Millions At Stake!

We present “Millions at Stake!” a chapter from the riveting new Holocaust biography, Unstoppable by Joshua M. Green

 (photo credit: UNSTOPPABLE)
(photo credit: UNSTOPPABLE)

In the lean years when he was still a salesman, Siggi took his family on vacation to Asbury Park or Atlantic City. For the price of a handful of quarters he could indulge his children in games of Skee-Ball and pinball and buy as many hot pretzels and saltwater taffies as their adolescent stomachs could hold. Once his personal fortunes grew, he drove Naomi and their children to Kutsher’s Country Club and Resort Hotel in the town of Monticello, in the Catskill Mountains.

“At Kutsher’s, we had a card game every Sunday,” described Arnie Young, who owned a large industrial tools company and had known Siggi since the 1960s. “It started right after breakfast and went on for hours. Whether the game was seven-card poker or ten-card gin rummy, he played like his life depended on it. He got so excited over cards you’d see this big vein bulging across his forehead. It worried me. I talked with him about it, but he would just yell, ‘You don’t understand! Four dollars is not the point!’ It wasn’t about the money. It was about winning. After having lost everything in the camps, winning meant everything to him.”

Siggi loved Kutsher’s. He loved sitting by the pool. He loved being with other Jewish vacationers in a place where he could not only relax but also network and find new customers for his bank. He was wealthy and could have taken his family to any of the resorts in the area, but Kutsher’s was his preference. Grossinger’s, fifteen miles north, catered to a more religious crowd. The Concord, a 1,200-acre behemoth with its own landing strip and post office, was the resort of choice for a more assimilated Jewish crowd. Kutsher’s was Siggi’s preference for several reasons. For one, Kutsher’s was family-oriented and offered a wide range of sports and other activities for kids. Then, too, he enjoyed the entertainers, many of whom had gotten their start in show business at Kutsher’s. A typical weekend might feature the likes of Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld, or old-time greats such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Dean Martin. Another incentive for choosing Kutsher’s was that the hotel’s owner, Milton Kutsher, treated Siggi like royalty, providing him with reserved VIP tables in the dining hall and nightclub and arranging for him to have two private phones: one in the card room and one by the pool, a privilege extended to no other guest.

“Put my calls through immediately,” Siggi instructed the front desk.

“But Mr. Wilzig,” an unsuspecting employee argued, “we have a policy of no calls . . .”

“Milton Kutsher approved it,” Siggi corrected him. “Put my calls through immediately! THERE ARE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS AT STAKE!”  The calls were put through.

“Sell fifty million short-term treasury bills!” he yelled into the phone. “Buy a hundred million long-term treasury bills!” all the while playing cards and drawing a crowd of vacationers around his pool chair, mesmerized by the show.

“Who is that guy with his own phone by the pool?” they wondered.

Once the crowd began to grow, Siggi hung up the phone, turned his attention to the assembled audience, and the stories began to flow. He regaled vacationers with anecdotes of life in prewar Germany and remembrances of the Holocaust. A crowd of five grew to ten, then twenty or more in bathing suits and flip-flops, hypnotized by the dapper business mogul with the explosive voice. Kutsher’s was less his vacation spot than a satellite office and one-man theater in the Catskills.

“My kids called Siggi the Worm Man,” said Lenny Boxer, a prominent Manhattan real estate attorney and fellow Kutsher’s vacationer. “He would go down to the lake and bait a hook. Then he’d catch a fish, put the fish back in the water—still on the hook—and wait for a little kid and his father to walk by. Then he’d say, ‘Hello, young man, have you ever gone fishing?’ and hand the kid the rod. He’d point into the lake and say, ‘Watch that red and white plastic float. When the ball moves around, it means the fish is nibbling. When the ball goes all the way down, there’s a fish there for sure. Then there’s a good chance you might catch him.’ After a minute, the fish would swim off, the float would disappear under the water, and Siggi would yell, ‘Look! You got something! Pull back! Pull back!’ And up from the water jumps a two-pound bass—and the kid goes crazy. ‘Look, Daddy! I did it! I did it! I caught a fish!’ It made the kid’s summer something special.”

The gimmick made Siggi’s summer special as well. A child’s happiness meant everything to him, knowing what nightmarish experiments had been done to children in Auschwitz by Nazi monsters calling themselves doctors. Siggi’s fondness for fishing included turning his hotel-room bathtub into a fish tank so all the kids in the hotel could stop by and have a look at the tub full of sunfish, bass, catfish, carp, and pickerel. The children were in awe but finding a bathtub full of flopping fish drove the maids at Kutsher’s crazy. Siggi smoothed things over by letting the maids take home their pick of the catch.

