Siggi Wilzig, the subject of my recent biography Unstoppable, was born in 1926, in Krojanka, West Prussia. Jews between the world wars were a small minority in Europe—never more than 1% or 2% of the population—yet Jewish culture thrived. One exponent of that culture was Nobel laureate author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903-1991), son of a Polish village rabbi, who settled in New York City in 1935. Singer earned a reputation not only as an accomplished journalist but also as a candid observer of human nature. He made his reputation as a writer of fiction for adults, but in his later years he turned to stories for young people.
One of his most famous series of children’s stories, the comical Fools of Chelm, features slapstick characters—armies running in the wrong direction, a shrewish wife who dumps slop on her husband’s feet, neighbors attacking one another with pots and pans—in dilemmas laced with sophisticated messages of value to readers of all ages.
Siggi Wilzig loved telling stories. He built his business empire in large measure based on the irresistible tall tales he foisted on unsuspecting customers, and no doubt was familiar with stories by Singer such as this one, titled “The Snow in Chelm,” which manages to convey both the folly of wisdom and the wisdom of folly. I retell the story here in abbreviated form.
Chelm was a village of fools, of whom the most famous were the seven Elders. They sported white beards and “high foreheads from too much thinking,” Singer describes. Once, during the holiday of Hannukah, snow fell and covered Chelm, shimmering like jewels on the ground. That evening the Elders sat looking at the snow and wrinkling their high foreheads. Chelm was a poor shtetl, a town always in need of money, and Gronam, the oldest Elder, shouted out, “The snow is silver!”
Not to be outdone, another Elder exclaimed, “I see pearls in the show!”
“I see diamonds!” a third called out.
It was clear to them that their poverty was at an end, as a treasure had fallen from the sky.
Then they began to worry that in the morning the people of Chelm would go walking and trample the treasure. Another Elder, Silly Tudras, had an idea.
“We’ll send a messenger to tell people to stay inside until we’ve gathered up all the silver and pearls and diamonds.”
Then another Elder, Dopey Lekisch, said with concern, “But the messenger will trample the treasure.”
High foreheads again wrinkled, until Shmerel the Ox shouted out, “I know! The messenger should be carried on a table, so his feet won’t touch the snow.”
The Elders loved the idea and sent Gimpel the errand boy to fetch a table. To carry the table, the Elders enlisted Treitle the cook, Berel the potato peeler, Yukel the salad mixer, and Yontel the goat keeper. Each took hold of a leg of the table, Gimple climbed up onto the table with a hammer for tapping on windows, and the ensemble set out to alert Chelm’s citizens to not trample the snow.
Meanwhile, the Elders discussed how they would spend this great treasure. One proposed they use it to purchase a goose that laid golden eggs. That way, Chelm would have a steady income. Another said they should use the treasure to buy eyeglasses that made things look bigger, so Chelm would no longer be a poor village but a big city. Clever ideas abounded.
They debated through the night. Morning came and sunlight lit up the village. The Elders looked out of the window and, to their horror, discovered that the table carriers themselves had trampled the snow. The treasure was gone.
The Elders slapped their high foreheads and argued about where they had gone wrong. Maybe they should have chosen four other people to carry the four men who had carried the table. The Elders concluded that if, next Hannukah, a treasure should again fall from the sky, that is exactly what they would do.
For their part, the villagers were not disappointed and praised their Elders. For, after all, whatever Chelm’s problems, the Elders were always there to find solutions—no matter how ridiculous they may be. Or, as Siggi Wilzig used to say of people who ignored his good advice and instead made foolish investments that only lost money, “It goes to show you—even smart chickens crap on their own feathers,” quoting an old Yiddish saying.
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.