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Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany—and a Grandson’s Journey of Love and Remembrance [Kindle Edition]

Martin Goldsmith
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Alex’s Wake is a tale of two parallel journeys undertaken seven decades apart. In the spring of 1939, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt were two of more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis, “the saddest ship afloat” (New York Times). Turned away from Cuba, the United States, and Canada, the St. Louis returned to Europe, a stark symbol of the world’s indifference to the gathering Holocaust. The Goldschmidts disembarked in France, where they spent the next three years in six different camps before being shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz.

In the spring of 2011, Alex’s grandson, Martin Goldsmith, followed in his relatives’ footsteps on a six-week journey of remembrance and hope, an irrational quest to reverse their fate and bring himself peace. Alex’s Wake movingly recounts the detailed histories of the two journeys, the witnesses Martin encounters for whom the events of the past are a vivid part of a living present, and an intimate, honest attempt to overcome a tormented family legacy.

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Advance praise for Alex's Wake "Martin Goldsmith re-traveled the route of his grandfather and uncle, both lost to the Holocaust, through their internment in France to their horrid deaths at Auschwitz. He found therein a kind of personal deliverance from the guilt that clings so nastily to the survivor. The opposite of love, Elie Wiesel has observed, is not hate but indifference. With Alex's Wake, the author proves himself the least indifferent and, because of that, the most loving of men."--Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball and author of Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked "Alex's Wake is beautiful and brave. Martin Goldsmith's search for the truth is at once a chilling yet affirming account of human loss and recovery."--David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight "There are six million Holocaust stories. All of them are the same in sadness and devastation. Each is different in circumstance and fear. Martin Goldsmith eloquently tells the story of his search for family in the rubble of memory and distance. It's a moving journey of finding the past and his own determined and compassionate present."--Susan Stamberg, National Public Radio "Martin Goldsmith's odyssey brings clarity to a mystery and closure to a tragedy within his own family. By vividly--and searingly--personalizing the Holocaust, he has done a service to history and the collective conscience of humanity."--Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former Deputy Secretary of State Johns Hopkins Magazine, Spring 2014 "This is family history travelogue as act of repentance--candidly written, deeply considered, and profoundly moving." New York Journal of Books, 4/17/14 "Martin's journey and book offer a new perspective on the Holocaust; one that is typically missing from most books and films about the Shoah...Alex's Wake is a powerful and evocative memoir." Boston Globe, Child in Mind parenting blog, 4/22/2014 "Alex's Wake is at one level a history lesson as memoir...The book also reads as demonstration of the healing power of storytelling, and of the transformation of terrible loss in to great beauty...[The] Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam...refers to humanity's shared responsibility to 'heal the world.' With the writing of Alex's Wake, Goldsmith has done his part." Bookviews Blog, May 2014 "[Goldsmith] details his six-week quest to retrace their journey to assuage the guilt he carried for living happily in America despite his family's tormented history. The book is more than just his and his family's, but one that many experienced, including Germans who regretted the horror the Nazis inflicted on Jews and others." Baltimore Sun, 4/29/14 "Underscores the immense moral challenges and failings of a nation that believes itself the leader of the free world...A heartbreaking story of fear, frustration, anti-Semitism and betrayal." The Hub, 6/14/14 "[A] gripping book...A profoundly moving read." InfoDad, 6/5/14 "Alex's Wake is unfailingly well-meaning, carefully researched and skillfully written. It is clearly a work with considerable meaning for its author and, by extension, for those who share a similar family history and similar connections with the Second World War." WTBF Radio, "Book Bit", 5/13/14 "The author could not save their lives, but he was able to save their stories, and the journey restored his faith." The Ivy Bookshop blog, 7/8/14 "[Goldsmith's] skillful recreation of the 'everydayness' of their lives in Germany and France, his powerful and eloquent prose, his deft portraits of the living and dead allow the reader who may have no connection to the Holocaust to become invested in the lives of Alex and Helmut...One can't comprehend 6,000,000 deaths. Martin Goldsmith has saved two of them from oblivion." Military History, July 2014 "The poignant story of Goldsmith's efforts to fill in vital gaps in his family history, as well as of his struggles to understand his own attitudes toward the Holocaust and the people who denied help...Provides a fuller look at two remarkable relatives and is a touching literary tribute to two men among the many people forever lost to the catastrophe that was World War II." Providence Journal, 7/12/14 "[An] unusual book...Much of the story is compelling." Washington Times, 7/29/14 "The shameful tale of the German liner St. Louis, which sailed the seas in 1939 with its Jewish refugee passengers in search of safe harbor, has been told many times...However, Alex's Wake brings something different to the story; namely, that all-important personal touch...What happened to Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt at the hands of the Nazis is too well-known to us to be surprising but, in the telling of their tale here, which tries and succeeds to do such honor to them, is heartbreaking nonetheless." Internet Review of Books, October 2014 "[A] thoughtful and sensitive book...Alex's Wake combines the shameful history of the SS St. Louis with a poignant journey of remembrance. This is a beautiful and engrossing book of lasting value." WWII History, December 2014 "One of the saddest tales of World War II is the voyage of the ship St. Louis.", 12/15/14 "[A] tragic, riveting story."

