Siggi Wilzig was born in 1926 in Krojanke, West Prussia (currently Krajenka, Poland). The Wilzigs were an old German family with heritage dating back 500 years in the country. In 1943, the entire family was moved to Auschwitz because they were Jewish. Siggi, then 16, had already spent 3 years doing forced labor. One of his brothers was beaten to death by the Gestapo while the family was living in a Nazi controlled Ghetto with other Jewish families. Upon coming to the camp, Wilzig lied to Nazi guards, stating his age to be 18, not 16. This was his only chance for survival, as he was deemed old enough to work. At Auschwitz, 59 members of his family were killed over a three-year period. After only two days at the concentration camp, his father was also killed. Siggi had to identify his father from a pile of corpses; his mother and grandmother were sent straight to the gas chamber, while his grandfather and one of his brothers were beaten to death, while two others were killed by Nazis guards just two days before the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp was liberated. Twenty times Siggi Wilzig faced the cold stare of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele during the selection process, and each he narrowly escaped death.
Although he had previously worked in the supply warehouses, nicknamed Canada by survivors his last four months in Auschwitz were spent working in a laundry, where the clothes of murdered Jews were washed and redistributed to the Germans. Wilzig was the only child in his Jewish school class of 1,500 students to survive the Nazis' genocidal efforts. In all he spent 1 1⁄2 years at Auschwitz and 6 months in Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp.
Life after the Holocaust
On May 5, 1945, Wilzig — whose forearm bears the number the Nazis tattooed on him, 104732, was rescued from the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria, by the U.S. Army. He was so grateful of his American rescuers that he spent the next two years assisting U.S. Army Intelligence and The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in tracking down Nazi Guards and Gestapo operatives responsible for so many deaths. He immigrated to America in 1947, weighing only 90 pounds, with nothing in his pockets and knew no one. His first job was shoveling snow in the Bronx after a heavy blizzard that winter.
In the 1950s Wilzig held odd jobs including working as a bow-tie gluer and presser in a Brooklyn sweatshop, a traveling school notebook salesman and a furniture store manager. He met Naomi Sisselman, nine years his junior, and the two were married in a civil ceremony on New Year’s Eve 1953. The couple had three children over the course of their marriage: sons Ivan and Alan and daughter Sherry.
Building an empire
In the early 1960s, he played the stock market and invested his meager savings, along with money borrowed from his father-in-law. He made smart investments, buying up cheap Canadian oil and gas stocks. One stock that particularly caught his interest was the Wilshire Oil Company of Texas. Along with his colleagues, Wilzig made a large investment in the oil and gas producer and was elected a member of Wilshire’s boards in 1965. Six months later, at the age of 39, he was elected President and Chief Executive of the company.
During his tenure, the Wilshire Oil Company acquired a large interest in the Trust Company of New Jersey, a consumer- and small-business-oriented bank. Thus with his shared interests, Wilzig became a bank Director in 1969 and was elected Chairman and President just two years later. Since 1971, the bank's assets have grown from $200 million to more than $4 billion. Wilzig retired as president and chief executive in 2002 and was succeeded by his son, Alan. He remained chairman until his death. At the end of 2003, nearly a year after Wilzig’s death, the bank was sold to North Fork Bank for $726 million in an all-stock transaction. 2 years later North Fork Bank was sold to Capital One.
In addition to his business interests, Wilzig was very active in humanitarian and philanthropic affairs, particularly those related to the Holocaust. In 1980, he was appointed as a founding member of the Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington. He was the first Holocaust survivor to lecture at West Point, where after his lecture to the cadets, he received a standing ovation. When Nobel Prize winner Holocaust author Elie Wiesel was appointed to head the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Jimmy Carter, he asked that “Wilzig be the first person to serve with him.” Siggi was also founding director and fellow of the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University. In recognition of his contributions to the United States and for serving humanity while honoring the heritage of ancestors, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1998.
Siggi’s successes enabled him to support a number of charities, He also supported the Jersey City Medical Center, and funded a brand new state of the art hospital that now bears his name, as well as served on the Board of Directors of the Daughters of Miriam Home for the Aged and the Jewish Home and Rehabilitation Center. He even raised over 100 million in Israeli bonds, due to his hard work he was awarded Prime Minister's Medal of the State of Israel.
Siggi Wilzig died in 2003 due to his several year battle with multiple myeloma. He was 76 years old. He is survived by his wife, Naomi, his sons Ivan Wilzig and Alan Wilzig, his daughter Sherry Wilzig Izak, his brother, Erwin, and four grandchildren.