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Martin Goldsmith’s first book, “The Inextinguishable Symphony,” told the story of his parents – Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany who made their way to the U.S. In his new book, “Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance,” Goldsmith traces the experience of his grandfather and uncle aboard the “St. Louis.” Filled with refugees, the ship crossed the Atlantic, but was turned back at every port. His relatives eventually returned to Europe, and their deaths. Seventy years later, Goldsmith followed in their footsteps to bear witness and reconcile his own relationship with the past.
- Martin Goldsmith host and classical music programmer for "Symphony Hall" on Sirius XM Radio and author of "The Inextinguishable Symphony."
Alex’s “burial site” in the ruined foundations of one of the crematoria in Birkenau. Courtesy of De Capo Press.
Read An Excerpt
From Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance by Martin Goldsmith. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Martin Goldsmith's first book told the story of his parents, Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany who made their way to the US. But most of their family was not so fortunate. In his new book, titled, "Alex's Wake," he traces the experience of his grandfather and uncle aboard the "St. Louis." He also reconciles his own relationship with the past. Martin Goldsmith is with me to tell his story and theirs. I hope you'll join us. 800-433-8850.
MS. DIANE REHMSend us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Martin Goldsmith, it's so good to see you again.
MR. MARTIN GOLDSMITHIt is so wonderful to be here, Diane. Thank you.
REHMWell, Martin, I think many of our listeners, especially those NPR fans, will remember that you hosted NPR's performance "Today" for a number of years. And before that, you were here in Washington on WETA, hosting classical music. So, I welcome you. I welcome your voice and I really, really have enjoyed reading your book.
GOLDSMITHThat's so kind of you to say. Thank you. Thank you.
REHMYou started this book after you had written your first, "The Inextinguishable Symphony," talking about your parents' journey here to this country. Then, why did you decide to go back again.
GOLDSMITHWell, while I was traveling around the country, talking about "The Inextinguishable Symphony," there were always questions about how my father reacted to the book, what my sense of my Jewish past was, so I always had those ideas sort of percolating in my mind. But then, in rapid succession, some things happened. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. He was living in Arizona. My wife and I brought him here to suburban Maryland. He lived out the last couple of years of his life, and he and I would often talk about his happy memories of his childhood in Oldenburg, Germany.
GOLDSMITHAnd we made fanciful plans to revisit his hometown and walk through the park near the very beautiful house that he had lived in with his father and his family. But then, my father died, at age 95, in 2009, and then, within less than a year, my brother died as well, very suddenly, of a heart attack. He was only 60 years old.
GOLDSMITHAnd in coming to terms with the grief of the loss of my father and my brother, I decided that I really wanted to tell the story of my father's father and his brother. And also to try to, as you said earlier, come to terms with what I had often thought of as the legacy of my family, which was guilt and shame and sorrow. And I wanted to deal with all of that.
REHMHad your family talked about your grandfather and your uncle?
GOLDSMITHVirtually not at all, Diane. And as I understand, from talking with other, what we call 2G people, second generation people, children of Holocaust survivors, that's not at all uncommon. I remember my brother once asked my father directly, how come we don't have grandparents? How come I can't go over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house at Thanksgiving? And my father's response was, they died in the war. And that was it.
REHMWell, certainly, thanks to the Holocaust Museum, and here in Washington, that is such a major source of information, insight and understanding, you began to do your own research into really what happened to your grandfather.
GOLDSMITHI knew from letters that my grandfather and uncle had sent to my father after my father and mother had made it to this country, in 1941, thanks to those letters, I knew that my grandfather and uncle had spent time in two camps in France. Rivasaltes, near the Pyrenees, and Les Milles in Provence. But I didn't know what had happened to them following their arrival back in Europe, once they had made this ill fated journey on the "SS St. Louis." I knew they had arrived back in France in June of 1939. And I knew that they had made it to Rivasaltes in January of 1941.