About the Author

Martin Goldsmith is the host and classical music programmer for Symphony Hall on Sirius XM Satellite Radio and previously hosted NPR's daily classical music program, Performance Today, from 1989 to 1999. He is the author of The Inextinguishable Symphony and lives in Maryland.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2270 KB
  • Print Length: 354 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0306823225
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Trade Paper Edition edition (8 April 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00G1SD9NU
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #655,509 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWER
Martin Goldsmith has written "Alex's Wake", the search for his grandfather and uncle, who had been two of the passengers on the "SS St Louis". The boat, which set out from Hamburg to Havana in 1939 and carrying a total of 937 Jewish passengers, who had been promised asylum in Cuba. After being turned away from landing in Cuba, the ship was also denied entry in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. After being shunted around for two weeks, the passengers were accepted by the UK, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Those passengers who ended up in the UK were the only ones who reached safety; the other three countries were occupied the following year by the Germans and the Jews there were sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

Born 10 years after his grandfather and uncle died, Martin Goldsmith was the son of the one son who reached safety in the US, along with his wife, Martin's mother. Martin was determined to honor his dead relatives by tracing their path from their home in Oldenburg, Germany, to the St Louis, and then through the French camps they were sent to before being shipped by train from Drancy to their deaths at Auschwitz. He and his wife, set off on a multi-week driving trip, beginning in Hamburg and ending up in Auschwitz and this book is an excellently written recounting of Goldsmith's thoughts and emotions in 2011 as he walked in the steps of his dead relatives.

However, while reading the book, I felt there was something missing. And that is the story of Martin's grandmother and aunt, also killed in the Holocaust. Martin begins the book in Oldenburg, Germany, where Alex Goldschmidt had built a fortune in horse trading and then in women's retail. Alex and Toni had four children, two sons and two daughters.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alex's Wake 8 April 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Subtitled, “A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance,” this is the story of a journey. When Martin Goldsmith wrote his previous book, “The Inextinguishable Symphony,” about the lives of his parents, he found that it gave him more questions than answers. Martin Goldsmith’s musician parents had escaped Nazi Europe and fled to the United States and that first book told their story. However, Martin’s paternal grandfather, Alex Goldschmidt and his father’s younger brother, Klaus Helmut Goldschmidt, were not so lucky. This was despite being among more than nine hundred Jewish refugees, who left Germany in May 1939 aboard the ocean liner the St Louis, bound for a new life in South America. The NY Times declared it, “the saddest ship afloat today,” as, after more than a month at sea, it was unable to find a harbour to take those aboard and returned to Europe. Alex begged his son, Martin’s father, to help him and felt he did not do enough for him and his brother. Martin Goldsmith decided to retrace the steps of his grandfather and uncle and also trace his paternal family history. This is the story of that journey.

The book begins in Sachenhagen, where Martin Goldsmith found the home of his great-great-grandfather. He traces the history of his family as prosperous horse traders, the birth of Alex and his move to Oldenburg in Lower Saxony. Alex was a successful businessman, who owned a dress shop, and was respected and liked. As the author meets those that knew his grandfather and uncle, you get a sense of who these people, who had been reduced to statistics, actually were. A kindly man who reduced the price of a dress so a young girl could afford it; a bookish boy who cared for his father and became his companion.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  59 reviews
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and Evocative Holocaust Memoir 5 April 2014
By SeattleBookMama - Published on
Holocaust memoirs take on added urgency right now, between the revisionists who want to rewrite history and claim that the entire thing was either a hoax or dreadful exaggeration, and the fact that the eye witnesses and survivors are nearly all dead now. Martin Goldsmith retraces the journey, both academically and where possible, literally, to the places his Uncle Helmut and grandfather Alex were taken. It's quite a story, and would be a fun read if it were not so horribly, terribly true. As it stands, Goldsmith's narrative pulls his readers in one slim finger at a time, until we are held firmly to the text and must remain until it's done.

