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.