Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance

Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance

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by Martin Goldsmith

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A tale of two journeys...

On May 13, 1939, the luxury liner SS St. Louis sailed away from Hamburg, Germany, bound for Havana, Cuba. On board were more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany. But an indifferent world conspired against them. After being denied landing rights in Havana, the refugees were turned away by the United


A tale of two journeys...

On May 13, 1939, the luxury liner SS St. Louis sailed away from Hamburg, Germany, bound for Havana, Cuba. On board were more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany. But an indifferent world conspired against them. After being denied landing rights in Havana, the refugees were turned away by the United States and Canada and forced to sail back to Europe, where the gathering storm of the Holocaust awaited them.

Two of those refugees were Alex Goldschmidt, a sixty-year-old veteran of World War I, and his seventeen-year-old son Klaus Helmut Goldschmidt. After their trans-Atlantic voyage, they landed in France. They would spend the next three years in one French camp after another before being shipped to Auschwitz in 1942.

Sixty-nine years later, Martin Goldsmith, Alex's grandson and Helmut's nephew, retraced their sad journey. Beginning in lower Saxony where Alex was born, Martin spent six weeks on the road and covered more than 5,700 miles, setting foot on the earth Alex and Helmut trod during their final days. Alex's Wake is Martin's eyewitness report.

The book offers a compelling history of the voyage of the St. Louis, including testimony from those on board, a tale of espionage, and the brave resolve of Captain Gustav Schroeder. It also offers a harrowing chronicle of the vast network of camps in France, many of which were organized by the French themselves with little or no encouragement from the Germans.

But Alex's Wake is also a contemporary travelogue and a heartfelt memoir of a second-generation American Jew trying to make sense of his heritage and to escape the burden of guilt and fear he long thought was his sole inheritance. Setting forth with the irrational, impossible desire to save two members of his family who were murdered ten years before he was born, Goldsmith concludes his journey by coming home to a moving symbol of remembrance at one of the scenes of the crime.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance praise for Alex's Wake

"Martin Goldsmith re-traveled the route of his grandfather and uncle, both lost to the Holocaust, through their internment in France to their horrid deaths at Auschwitz. He found therein a kind of personal deliverance from the guilt that clings so nastily to the survivor. The opposite of love, Elie Wiesel has observed, is not hate but indifference. With Alex's Wake, the author proves himself the least indifferent and, because of that, the most loving of men."—Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball and author of Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked

"Alex's Wake is beautiful and brave. Martin Goldsmith's search for the truth is at once a chilling yet affirming account of human loss and recovery."—David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight

"There are six million Holocaust stories. All of them are the same in sadness and devastation. Each is different in circumstance and fear. Martin Goldsmith eloquently tells the story of his search for family in the rubble of memory and distance. It's a moving journey of finding the past and his own determined and compassionate present."—Susan Stamberg, National Public Radio

"Martin Goldsmith's odyssey brings clarity to a mystery and closure to a tragedy within his own family. By vividly—and searingly—personalizing the Holocaust, he has done a service to history and the collective conscience of humanity."—Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former Deputy Secretary of State

Johns Hopkins Magazine, Spring 2014
“This is family history travelogue as act of repentance—candidly written, deeply considered, and profoundly moving.”

New York Journal of Books, 4/17/14
“Martin’s journey and book offer a new perspective on the Holocaust; one that is typically missing from most books and films about the Shoah…Alex’s Wake is a powerful and evocative memoir.”

Boston Globe, Child in Mind parenting blog, 4/22/2014
"Alex’s Wake is at one level a history lesson as memoir...The book also reads as demonstration of the healing power of storytelling, and of the transformation of terrible loss in to great beauty...[The] Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam...refers to humanity's shared responsibility to 'heal the world.' With the writing of Alex's Wake, Goldsmith has done his part."

Bookviews Blog, May 2014
“[Goldsmith] details his six-week quest to retrace their journey to assuage the guilt he carried for living happily in America despite his family’s tormented history. The book is more than just his and his family’s, but one that many experienced, including Germans who regretted the horror the Nazis inflicted on Jews and others.”

Baltimore Sun, 4/29/14
“Underscores the immense moral challenges and failings of a nation that believes itself the leader of the free world…A heartbreaking story of fear, frustration, anti-Semitism and betrayal.”

The Hub, 6/14/14
“[A] gripping book…A profoundly moving read.”

InfoDad, 6/5/14
Alex’s Wake is unfailingly well-meaning, carefully researched and skillfully written. It is clearly a work with considerable meaning for its author and, by extension, for those who share a similar family history and similar connections with the Second World War.”

WTBF Radio, “Book Bit”, 5/13/14
“The author could not save their lives, but he was able to save their stories, and the journey restored his faith.”