GOLDSMITHBut there were those 18 months that were unaccounted for. But thanks to researchers and archivists at The Holocaust Museum, I learned that they had landed at Boulogne-sur-Mer, that they were then transferred to an agricultural center in Martini Le Be (sp?) in the northeast of France. They then made their way to Montauban and Ogda in the south of France. And then to Rivasaltes, Les Milles, Drancy, and Auschwitz. And over the course of the winter, 2010, 2011, those names just began to go around and around in my head, as I lay awake at night.
GOLDSMITHAnd I came to know those names, that itinerary, as well as I knew my phone number. And it came to me that I needed to retrace their steps, to follow in their footsteps, to learn what I could about what had happened to them.
REHMMartin Goldsmith, let's back up a little bit to the "SS St. Louis." And why it left Europe and why it was rejected in so many places. And then, as you said, sent back to Europe.
GOLDSMITHIt was a pretty extraordinary story all around, just beginning with the fact that these more than 900 Jewish refugees, most of whom had been arrested on Kristallnacht, were essentially being kicked out of the country, being kicked out of Germany, but they were being kicked out on this luxury liner. A confluence of events led to that.
REHMIt was a US ship.
GOLDSMITHIt was one of the prides of the Hamburg America Line, leaving Hamburg on May 13, 1939. Joseph Goebbels was very happy to announce that Jews were leaving Germany. The people who were following Hitler's orders to get rid of Jews in one of these earlier solutions to the so-called Jewish problem. Again, the final solution would come later, but this was an interim solution, to get as many Jews as possible to leave Germany. And the Hamburg America Line had fallen on some financial hard times, so everybody thought, well, this is a great idea.
GOLDSMITHIt's a win-win situation. We're getting rid of the Jews, and they're all gonna be paying full price for their tickets, so the Hamburg America Line will make some money on this voyage. But as it happened, the captain of the "St. Louis," Gustav Schroder, was a very firm anti-Nazi, and made sure that the passengers on board the "St. Louis" would be afforded every right that any other passenger had. So, they made this crossing with the finest cuts of meat and fish available to them at meal times. There was a dance band onboard. There were dances.
GOLDSMITHThere were all kinds of opportunities to take exercise. There was a swimming pool. So, it was a marvelous voyage, at least going across the Atlantic.
REHMWhy to Cuba first? I was really fascinated with that.
GOLDSMITHYes. They were bound for Havana, and unfortunately, when they arrived in Havana harbor, they discovered that power plays in the Cuban government made it impossible for more than about 20 refugees to disembark, leaving still over 900 Jewish refugees.
REHMWhy the 20?
GOLDSMITHThey had primarily come from Spain or other Spanish speaking countries, and they had been alerted to fill out the correct forms and pay a little extra to this fellow named Benitez, who had come up with this scam, basically, to require passengers to purchase his special landing certificates. But he was on the outs with President Bru of Cuba, and President Bru decided at that moment, to show who was boss. And he said, these Benitez landing certificates are invalid. Unless you have other kinds of landing certificates, you can't all get off this ship.
GOLDSMITHSo, only the few who had the Bru approved landing certificates were able to disembark in Cuba.
REHMDid all 900 think they were going to get off in Cuba?
GOLDSMITHAbsolutely. Yes. They all assumed...
GOLDSMITHYes. Yes. And that was the -- my grandfather and uncle were two of the 900. The plan was that they would get off in Havana, establish a beachhead in the western hemisphere, and send for the rest of the family. But, alas, that was not to be.
REHMSo, how many were left behind in Europe?
GOLDSMITHOf my family?
GOLDSMITHWell, there was my father's younger sister and his mother. And his grandmother. They were all in -- still in Oldenburg. And eventually, my father's mother and sister moved in with my mother's mother in a small apartment in Berlin. And they were all taken to their deaths in 1942.
