Book: Alex’s Wake

Alex's Wake Book Cover

Recently I finished reading Martin Goldsmith’s second book, Alex’s Wake – A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance.  I love the way Martin Goldsmith writes. He really can tell a story while weaving the past and present around and through the ages and the landscape.  After reading his first book about his classical musician parents who fled Nazi Germany (The Inextinguishable Symphony), I knew I needed to read the story of his less fortunate grandfather and uncle.

The story of his grandfather, Alex, and uncle, Helmut broke my heart.

Their story reminds me once again of how utterly senseless the Nazi era was. The more individual stories I read about this era, the more upset I become.  What a sad story this one is.

Before the Nazi era in Germany, Alex Goldschmidt was a very wealthy and successful man. He owned an upscale department store in Germany, he owned a stately mansion, and was well liked by his neighbors and customers.  This is what gets me: The Nazis decided it all just wasn’t fair since he was Jewish. They set out to belittle him, to humiliate him. And they could get away with this because of the culture of fear in which they ruled.  Alex Goldschmidt was a good man, husband, father, friend. He fought for his country – Germany – in World War One, receiving an Iron Cross for his service.

When Hitler took power and things began to change in Germany, it was slow at first. But ultimately, and before World War Two broke out, Alex Goldschmidt was forced to sell his beautiful home to the Nazis for way less than than it was worth.  They gave him the equivalent of roughly ten-thousand U.S. dollars for a home that was worth thousands if not millions. This happened after they took the department store from him. On top of this, he was sent to work in a camp for one month and upon his release he was pressured into leaving Germany. But by this time, he didn’t have any income. He scraped together enough money for himself and just one of his sons, Helmut, to purchase a cruise ticket that would take them to Cuba. There were approximately 900 other German-Jewish refugees on that ship, the SS St. Louis.  They got to Cuba, but were never allowed to disembark due to power struggles within the government.

It wasn’t easy finding a country willing to take them, even President Roosevelt of the United States wouldn’t budge. Luckily one man with good connections, Morris Carlton Troper, found four countries to strike a deal with and they agreed to take the Jewish refugees. France took some, England took some, Holland took some, and Belgium took some. Alex and Helmut went to France. But within months, Hitler invaded Poland and World War Two began. Now Alex and Helmut were considered “enemies” of France. Alex and Helmut never made it to freedom. First they were held in various concentration camps within France before finally being transported to Poland, specifically Auschwitz. This was 1942.

In 2011, Martin Goldsmith (Alex Goldschmidt’s grandson) and his wife, Amy, set out to follow the trail of his grandfather (Alex) and uncle (Helmut), visiting each camp and village, culminating in a visit to Auschwitz where Alex and Helmut both died. Martin laid a photograph of Alex in the Birkenau crematorium, where he was sent upon arrival; he was sixty-four years old.  Martin Goldsmith laid his uncle, Helmut’s photograph in the hospital where he ultimately died after working in the bricklayers school for fifty-one days. Official records state that Helmut died from typhus, but it very well could have been by lethal injection, which was a common practice there.  Helmut was twenty-one years old.

I feel terrible for them. Imagine how Martin Goldsmith feels. I cannot bear it. But if we don’t learn these types of stories and “bear witness” then the memory of so many tragic souls will be lost forever.

When the current owners of his grandfather’s old beautiful mansion purchased the house in 2001, they had no knowledge of the house’s past. When Martin Goldsmith planned a visit to the town in 2011, it came to light. Feeling horrified, the current owners tried to figure a way to feel better about living in Alex Goldschmidt’s practically-stolen house. [Personally, if it were me, I would have given the house to Martin Goldsmith, at least that is what I like to think I would do.] They asked Martin Goldsmith if they could hang a plaque on their home acknowledging  Alex’s prior ownership and what happened to him. It is what was ultimately done, and helped to put closure for both the current owners and Martin and his relatives. However, Martin asks very valid questions in the book. He writes, “Yes, a plaque would be a nice way to acknowledge the crime that took place here nearly eighty years ago….but those who were guilty have managed to slither away through the broken foundations of history, and who is left to settle up?…So what is left for my generation? Plaques? Memorials? Marches? How do these well-meaning but inadequate gestures compensate for what we have lost?”  Indeed.  Below is a photograph of Alex Goldschmidt and Helmut Goldschmidt.

Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt

Rest in peace sweet souls.

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2 Responses to Book: Alex’s Wake

  1. Janine2016 says:

    Thank you for this great comment Kathleen. I’ve missed writing on this subject and learning so much from comments. Our generation needs to keep those stories alive so the next generation knows.

  2. Kathleen R says:

    The only justice that can come is remembrance. All we can do is continue to bring to light the injustices of the past and shine the light on the possible injustices happening right in front of us. We must speak out about the rhetoric that led to these injustices.

    Giving land/possessions back becomes complicated. We currently rent a garden plot that was once part of a large Jewish estate. After WWII Eisenhower sought out the owners that had immigrated to the US prior to the war. The family did not want to return, so the property was split up as garden plots for the townspeople. The schloss was made into a youth retreat center. But others have no way of knowing that the property (whether land, pottery, painting) was once taken or sold cheaply.

    But the remembrance goes much deeper here. Because of lack of resources and space, many things were recycled from the war, rather than destroyed. Forced labor camp barracks became apartment buildings. Carefully designed Nazi officer communities are now cul de sacs of family homes. Industries that depended on forced labor are still functioning as industries today. The cars we drive, the power tools we use, the clothes we wear…all these companies at one time were perpetrators. Does that make a person then equally guilty now when they buy and use these products?

    It is a big giant grey area. And I think what helps for this country to heal is to continue to tell the stories of what happened yet not punish the current generation for what they were not involved in.

    Have you watched The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger? Great documentary about all this.

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