Alex’s Wake: A book of a voyage and a tribute

St. Louis Havana

The St. Louis in Havana harbor. Were Alex and Helmut at the rail, watching the other boats? Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the pleasures of the book reviews I’ve been doing is the excellent historical books that I get to read. I feel like I’m getting a sneak peek before everybody else.

I mentioned back in December 2013 that I’m now writing book reviews for a local publishing company, and I’ve finished a second review. I’m told by my contact that it will be published in an upcoming issue.

The second book review is Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance by Martin Goldsmith. I strongly recommend it for my readers who are World War II history buffs.

To understand the book, here’s a brief background. In May of 1939, a ship called the St. Louis left Germany and sailed to Cuba. Over 900 Jewish refugees were on board with the appropriate papers for immigration.

When the St. Louis reached Cuba, they were not allowed to disembark due to reasons such as political infighting and anti-Semitism. Eventually, the captain took the ship to the U.S. and then to Canada hoping for help, but eventually the ship returned to Europe.

Thanks to the efforts of Morris Troper, the European Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the refugees were finally able to get off the ship at Antwerp. Troper did an amazing amount of work and persuaded four countries to accept the refugees: England, Belgium, Holland and France.

And here’s where the book gets personal. Among the group of refugees allowed to enter France were two men: Alex Goldschmidt and Helmut Goldschmidt. Alex was the author’s grandfather and Helmut, his uncle (Martin Goldsmith’s father later changed the family name).

Alex and Helmut spent time in refugee camps and internment centers located in various parts of France, waiting for rescue. But it didn’t arrive. Eventually, the Nazis overrode France, sending Alex and Helmut to one final place: Auschwitz in Poland.

In 2011, Martin Goldsmith, a Maryland author and radio host, chose to make a journey with his wife to Europe. He sought to visit places where his grandfather and uncle had been prior to the St. Louis voyage  and to recreate their route through France and to Poland. The trip is a way of paying tribute to Goldsmith’s relatives, who he never had the chance to meet.

There are two incidents in the book that really define his uncle and his grandfather. Helmut, as a young teenager, once stood up at a school assembly and protested the anti-Jewish sentiments of a speaker. It was a brave act, since it occurred in front of his entire school.

One of Alex’s former neighbors told the story of how she came to acquire a new dress. She was in Alex’s clothing store and got upset because she had her heart set on one particular dress which was too expensive for her mother to buy. Alex came over to see what was wrong with the little girl, checked the price tag, and said, “Oh, my dear, it looks like one of my employees accidentally put down the wrong price.” (words to that effect) He was kind enough to immediately gave her mother a lower price so that the young girl would be happy with her new dress.

Goldsmith’s account of his feelings before, during and after the trip are a unique and moving perspective on what it’s like to be personally affected by this period of history. Although the book is sad, there is good about it as well. Martin Goldsmith had the opportunity to fill in important gaps in his personal knowledge of his relatives, meet people who still remembered Alex and Helmut, and see where they had been. I was glad for his sake.

And there’s now a tribute to the Goldschmidt family in Oldenburg, at 34 Gartenstrasse. You’ll understand why when you read the book.

 

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Alex’s Wake: A book of a voyage and a tribute

  1. Sounds like my kind of book. I will have to check on it.

  2. While I like historical books, generally I don’t read WWII books. This one sounds more like a family journey and one of human spirit than battles, so I do plan to look for it. I’d heard about this ship and those desperate people on board.
    (As a note, my dad fought in that war, was in France, and was one of the first medics in Dachau as it was liberated. Growing up, our neighbors had numbers tattooed on their arms. Their stories must not be forgotten. Hope this book get widely read.)

    • I didn’t tell too much about the book because I didn’t want to give away all its surprises. I think you’ll like it.

      I’ve visited Dachau — twice. I can only imagine what it was like when your father was there during the liberation.

  3. Hmmm, sounds like an interesting read. I love that time period. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Sounds like a good book. I find the Holocaust personal, painful, and much overwhelming … and then I keep being surprised at how many people know nothing about it. Maybe that’s the most depressing part of all.

  5. Sounds like an intriguing human interest story beyond the historical aspect

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