The narrative starts out introspective and almost dreamlike. I nearly set it aside about twenty percent of the way in and not returned, thinking to myself that of course, I know the Holocaust was real, but do I want to read about it again? It's not an enjoyable topic, and what good can it do to revisit it? Furthermore, I started to believe that this particular narrative was not so different from other heartbreaking stories, and might be more of interest to the writer and his surviving kin than to strangers like me.

I am glad I kept reading, because just past this point is where we quit the runway and the story takes wing. The writer starts with the visits, first to the Holocaust museum, and then to Europe. He is greeted warmly in his family's former homeland, and he makes speeches and accepts certificates and expresses appreciation to the family who now occupies what was once the family manse for their clumsy token gesture. The current owners clearly understand that circumstances have skewed things badly, and they want to make it up in some impossible way. They were wondering what he would think of a nice plaque on the building's exterior noting its place in history and recognizing his family.

He understands these folks aren't the ones who stole from him. He says and does the right things, but the edge is unmistakably there, as part of him longs to say that if they really want to make things right, to give him back his family's home. Like many who lost wealth and/or family in the Holocaust, he waxes nostalgic, looking with poignancy at the beautiful place that should rightfully be his.

Here I squirm a bit. I don't read rich people's stories for a reason. I don't believe anybody is entitled to vast wealth. It's why the only memoirs I avoid are those of the ruling rich.

But another more important principle trumps my usual one: nobody, nobody, nobody should be disenfranchised of even a penny on account of their ethnicity or race. If anyone at all in Germany gets to have a big fancy house, then Goldsmith's family should. His resentment is righteous; he has the moral high ground here. I think back to an old bumper sticker I once saw, courtesy of the American Indian Movement during the 1960's that read, "AMERICA: love it or give it back." And thus is the untenable yet irreparable theft of the Holocaust's descendents. We can't fix it, so here's your framed letter, your trophy, your plaque, your award. His ambivalence runs deep and is clear and harsh. It should be.

From there, Goldsmith's family saga telescopes out in a way that is so deft, I don't even catch the transitions. This is rare. I spent years of my life teaching teenagers how to make transitions in their writing, and usually when it is well done in professional writing, I sit back and admire it, like the French paintings he describes. I love to watch good transitions happen, but the very best are noteworthy in that I am so deeply into the text that they float by unseen. It's almost magical. And so, as the family's tale is told, we see the larger picture of France and French fascism.

Many of us today want to believe that all of France and much of Germany was simply too afraid of the fascists to resist, but Goldsmith unflinchingly grabs us by the hair, makes us look. There are cheering throngs that are thrilled when the fascists take power. They aren't trembling; they are overjoyed. This is how fascism works, in demonizing a sector of the population, others believe themselves lifted up.

In the end, I was glad to have joined Goldsmith on his journey. For anyone with a serious interest in World War II; the Holocaust; the face and effect of fascism; or contemporary European history, this gem is not to be missed.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful and Well-Told Story of Tragedy and "Inherited Guilt" 29 April 2014
By Glen S. Howard - Published on
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Shortly after publication of his first book, The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany Martin Goldsmith received a telephone call from Nobel laureate, author, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Offering high praise for the book, Wiesel urged Goldsmith to continue to share his talents and begin soon to write his next book. As a reader, I'm grateful that he took that advice.

In "The Inextinguishable Symphony," Goldsmith told his parents' "story of music and love" as musicians in Nazi Germany. That story had a happy "ending," beginning with Günther and Rosemary Goldsmith's emigration to the United States in 1941. In contrast, "Alex's Wake" - the wartime saga of Günther's own father (Alex) and brother (Klaus Helmut) - ends tragically. It is no spoiler to reveal (as the book jacket does) that Alex and Helmut's awful two-year journey ended in Auschwitz in August 1942.

