American Expert with Acclaimed Author, Joshua M. Greene
Q: I am talking to renowned author, Joshua M. Greene. Can you start off by telling us who you are?
My name is Joshua M. Greene, I am 70 years old, and circumstances have allowed me to be a chronicler of people’s journeys. Some journeys are darker than others. Holocaust witnesses often have very somber stories to tell. Other journeys are much brighter. I did an autobiography on George Harrison which was pure joy.
Q: Can you talk about your current book?
Unstoppable is the story of Auschwitz survivor Siggi Wilzig, who came to American with nothing and built a business empire with assets of more than $4 billion.. It is a book I truly never expected to write because I was done with the darkness. I did not want to write any more about the Holocaust. Then the phone rang one day and a voice said, “You have to write my father’s story. He was an Auschwitz survivor who…” I stopped him right there and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m done with darkness. I only write now about goodness and the light…” And the voice shouted out, “Are you kidding me? My father was a blazing torch, a ray of light for every immigrant. He came to America with nothing, became a giant in oil and banking, two very antisemitic industries in those years, and used his wealth to fight injustice and educate people so the Holocaust would never happen again. He was a complete beacon of light.” So, I did some research and found out the voice on the other end of the phone — Siggi’s son, Ivan — had not exaggerated his late father’s achievements.
Q: Where were you born?
Like all blessed souls, Brooklyn. I grew up on the lower east side of New York City, went to the University of Wisconsin at age 17. In those days, 1967, UW students spent more time protesting the war than studying. And as editor of the student newspaper I was disappointed in the behavior of the student leaders, so I transferred to the Sorbonne in Paris. During Christmas break, 1969, I went to London and discovered yoga and meditation with people who were recording Indian devotional music with the former Beatle George Harrison. When they heard I played the organ in a college band they invited me to come along. So, there I was recording in Apple Studios with George Harrison, jamming away on this hand-pumped organ called a harmonium, and thinking “If I stick with these people, I get God — and The Beatles. Okay. I’m in.”
Q: How did you get interested in writing?
My mother was a public relations executive and I grew up around journalists. In our little apartment, books were our best friends.
Q: Were you a trained writer or did you train yourself?
I suppose some innate literary skill is a good thing, but it’s more important to live life to the fullest. People ask me “How can I get published?” I tell them to go live their life. Go to a museum, go traveling, go see the world, find out more about yourself. How can you write about anything until you know who you are?
Q: What was your first book?
Picture books for children. I became enamored with storytellers when I went to India in my twenties. India has some of the most extraordinary stories in the world, so I started retelling stories from India for children and sequed into biography.
Q: How long did you work on Unstoppable?
Seven years including research, interviews, writing, and dozens of redrafts.
Q: What was your most surprising discovery, given that you never wanted to do another Holocaust piece?
I discovered that it was possible for someone to come out of history’s darkest hour and still be capable of experiencing joy, of loving his life, capable of relishing every moment and give himself utterly to educating others, and dedicating himself to charitable work out of the goodness of his heart. I was not expecting that.
Q: Is there a different pattern to most Holocaust memoirs?
The trajectory of most Holocaust biographies is fairly familiar. It starts with the survivor’s life before the Nazi era, a description of the Nazi noose tightening, then deportations to ghettos and concentration camps or death camps or work camps. Then death marches, then liberation by the Allies, and the subject gradually recovers, builds a new life, and lives happily ever after. That is the general outline of the majority of survivor stories.
Q: Did most Holocaust survivors somehow create a productive life after having survived such horrors?
Yes. We humans are remarkably resilient creatures. But there is no generic description that fits everyone who came through the Holocaust. I find such universalizing — such as “survivor syndrome” — objectionable. There are individual men, women, and children who had personal and unique responses to what they went through. We can say that those who came through those horrible times never got over them. You don’t “get over” the Holocaust. They got on with their lives, but each life is unique.
Q: From your perspective what is the importance of people reading Unstoppable, particularly non-Jewish reader?
So far relevance, Siggi’s story has more relevance now than it did when I started this book 7 years ago. Even within the past year we have seen a resurgence of antisemitism that must have Siggi turning in his grave. You may have seen the photo of the rioter who stormed the Capital on January 6th wearing a sweatshirt saying “Camp Auschwitz” with a skull? Racism and antisemitism are very much alive and at the heart of our current encounter with White Supremacy.
Q: What do you think will become of the world in the next 5 years as it relates to antisemitism? We have seen a rise in it in Europe and I’m told you would be very wise to not wear a yarmulka in Paris, France.
I’m not inclined to prophecy, and neither was Siggi Wilzig. But he did accept that antisemitism will never go away. That’s just the world going about business as usual. Whatever may happen in the next few years, Siggi wanted to educate everyone about what had happened in the past. He spoke at West Point — the first survivor to address the officers and cadets there — and his whole message, to young people in particular, was that we need to be on guard against the hatred once again spiraling out of control.
Q: People like to say there seems to be no “Winston Churchill” waiting in the wings any place on the planet. How do you react to the centrality of Winston Churchill and what became of that dark period and the world absent of Churchills?
There’s a saying, “Some are born great, some become great, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I remember one interview that has stayed with me for the past twenty years. I asked Stephen J. Rockefeller, who had discovered Buddhism early in life, what it was like being a Rockefeller. He took the question seriously and replied, “Some of us are called upon to act out our parts on a grand stage, others among us on a more modest stage. Who is to say which is more important? Our job is to take the opportunities presented to us and make the most of them.” I never forgot that. We can be grateful that there are the great heroes of history, the Churchills, the Martin Luther King’s, the Rosa Parks, and so on. But there is a multitude of heroes and agents of change whose names we will never know because they never became famous. Yet our debt of gratitude towards them is just as great.