In 'Alex's Wake,' author Martin Goldsmith retraces his family's final footsteps

1974 JHU graduate recounts his grandfather's and uncle's voyage on the 'St. Louis,' their return to Europe, and their deaths at Auschwitz

On May 13, 1939, the German luxury liner St. Louis departed from Hamburg, setting sail for Cuba. It was a grand vessel, with eight decks capable of handling some 400 first-class passengers and another 500 in tourist class. Nine hundred thirty-eight people were on board when it departed, though none of them were on holiday. They were Jews fleeing persecution by the Nazi regime.

Not all of them were successful. The passengers were denied asylum in Cuba, and the ship sat in port for days before being forced to leave. After being turned away from both the United States and Canada, it returned to Europe, with four countries agreeing to accept the passengers as refugees. The war they were fleeing caught up with nearly a quarter of the passengers, who were killed in concentration camps.

Martin Goldsmith is an author, classical music radio host, and a 1974 graduate of Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts & Sciences. His grandfather and uncle, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt, were two of those passengers. When the ship returned to Europe, Alex and Helmut were among the just more than 200 passengers admitted to France, entering the country at the northern port city Boulogne-sur-Mer. From there, as Goldsmith recounts in his gripping new book, Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, the pair spent the next three years moving from one French camp to another before they were killed at Auschwitz.

In the spring of 2011 Goldsmith retraced their steps, and in Alex's Wake he charts these parallel journeys—that of his grandfather and uncle, and Goldsmith's own emotional narrative of learning about the times, places, and experiences of these two relatives he never knew. It's a profoundly moving read, and Goldsmith spends a considerable amount of time talking about the frustratingly tragic voyage of the St. Louis.

On Monday, Goldsmith and Diane Afoumado, a researcher at the United States National Holocaust Memorial Museum, will take part in a panel commemorating the 75th anniversary of the sailing of the St. Louis at the Library of Congress, in the Whittail Pavilion from noon to 1 p.m.

We caught up with Goldsmith by phone to talk about his research for the book, putting together this complex story, and bringing to light some of the lesser known Holocaust stories that remained to be told.

In the first 1,500 words or so of the book, you introduce and talk about what happened to your grandfather, Alex, and your uncle, Helmut; talk about the St. Louis; talk about their journey that ends in Auschwitz; and talk about how Alex asked his son, your father, to save his life, and how he failed to do so—that's a lot to go through in three pages. And I'm curious: how much of this story were you aware of growing up? I ask because often there's no history more inscrutable than family history. You present it as somebody who is very familiar with it, but how much of this did you have to piece together over the years?

The more I learned about families such as mine, families that include murders by the Nazis, the more I learned that my family was not atypical. My parents were survivors. They managed to come to this country in 1941, literally at the last minute. And their families were murdered and they suffered a great deal of guilt, and they spoke very little about that to me and to my brother. And that apparently is not at all uncommon. So when my brother asked my father, "Hey, why can't we go over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house at Thanksgiving? Where are our grandparents, aunts, uncles?" the response was very brief: They died in the war. And there was nothing more than that. It wasn't until I was in my 40s that I began piecing together the story of exactly what did happen.

In the book you write about visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and doing research, and I got the impression that because of a diligent French bureaucrat writing down names of people in records, that it seems like you were able to piece together part of your grandfather and uncle's journey, the route they took, fairly quickly. Is that accurate? Did you get a sense of their arc pretty early on?

When I first thought of writing about my grandfather and uncle, I knew that they had landed in France after they got off the St. Louis. They landed in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, in June of 1939. And I knew that by January of 1941 they were in the French camp Rivesaltes. And in July 1941 they were transferred to the camp Les Milles. But there was that 18-month gap, from June '39 to January '41. And it was only through the very good offices of the Holocaust Memorial Museum that I was able to determine where they were during those 18 months. Now, at first, I learned only about a couple of those places. It wasn't until later in the research that I learned more detail. But yes, this helpful French functionary of 70 years ago writing a few things down on a document that happened to find its way into the holdings of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, thanks to that breakthrough I was able to learn a lot more.