Martin Goldsmith is a gifted storyteller with a talent for beautiful, evocative language. If you're familiar with his warm, resonant voice when hosting classical music programs on NPR or Sirius XM, it's easy to hear that voice while reading his story. (Of course, you don't have to just imagine it if you buy the CD or audiobook, which he narrates, rather than the book itself.) In "Alex's Wake," Goldsmith retraces his grandfather's and uncle's steps and tells their horrific story. He does so not only to share the lessons of a shameful history (in which both France and the U.S. were complicit) but also, more personally, to try to deal in some way with the revelation that his own father failed to do all he could to rescue Alex and Helmut from their fate. Although recognizing the irrationality of carrying such "inherited guilt" - after all, Goldsmith was born 10 years after his grandfather and uncle were murdered - he nonetheless felt compelled to try "to save them." And, he says, "If I couldn't save them, the least I could do was to place flowers on their graves, to tell the world their story, and to bear witness."

In "Alex's Wake," Goldsmith does bear witness - powerfully, movingly, and with unflinching honesty. The book first introduces us to Alex and Helmut, two solid German citizens. Indeed, Alex had fought in the trenches of World War I on behalf of the Reich and received the Iron Cross; and he later owned a successful and popular clothing store in Oldenburg. But then came the rise of National Socialism, Kristallnacht (during which Alex was arrested and then imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp), and the beginning of Jews' "scramble to flee" Germany. Based on painstaking research, including in German and French archives, the book follows Alex's and Helmut's journey first aboard the ill-fated SS St. Louis from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba, where they expected to start new lives, grateful for having escaped the Nazis. But, with remarkable indifference, Cuba, the U.S., and Canada all turned the refugees away and forced the St. Louis to return to Europe. Alex and Helmut could have chosen to disembark in England but they decided instead on France. Had they only known that France would soon become "Vichy France," with its own network of thousands of camps for Jews and other "undesirables," they would no doubt have opted for England. They were initially welcomed in France with open arms, but in a very short time, Alex and Helmut "metamorphosed ... from displaced persons ... to enemy aliens."

Interspersing his relatives' 1939-41 "voyage of betrayal" with his (and his wife, Amy's) own 2011 "journey of remembrance" across Europe, Goldsmith tells of Alex and Helmut's increasingly harsh experiences in one French concentration camp after another. He quotes at length from their remarkable letters, including their increasingly desperate pleas to Günther to help save their lives. And even though the reader, like Goldsmith himself, fully understands that that isn't going to happen, his powerful narrative compels us to share his irrational hope that the story might somehow have a different ending.

The exceptionally moving coda of "Alex's Wake" retells Goldsmith's return, in September 2012, to his grandfather's beautiful home in Oldenburg, Germany. Confiscated by the Nazis, the home is now owned by a couple who were unaware of its shameful history but who now offer a gesture of remembrance and reconciliation. Although initially ambivalent about their offer, Goldsmith comes to terms both with it and, more importantly, with his own "inherited guilt and shame."

As I read the final pages of this book, I found myself, oddly, both smiling and crying. "Alex's Wake" is both intelligent and emotional, both broadly historical and intensely personal, both horrific and life-affirming, both educational and enormously satisfying. It deserves a broad audience.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book of Pain and Untimate Peace 10 April 2014
By Antonia - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Don't read this book if you don't want to be horrified. While Nazi atrocities are well documented and never fail to produce horror when discussed, personal familial stories are not well documented. Martin Goldsmith draws you into this book immediately, and it's impossible to put it down until the book is finished. You get to know his family and live this with them. Rather than have me describe Mr. Goldsmith's style, I suggest you click on both Inextinguishable Symphony and Alex's Wake on Amazon and read his prefaces. You will know what I mean; you'll be captivated and want to buy the book. While you're at it, buy both books. You won't be sorry.

The important aspect of this book is the well-researched and well-documented presentation of the effects of the Holocaust on Mr. Goldsmith's family and particularly on him. This is one story out of millions of untold stories. The seeming "ordinariness" of the cited familial atrocities to millions of people, particularly the Jews, is what makes this book both compelling reading and horrifying at the same time. I read it in two days, not being able to leave it alone, and yet dreading what I knew was the inevitable outcome of his journey. He shares it most personally, and that is what makes it so compelling and yet painful. After such a journey for Mr. Goldsmith, he also shares his liberation from the guilt of having done nothing where he could have done nothing, while questioning his father's inactivity, where he could possibly have done something.

While the final chapter does not make the horror go away--you will think of this book for days and days after--it is cathartic in that Mr. Goldsmith finds peace.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly remarkable story 9 April 2014
By Edward A. Erlandson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
About Alex’s Wake. These thoughts are from the heart and not meant to be a critical review but more about how the reading of the book affected me personally. This family story is a continuation of Martin Goldsmith’s book The Inextinguishable Symphony.

