Thursday, September 3, 2015

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

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.

I have never been a fan of non-fiction as I prefer my stories to be more fantasy based but the premise of someone actually retracing their grandfather’s steps sounded intriguing enough for me to pick up this book. Although the subject of the systematic Jewish extermination is always emotional, this story was attached to an actual person which left the reader more invested in their outcome. You came to feel as if you actually knew Goldsmith’s grandfather and uncle as you follow their journey through Europe.     

It was definitely a very hard story for the author (and for the reader) given that the outcome is known but it’s so well written that it makes it a worthwhile undertaking. This is the author’s second book dealing with his family’s history. His first book, The Inextinguishable Symphony tells the story about his mom and dad, musicians during the Nazi period that were able to escape to America. 

According to Goldsmith, he researched his grandfather and uncles journey as therapy to understand and hopefully alleviate some of his existential guilt about his relative’s death. Goldsmith does a wonderful job of inter-spacing the past with the future. These small heartbreaking doses sprinkled with the present and having each chapter broken into a leg of the journey, makes it easier to follow along. It also includes interesting historical tidbits from the time prior to the Jewish persecution orchestrated by Hitler. This background will be especially helpful for readers who can’t imagine how ‘good’ people let this happen since it sometimes seems that it all started suddenly and Jews woke up one day and were told to board the trains to the extermination camps. 

Since the author gets to meet descendants of these villages, it’s also interesting to know what they currently think about their country’s part in this chapter in history. These conversations and interactions with the present made the story just that more real and poignant. 

I would recommend this for all but especially for those who are not that familiar with this part of our world history. 

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Roberta

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The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, "Why?" and sometimes he thought, "Wherefore?" and sometimes he thought, "Inasmuch as which?" and sometimes he didn't quite know what he was thinking about.

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