The Ivy Bookshop blog, 7/8/14
“[Goldsmith’s] skillful recreation of the ‘everydayness’ of their lives in Germany and France, his powerful and eloquent prose, his deft portraits of the living and dead allow the reader who may have no connection to the Holocaust to become invested in the lives of Alex and Helmut…One can’t comprehend 6,000,000 deaths. Martin Goldsmith has saved two of them from oblivion.”

Military History, July 2014
“The poignant story of Goldsmith's efforts to fill in vital gaps in his family history, as well as of his struggles to understand his own attitudes toward the Holocaust and the people who denied help…Provides a fuller look at two remarkable relatives and is a touching literary tribute to two men among the many people forever lost to the catastrophe that was World War II.”

Providence Journal, 7/12/14
“[An] unusual book…Much of the story is compelling.”

Washington Times, 7/29/14
“The shameful tale of the German liner St. Louis, which sailed the seas in 1939 with its Jewish refugee passengers in search of safe harbor, has been told many times…However, Alex’s Wake brings something different to the story; namely, that all-important personal touch…What happened to Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt at the hands of the Nazis is too well-known to us to be surprising but, in the telling of their tale here, which tries and succeeds to do such honor to them, is heartbreaking nonetheless.”

Internet Review of Books, October 2014
“[A] thoughtful and sensitive book…Alex’s Wake combines the shameful history of the SS St. Louis with a poignant journey of remembrance. This is a beautiful and engrossing book of lasting value.”

WWII History, December 2014
“One of the saddest tales of World War II is the voyage of the ship St. Louis.”, 12/15/14
“[A] tragic, riveting story.”

Kirkus Reviews
A child of persecuted German Jews remembers his tormented, perished forebears—and makes peace with the country that hounded them to death. Building on his previous memoir, The Inextinguishable Symphony (2000), which told the story of his musician parents' meeting while members of the all-Jewish Kulturbund in Nazi Germany, classical music host Goldsmith delves into the archives and memory to uncover the plight of his grandfather Alex Goldschmidt and uncle Klaus Helmut, who were refugees aboard the ill-fated St. Louis bound for Cuba in May 1939. Rejected by Cuba, however, and in turn by the United States and Canada, the ocean liner, which contained more than 900 Jewish refugees, was doomed to return to Nazi Germany if not for the humanitarian intersession of Morris Troper, who managed to find succor for the passengers by dividing them among Belgium, Holland, England and France. Alex and his younger son were sent to France, soon to be occupied, and passed from camp to camp, finally hauled off to Auschwitz, where they perished in 1942. Hauntingly, Alex sent increasingly frantic messages to his older son, who had found refuge in the United States, and concluded, "If you don't move heaven and earth to help us, that's up to you, it will be on your conscience." That dire warning opened up an understanding to the silence around their past enforced by the author's parents as he was growing up. Taking clues from cities jotted down on the victims' passports, the author and his wife resolved to return to Germany and France, tracking Alex's progress from his family roots in Lower Saxony; to his move to Oldenburg, where he set up a prosperous clothing store with his wife and children; to his final despairing trajectory across Europe. In their emotionally wrenching trek, Goldsmith managed to achieve some sense of closure when the current owners of Alex's grand house unveiled a commemorative plaque. A well-researched, thorough reckoning of this shameful past.

Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Martin Goldsmith is the host and classical music programmer for Symphony Hall on Sirius XM Satellite Radio and previously hosted NPR’s daily classical music program, Performance Today, from 1989 to 1999. He is the author of The Inextinguishable Symphony and lives in Maryland.

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Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ISLMA1988 More than 1 year ago
Martin Goldsmith has written a moving tribute to his ancestors as he and his wife follow the path through Europe that his grandfather,Alex, and his uncle,Helmut, were forced to take by the Nazis in the days before they finally became statistics in Auschwitz. Along the way he describes what must have been their journey while he experiences anguish, joy and a multitude of other emotions as he traces their path through his own journeys in 2011. Emotionally it is a difficult journey for the author and for his readers, but it is a path he needed to follow and he allows the reader to experience it with him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
dan rodrix show of 4/28- an interview w Martin Goldsmith re his book "Alex's (sp? Wake"- about his relatives voyage on the St. Louis which was refused entry in the u.s. and thence to death in auschwitz: As a war protester, I am still careful about standing in judgement- and certainly would be careful re Martin and his story- which we are glad to have made public. At the same time-did Martin and dan realize that there is a strong anti war movement active today- in which participation would best honor these lost relatives? I have criticized dan often for his "pablumic" approach to issues- should i do so again? There are people in jail for protesting war! I mean it's nice to tell the stories- but- how about a peep re ending this bs? Martin- as a classical music person, i will b very careful to criticize. talk of the family house, now with a plaque, and a sort of wake held there in- to which i say- not enough". Germans are not coming anywhere near "doing their best" to deal with their criminal history- nor is the us re slavery and Indian genocide.