I was deeply moved by Martin’s telling a personal family story regarding horrors of the Holocaust and how it affected him. The fact that the author would share his inner most thoughts with his readers is very special. There could have been no better way to honor his grandfather Alex and his uncle Helmut, as depressing as it was, so that other families of the Holocaust could have some idea to how things really were and perhaps bring a small bit of closure to them. The voyage on the SS Saint Louis began as a trip to a better life and ended up a trip from hell.

I felt, as I was reading, that I was riding along with the author and his wife in their Opel Meriva. The travel itinerary was fascinating as they move throughout France and Germany to visit firsthand the places where Alex and Helmut lived. The amount of information gathered relating directly to his family was amazing. I would not have thought one could find so much. The people met along the way were remarkable in their helpfulness. The dedication to the schedule and the way the author was able to cope with the heart aches seems in itself a way of easing the closure needed to be released from all the disappointments his grandfather and uncle must have experienced. The detail and background information is very interesting.

I was reminded of the film, Casablanca, which begins with a voice explaining how refugees escaping Nazi tyranny in the 1940s would make their tortuous way to Casablanca. "Here the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck," could get to neutral Portugal on the Lisbon plane, "The others wait in Casablanca, and wait..., and wait..., and wait." It made me think of Alex and Helmut waiting all those months for some glimmer of hope that they might escape their dismal existence to a better life. It was so sad when, at Rivesaltes, the author became so overwhelmed with grief for his grandfather and uncle he sat in a corner of the dilapidated remains and cried. I shed a tear with him. It was very moving.

After arriving in France, the starkness of the time really begins to sink in. So many ways things could have turned out differently but didn’t. The atrocities of the German army and to some extent the French were just unconscionable. As the trail to Auschwitz continues from dilapidated camp to deplorable camp the desperation becomes intense. But the help or luck needed never comes.

The part of the story where the author was able to return his father’s ashes to the place of his youth was touching. It is at the former home of Grandfather Alex now occupied by people who had no idea of the history of the home. The author became good friends with the current owners while visiting there. The people of Oldenburg were kind and helpful and the idea of the present owners suggesting a plaque on the house on Gartenstrasse, where Goldsmiths family grew up, as a historical monument was such a compassionate gesture.

The author concludes the story by way of revisiting his thoughts and where it all ended. It seemed to me to have been a blessing by allowing the past to be finally put to rest and the journey concluded. I believe his parents, grandfather, uncle and all the other relatives honored would be proud of what he did. It truly was a journey of remembrance. Thank you, Martin Goldsmith, for allowing us, your readers, to experience this remarkable trek. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in a personal history of the Holocaust.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very personal account of the holocaust 8 April 2014
By Dr. Winrich Freiwald - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a deeply moving, very personal, and highly sensitive view on the holocaust and the second generation of its survivors. Alex’s Wake tells the story of a road trip the author, Martin Goldsmith, undertook through Central Europe following his grandfather's (Alex) and uncle's (Helmut) stages of life and deportation to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. After "The Inextinguishable Symphony", which told the author’s father’s and mother’s story, both musicians who performed in the orchestra of the Jüdische Kulturbund in Nazi Germany, until they managed to escape to the US, this this is Martin Goldsmith's second book on the life and death of his family. Alex and Helmut were bound for the New World as well, having been booked on the S.S. St. Louis to take them and hundreds of other refugees from Hamburg, Germany, to Habana, Cuba. Due to a political intrigue within the Cuban administration, its passengers were denied entry to the country and forces to return, only to be admitted due to last minute efforts by four European countries. What followed for Alex and Helmut, admitted by a France soon to be overrun by the German army, was a series of camp internments and eventually their deportation to Auschwitz. The author traced these steps and then set on a trip to follow each of them, meeting with local historians and acquaintances along the way. Finely interweaving many narrative threads, the author tells the stories of two people, father and son, linking their biographies to the fates of their local communities, their fellow refugees, and to the big patterns of history, stories that bring their lives to the present as the author struggles, traveling in their wake, to comprehend their suffering, and that provide at times tender at others harsh insights into the struggles of the second generation, into guilt and responsibility, and the successes, dangers, and failures of comprehension and commemoration of the holocaust. The book is of invaluable service to bringing insight into all these different dimensions of the holocaust, permitting a unique means for comprehension and compassion. I most highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Jewish life in Germany, into European history of the 20th century and into the shoah.
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