When you decided to embark on this journey to retrace their path, did you have an idea about how the book would look? I ask because it's structured somewhat like a travelogue, and somewhat like a history book about people's lives and places. Did this approach come to you early on or did this come later in the writing process?

When I set off on the journey on May 10, 2011, I really didn't know what to expect. As I write in the opening chapter, I really felt torn. On the one hand I felt driven to stand where my grandfather and uncle had stood during those three years to try and find out what their lives were like, and to do that I felt that I needed to go on this journey. And I realized that I was attempting a totally irrational quest in trying to save these people who had been murdered 10 years before I was born. But it was something that I felt I really needed to do.

On the other hand I had a certain amount of trepidation that whereas they were transported in cattle cars and at the point of a gun, my wife and I would be driving down superhighways in an air-conditioned car, and we'd be staying in nice hotels and eating great French food and seeing the beautiful French countryside. And I worried that I was somehow embarking on a mockery of my relatives' suffering. But by the end of the journey, those fears had been dispensed with, but it wasn't really until I began to write the book, which was in the fall of 2011, that the structure that you mentioned came to me, essentially telling the background, the history of each place along the route, and then describing, by writing in the present tense, my reaction to what I discovered in 2011. So when the reader reads about what happened in 1939 and 1940 and 1941, I tell the story in the past tense. When I relate what is going on in 2011, I write in the present tense—something that I admittedly ripped off from John Updike in the Rabbit quartet.

How was it making that synthesis? In the book after you talk about how once you got home there's the depression following this journey, and you go back for the plaque ceremony that provides a really effective coda, but I can't imagine looking at this body of material and thinking, There's the story right there. When you made the connection to blend a personal journey with history, did the narrative emerge?

A writer once described writing nonfiction as jumping from tree to tree. There are certain established facts, which he likened to a tree in the forest, and you jump from tree to tree to tell that story. But the challenge is finding which tree to jump through first. I'm not sure when I hit upon this device to switch from past tense to present tense, but it did help me find the voice through which I could tell this story—which is, after all, a story of two journeys 70 years apart. The journeys follow the same road geographically, but they could not be more different in reality. My grandfather and uncle were first refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and then they were refugees briefly welcomed into France, and then after Sept. 1, 1939, they metamorphosed into enemy aliens—they were a) Germans and b) Jews. They were enemies of France because they were German, and after the Vichy government took over in 1940, and especially after the statute against the Jews was released on Oct. 3, 1940, my grandfather and uncle became enemies of France because they were Jews. So their journey through France and my journey through France with my wife could not have been more different, but there was a certain parallelism to them.

I'm pestering you about this structure because after the St. Louis, which I want to come back to in a second, come the chapters about Boulogne-sur-Mer and Montauban and Rivesaltes and Les Milles and Auschwitz. You're telling the stories of these two journeys, one past and one present, in the context of history, and part of this story, we know where it ends, we know how it ends. And by telling this historical story, lurking in the background of that narrative is the rise of the threat of the Nazis, which is very real, and that grows in intensity as the book progresses—was that the effect you were aiming for, that slowly enveloping mood? Or is that going to be in there regardless because that's exactly what happened?

Both. I'm obviously telling the story of Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt. But, while the events of the Third Reich are reasonably well-known, I can't assume that everybody who picks up a copy of the book knows a lot of the history of that period. So I did want to make sure that people would learn the insidious steps the Nazis took toward what we now call the Final Solution, and the reason it was the Final Solution is that there were many interim solutions along the way, beginning with the Civil Service Law of April 7, 1933, and continuing through the book burnings and the boycotts and the Nuremberg Laws and the various statutes and curfews and all these things that were levied against the Jews before January 1942, when the Nazis, at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, came up with this final solution. And I felt it was very important to include that history, not necessarily in an exhaustive way, but in a fairly thorough way that adds background to these two specific victims of the Nazis.

