind his wife Naomi Wilzig, an erotic art collector, who moved from New Jersey to Miami Beach and founded the World Erotic Art Museum in 2005 after his passing. He was also survived by his three children, Alan, Ivan and Sherry.
The author mentioned that as a biographer, one must work particularly hard if the subject is not alive. It becomes the writer’s job to put together all of the bits and pieces that remain from a lifetime.
In order to write this book, Greene spoke to more than 100 people, including Wilzig’s family, friends and colleagues. He said the story had to be told properly and credits Wilzig’s children for being there every step of the way, making sure that their father’s story was told accurately.
“That was important. Not just to depict him properly, but also remember, we’re dealing with the Holocaust here,” said Greene.“You can’t get one thing wrong.”
The history and storytelling of the book had to be extremely accurate before it was ready for the public, which is why Greene said the biography took seven years to put together.
He said that writing this book reinforced something he already knew: that in media, you have to be prepared to do the hard work. He continued by saying that in order to have a good story, you must research and have the noblest intentions.
When reading “UNSTOPPABLE,” readers should grasp that they are capable of doing a lot more than they think. Wilzig demonstrated that in his life.
Asked what Wilzig would want from readers, Greene said, “If Siggy were here, I think he would say, ‘Never forget the Holocaust. And don’t think that because maybe you’re not Jewish, that therefore this doesn’t concern you.’ ”
“UNSTOPPABLE: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend” was released on April 6 and is available to order on unstoppablesiggi.com.