From May 13 through May 27, the MS St. Louis, a Hamburg-Amerika luxury liner, carried nearly 1,000 German-Jewish refugees to alleged safety in Havana in 1939. The refugees, save 22 first-class passengers, were not allowed to disembark. Martin Goldsmith is the grandson of one of those passengers and tells the story of retracing the steps in Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, published by DaCapo Press in this 75th anniversary year of the voyage.
TWM: What was different for you in writing Alex’s Wake vs. The Inextinguishable Symphony?
Martin Goldsmith (MG): The Inextinguishable Symphony was my first book, written in 1999. Though I couldn’t help commenting occasionally, for the most part I remained firmly off stage as I told the story of my parents and their experiences performing with the Judische Kulturbund (the all-Jewish arts organization supported by the Nazis) between 1935 and 1941. In Alex’s Wake, though again I tell a story rooted in the history of the Holocaust, I’m very much a participant, as the book is not only about my grandfather and uncle, it’s also about my wife’s and my journey three years ago in which we traveled for six weeks and 5,700 miles from Alex’s birthplace in Lower Saxony to the Polish city of Oswiecim, or Auschwitz in German. Along the way I come to terms (or do my best, at any rate) with the family legacy of guilt and shame that for so long I believed to be my emotional inheritance. So all in all, AW is a good deal more personal than TIS was.
TWM: Do you think you could have written the former without the latter?
MG: Probably not. Though I’d been thinking about writing another book about my family, I was spurred into action by the deaths of my father and my brother, my only sibling, which occurred exactly eleven months apart in 2009 and 2010. I decided that part of my grieving process would be the start of another journey into the story of the family, since I was now the Last Goldsmith Standing. The first book provided me with a template and a jumping-off point.
TWM: How long did it take you to produce the Alex’s Wake manuscript? Did most of your research come before your trip or during the writing process?
MG: During the six-week trip through Germany, France, and Poland, I kept a travel diary and some phrases from that diary made their way into the finished manuscript. So in that sense, the writing process lasted from May 2011, until February 2013, when I wrote the last word of the last chapter. But in another sense, I actually sat down to write Chapter One in late August of 2011, so that would mean the writing took me about a year and a half. (I held down a full-time job during that time, so the majority of my writing occurred at night and on weekends.) Most of the historical research occurred before the trip and of course so much of the research and life experiences of the journey occurred while we were on the road.
TWM: It seems like “it took a village” to make your journey happen. Please comment on that.
MG: I received so much valuable assistance from the archivists at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. When I began thinking about telling the story of Alex and Helmut, I knew that they’d landed in France in June of 1939 after the voyage of the St. Louis and that they’d entered the Rivesaltes concentration camp in January of ’41, but their whereabouts during those intervening 18 months were a mystery. It was thanks to the Holocaust Museum (and an unwitting French functionary filling in a form in 1941) that I learned many details of their itinerary. It was also thanks to the fact that Montauban, one of the cities where Alex and Helmut were held, is a sister city with Pawhuska, Oklahoma, that I came to know Jean-Claude Drouilhet, one of the very kind and helpful people we met on our journey, who assisted me in learning even more details of their captivity. It really did take something of a global village of wonderful people who made possible both the journey and so many invaluable discoveries along the way.
TWM: What do you think your book will add to the canon of Holocaust-related literature? What do you want it to add?
MG: I like to think that Alex’s Wake will add what I want it to add and those items include the following, in no particular order. I think the book includes a thorough history of the unhappy voyage of the St. Louis, explaining how political considerations and an undeniable strain of anti-Semitism in the America of the late 1930s led to a decision that should still haunt this country 75 years later and remind us that our dearly-held ideals are always subject to compromise. I think that the book will inform readers of the existence of the thousands of French camps that were built to house those whom the right-wing Vichy government deemed “undesirables,” most of them Jews. It is my hope that the book will begin to make the names Gurs, Rivesaltes, Agde, Les Milles, and Drancy as familiar as the names Dachau, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz in the horrific annals of the Holocaust. And I think that Alex’s Wake will speak to the sorrows of my generation, the Second Generation: children of Holocaust survivors who grew up in homes where the violent destruction of their families was kept veiled in silence and shame, leading to long-held unresolved issues of trust and fear and unhappiness. It is my deepest hope that readers of the book will discover that it is possible to steer their way out of the churning turbulence of the wake of their family torments and into the peaceful waters of their current families and friends.
TWM: What advice would you give aspiring memoirists?
MG: My best advice is to get started, to write down everything that moves you, that galvanizes you, and to tell stories that you realize on some deep level need to be told. No one else knows your stories as well as you do. Share them with us.