Most of the thoughtful people I know have been asking whether they need to get more involved in social action. We live in turbulent times; are we compelled by our moment in history to do more? Is community involvement a moral imperative?
The late Auschwitz survivor Siggi Wilzig was physically small (less than five and a half feet short), but he never underestimated his ability to make a difference. He was the product of a thousand years of German Jewish history, and all he knew as a teenager in the 1940s was that you either acted and figured out a way to survive or you died. Doing nothing was not an option. Siggi was good at surviving.
His biography, Unstoppable, highlights his survival skills. “We need bricklayers,” he heard one SS officers tell another in Auschwitz. Seventeen-year-old Siggi ran up, whipped off his prisoner cap, and said, “I’ve had four years as an expert bricklayer.” It was a foolhardy move, since not only was it an outright lie, but prisoners could be killed for speaking without permission. One officer looked at the other, shrugged, and said, “Why waste him?” For the next two months, Siggi survived doing a job he knew nothing about.
After one particularly grueling day of hard labor, Siggi and other prisoners were confronted by a drunken guard who demanded, “Who knows how to sing?” Nobody moved, so the guard beat one of the prisoners to death with a rubber hose. Siggi calculated that the guard might kill all of them if no one sang, so he stood up, jumped side to side, and sang, “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun…” The guard clapped, stomped his boots, then handed the young prisoner a slice of stale bread.
“What would have happened if he didn’t like my singing?” Siggi said to an interviewer years later. “In a concentration camp, you never knew if something you did would save you or kill you.”
By January 1945, Germany was losing the war and, knowing Allied forces were approaching from the east, the Auschwitz administration marched prisoners out of the camp. Siggi was among thousands who were forced to walk hundreds of miles through rain and snow to concentration camp Mauthausen in Austria. The ground was thick with ice and mud, and Siggi’s shoelaces dissolved and broke off. He risked losing his shoes, and without shoes he would quickly die of frostbite.
“I needed something to hold my shoes together,” he recalled, “so when we stopped for the night, I crawled over to this thin tree and peeled off strips of bark. Then I twisted the strips together and tied them around my shoes—and they held. That’s how I survived. I didn’t survive thanks to education, which I didn’t have. It wasn’t brains—I didn’t have much of that either. It was the hand of the Almighty.”
Faith, for Siggi, did not preclude exercising common sense. As a believing Jew, he viewed taking action as an invitation for higher forces to intervene.
Putting aside issues of faith, as I wrote Siggi’s biography, there were many anecdotes that compelled me to think about what it means to be a responsible human being today. Like Siggi, I find doing nothing reprehensible, no matter how great the hurdles to be overcome. We either move forward as a civilization or risk sliding backwards. There is no holding still in life. And you never know: you just might be the one additional voice needed to make all the difference.
I’m reminded of something Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, used to say. “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.”
Joshua M. Greene earned his degrees in religious studies from Hofstra University. His book Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and Penniless Immigrant to Wall Street Legend will be distributed in April by Simon & Schuster.