I also realized that the story of the French camps was far less known. I think many people know the names Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, but fewer know the names Rivesaltes or Les Milles or Drancy. I wanted to make sure that people knew there were thousands of French camps for what were deemed the undesirables—Jews and left-wingers and gays, all the people who were caught up in the net of the Vichy government. So I really thought in the telling of the specific story of these two Jews, I wanted to make sure that the background against which their story was told was also complete.

The approach quite successfully shows how you can tell a much bigger story of history through two individual lives. Speaking of things that I think people don't know much about, I was surprised how much I didn't know about the St. Louis. I knew of it, but not about it. You spend a good chunk of the book on its journey. Was that something you felt people didn't know much about, about its fate and what happened with it that you wanted to spotlight and highlight in a certain way?

I think a lot of people know that there was this ship and they may know that it was called the St. Louis, and they know that it was turned away from the United States and then it sailed back to Europe and a number of the passengers on board were eventually murdered in concentration camps. But again, I wanted people to learn as much as possible about this voyage, which has so many fascinating aspects to it. The very fact that it was a luxury liner and everybody traveling on board, the 938 Jews when they left Hamburg on May 13, 1939, 75 years ago this year, none of them was traveling for pleasure. Each of them essentially was being kicked out of their home country, whether it was Germany or Austria, and I think there were a couple of Czechs on board. But they were being kicked out of the country after six years of increasing depravation. Many of them, my grandfather among them, had been in concentration camps after Kristallnacht, and yet they walked up a gangplank to the St. Louis and found themselves on this luxury liner where they had crisp linen on the tables, leaded crystal glassware, the finest cuts of meat and fish, the highest quality toilet paper. There was a band on board. There were dances at night. There was a swimming pool. There were all the amenities of a luxury liner and just how strange it must have been to these people who had spent the last six years being beaten down and then being booted out of the country.

And then all of the machinations having to do with why the St. Louis was not allowed to dock in Havana, and then the negotiations with the American government and the reasons [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] didn't allow the St. Louis to land in Miami or Baltimore, and then why the Canadians rejected the St. Louis as well. And then all the negotiations conducted by Morris Troper of the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, how he managed to get Belgium, Holland, England, and France to accept roughly 250 refugees each. It's a fascinating story.

As you mentioned, when you first started to follow your grandfather and uncle's steps, you didn't want it to be a mockery of what actually happened, and often in the book you wonder what this journey must have been like for them. What insight did you get into your grandfather's and uncle's lives through this process? These are people who were killed before you were born.

As much as anything it was sort of a spiritual or psychic understanding—I was chasing phantoms, as I write in the book. But I did often have this feeling, as I write at the beginning of the Boulogne-sur-Mer chapter, that I arrived too late, that I had this totally irrational feeling that if I maybe showed up a week before or a month before I could have met them, but I just missed them. But I thought—and no doubt my mind was playing tricks on me, or my deeply held desires were playing tricks on me—I felt their presence in many of the places. Certainly in Auschwitz, where my wife, Amy, and I conducted a very small-scale funeral for them, a funeral they obviously were not afforded when my grandfather was immediately gassed when he arrived. He was 63 years old and considered too old to be useful. My uncle was placed into a brick-making school in Auschwitz. He survived only two months. He either died of typhus, as the official medical report says, or he was injected with phenol to his heart, which was done in many instances in barracks 20, where he died. And we were able to put their pictures down in each of those places, a picture of my uncle in barracks 20 in Auschwitz and a picture of my grandfather in the ruins of one of the crematoria in Birkenau. And by holding those little funerals for them nearly 70 years after their deaths, I hoped to allow them to rest in peace in the earth and sky of Poland.

Posted in Arts+Culture

Tagged history, books, holocaust