“See this man?” comedian Freddy Roman would say from the stage of Kutsher’s nightclub, spotting Siggi seated in the front row. “This man is the best banker in the world. You need a mortgage loan? A car loan? He’s the guy to see. He’s a banking genius.”

During winter holidays, Siggi brought his family to the Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. Completed in 1948, the Saxony was one of Miami’s first luxury hotels and featured air-conditioned suites and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. By the 1970s, the Saxony was also the hotel of choice for religious Jews looking for kosher food. It had “Shabbos elevators” (elevators that automatically stopped at every floor on the Sabbath when any kind of work, including making electrical contact by pushing an elevator button, was forbidden). From the pool deck, guests enjoyed a view of the hotel’s six-hundred-foot-long private beach—an ideal place for card games among regulars.

Dr. Jerry Quint, a New York heart surgeon, was not one of the regulars. His young daughter, Kelly, had made it into a figure skating competition at the Fontainebleau Hotel down the block, and Quint was passing time at the Saxony while waiting for his daughter’s rehearsal to end. He stood on the hotel deck, watching six guys in shorts and polo shirts play poker. One of the players left the table and Jerry asked if he could join the game. The others waved him in, and Quint sat down next to Siggi.

“Siggi was the world’s worst poker player,” he recalled, “and the other guys read him perfectly. None of them spoke English very well, but it didn’t matter. Whenever he had a really good hand, Siggi pretended it was the worst hand imaginable—totally transparent. ‘Oh! What a terrible hand!’ And if he had a terrible hand, he yelled out, ‘Ah! What a hand! Nobody can beat this hand!’ He lost a lot of money. It drove him crazy.”

The game came to an end and players prepared to leave. Dr. Quint looked at Siggi’s arm and saw his concentration camp number. He knew what it meant. Quint’s stepfather had also been in Auschwitz, where his wife and five children had died in the gas chambers. Quint gently took hold of Siggi’s arm and kissed the number. Siggi affectionately put his hand over Quint’s. Quint gave Siggi his card and said, “If there’s anything I can do for you, please call me.”

One day, Siggi invited Dr. Quint to join his family for dinner in the hotel dining room. Also having dinner that evening at the Saxony was another couple, seated at a table next to the Wilzigs, Elie Wiesel and his wife, Marion. Siggi leaned over his chair, struck up a conversation with the renowned author, and discovered they had much in common. Wiesel was also sixteen when he was deported to Auschwitz, and like Siggi he had also lied to guards that he was eighteen and by doing so escaped the gas chamber. Both men had been separated from their families on arrival at the Birkenau selection ramp. Both had mothers who were sent straight to the gas chambers, and both had fathers who died in the camp.

During dinner, the two Auschwitz survivors commiserated over reports of antisemitism on the rise again. Thirty years after war’s end, antisemitism had grown into a network of terror that threatened ordinary citizens in their homes and schools and on buses and planes. The 1970s were a particularly violent decade for Israelis, who faced constant tragedy and armed attacks. In 1970, operatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) fired two bazooka shells into a school bus, killing twenty-five people, including nine children. In May 1972, three men entered the waiting area of Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport, pulled vz. 58 assault rifles from violin cases, opened fire, and killed twenty-six civilians.

Four months later, eight terrorists from the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) scaled a six-foot chain-link fence and entered Olympic Village in Munich. Aided by neo-Nazi insiders who provided details of the village layout, the attackers broke into rooms where Israeli athletes slept. Within twenty-four hours, eleven of the Israelis were dead. On Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973—the holiest day of the Jewish calendar—a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli-occupied territories. In April 1974, three members of the PFLP crossed the Israeli border from Lebanon, entered a residential building in the town of Kiryat Shmona, opened fire, and executed eighteen residents.

More attacks followed in hotels and marketplaces, on buses and public roads. In March 1978, a PLO faction known as Fatah hijacked a bus on Israel’s Coastal Highway and opened fire on passengers, killing thirty-eight people, including thirteen children. Israelis chose less crowded routes to their destinations and looked in all directions when circulating in public. Parents instructed their children to walk away from loaves of bread, packs of cigarettes, or anything else lying on the ground that might be booby-trapped. No one knew when or how the next attack would come.

The US government was warning that if you were Jewish, or if you were the president of a bank or oil company, you were a number-one terrorist target—and Siggi was all three, which explained why he would only hire chauffeurs during those years who were licensed to carry a gun. The continued murder of innocent Jewish men, women, and children thirty years after war’s end was a deep concern that bound the two survivors together. That evening’s conversation was the first of many, and in the months to come, Siggi would find that Wiesel had already envisioned a role for him in one of the most significant Holocaust memorials in the world.

You can purchase the book on Amazon here