Martin Goldsmith’s new book, Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance is at one level a history lesson as memoir. It offers a view of the horrors of the Holocaust from a deeply personal perspective. Goldsmith describes a six week journey with his wife in 2011 to follow the path of his grandfather Alex and uncle Helmut. Revisiting the locations where they lived, he describes the transformation from a life of prosperity and success, through the early years of Hitler’s regime, to their ill-fated voyage aboard the SS St Louis where the promise of freedom in Cuba ended in return to France, and eventually to a final demise at Auschwitz.
The book also reads as demonstration of the healing power of story telling, and of the transformation of terrible loss in to great beauty. The book has its origin in tragedy, as the death of the author’s father is followed less that a year later by the sudden death of his brother. Goldsmith writes:
Exactly eleven months later, on March 30, 2010, I received the shocking inexplicable news that my brother had died. A once brilliant student at Stanford University…Peter had in recent years been struck low by physical ailments and a profound depression that, I am sure, was exacerbated by the long-standing family guilt and shame. Now he was gone, quickly felled by a heart attack. He was 60.
The guilt and shame to which he refers is connected to his own father’s untold history; the story of how his father and brother, Goldsmith’s grandfather and uncle, were left behind to experience a brutal and gruesome end. In the wake of the loss of his own father and brother, Goldsmith finds himself driven to tell that story before his own 60th birthday.
Both Goldsmith’s parents escaped Nazi Germany, a story he tells in his previous book, The Indistinguishable Symphony. But his grandfather and uncle were left behind, despite desperate letters of appeal.
There were reasons aplenty why every effort under the sun might have failed to win his family’s freedom, but the inescapable fact remains that Alex begged his son to save his life and my father failed to do so.
Goldsmith’s parents never spoke of this early history, a fact he understands as an effort to protect him and his brother from the truth. He describes the experience of growing up in that silence:
The guilt that my father carried he passed on to my brother, Peter, and me as our emotional inheritance…How little they suspected that, even without words, we could feel and absorb the unspoken pain that circulated like dust in the air of our home, and how much we were aware of the darkness, the enormous unknown yet deeply felt secret that obscured the light of truth.
Goldsmith is motivated by his own loss to follow a different path from his father and brother. He sets off on this journey of discovery. As such loss is transformed in to creativity.
Many reviews focus on the fascinating history revealed in the book, particularly the terrible, but less well recognized, maltreatment of Jews in France during World War II. I found myself drawn to the story of the two Goldsmith brothers. One lost his way, eventually succumbing to depression and ill health. The other, I hope, found his way to health, in part through the very book I am writing about.
I well understand how those who directly experienced the horror of the Holocaust may be too close to speak about, much less mourn their loss. It may be for them, in a sense, unmournable. It is left to the next generation, inheriting not only their loss, but also their strength, to tell their story.
Goldsmith’s father denied his Jewish heritage. Goldsmith writes:
And there was no acknowledgement that we were Jews, despite that being the singular reason for our family’s violent dismemberment. When I, as a teenager, discovered our religious roots, my father dismissed it all by declaring that we were, at most, “so-called Jews,” He did not choose to regard himself as a Jew despite the unavoidable fact that he’d been bar mitzvahed, that his parents were both Jews…”Adolf Hitler thought I was a Jew, so I had no choice. I choose to exercise that choice now. I am not a Jew,” he said.
Yet Goldsmith finds his way to his Jewish identity, resonating on a profound level with the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur and eventually being Bar Mitzvah’d himself at the age of 55.
At one point in his journey Goldsmith discovers a memorial etched with the words of the Talmud, “Who Saves One Life Saves the Entire Universe.” Knowing how this untold story may have been instrumental in Goldsmith’s brother’s death, one can view this book as an effort to save his own life. This brings to mind yet another Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam, which refers to humanity’s shared responsibility to “heal the world.” With the writing of Alex’s Wake, Goldsmith has done his part.