REHMGosh. What a story. The book is "Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance." Martin Goldsmith is with me. He is the author. And I have the feeling that of those 900 people, there are a great many descendents thereof in our listening audience. I would not be at all surprised to hear from them. 800-433-8850. Join us. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd here is our first email for you, Martin Goldsmith. He's author of "Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance." He's talking about his grandfather and uncle who were one (sic) of 900 plus passengers on the U.S.S. St. Louis, which was rejected at Cuba, rejected at the United States, rejected at Canada, eventually was sent back to Europe.
REHMHere's an email from Jim in McLean. "Did any leave the ship in Havana and enter Cuba illegally? And if not, why not?"
GOLDSMITHThey did not. Well, the only person who did manage to get onto Cuban soil was a man named Max Lowe who had been in a concentration camp in Germany following Kristallnacht. He, after several days when the St. Louis lay at anchor in Havana Harbor, feared that the ship would go back to Germany and he would be returned to a concentration camp. And he was obviously desperately determined not to have that happen to him.
GOLDSMITHSo at one point he slashed his wrists and jumped overboard into Havana Harbor saying, they will not take me alive. And he was hustled out of the water and put into a boat and taken to a hospital in Havana. So he remained in the hospital in Havana...
REHM...as the ship took off.
GOLDSMITH...when the ship went back to -- well, when the ship first went off the coast of Florida, the captain imploring President Roosevelt for permission to land in Miami. That, of course, was turned down. And then the ship sailed back to...
REHMTalk about the politics that were at work in this country and why President Roosevelt turned that ship away.
GOLDSMITHThere are a number, again, interlocking reasons, Diane. On the one hand, the U.S. was bound by the 1924 immigration act, which set quotas for the number of people from Germany or Austria to come into this country. Only a certain number were allowed in every year. And the reasoning was, well if we let these 900 come in, 900 people who had filled out all the correct forms would be pushed back to the back of the line.
GOLDSMITHThen there was the fact that President Roosevelt was trying to overcome the neutrality acts, which had been passed in 1936, 1937 and 1938. He was very intent on overturning the neutrality acts so that he could assist the attempt in Europe to resist Hitlerism. And he feared, apparently, that if he did something like issue an executive order allowing the St. Louis to land, he would lose votes in congress on his fight to overturn the neutrality acts.
GOLDSMITHAnd then there was the fact that he was gearing up for what would turn out to be his unprecedented third term in office. He was going to run for a third term in 1940 and didn't want immigration issues to rise to the surface. And there is the uncomfortable fact that there was a good deal -- there was a rather wide swath of anti-Semitism in this country, as a number of polls indicates in 1938 and 1939. So for all of those reasons, Mr. Roosevelt found it -- that it was the right thing to do to say no, the ship cannot -- the St. Louis cannot land in the U. S.
REHMAnd what about his wife? What about Eleanor Roosevelt?
GOLDSMITHWell, I quote a very poignant letter from a little girl who wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt about the plight of the passengers onboard the St. Louis. And let's not forget, Diane, that for a couple of weeks, nearly 75 years ago in late May and early June of 1939, the voyage of the St. Louis made all the newspapers. It was made front page headlines in the New York Times, the Washington Post, newspapers around the country.
GOLDSMITHAnd this little girl wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt saying, please, mother of our country, would you let these poor Jews into our country? I will be willing to give up my bed if room is needed. Please do whatever you can. But there was no response from Eleanor Roosevelt. There were telegrams from Edward G. Robinson and other Hollywood stars' telegrams sent to the White House saying, in the name of humanity please let these refugees land in the United States. But all of that was to no avail.
REHMAnd what about Canada? Why would Canada reject them?
GOLDSMITHI'm not exactly sure why but Prime Minister Mackenzie at the time apparently didn't want to run afoul of his powerful neighbor to the south. And with very little explanation, Halifax, which actually was a place where the St. Louis had landed on other transatlantic trips, Halifax was closed off to them as well. So the St. Louis sailed back to Europe.
GOLDSMITHAnd fortunately, at the time at least it seemed fortunately, this gentleman named Morris Troper of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee managed to negotiate a deal whereby the refugees or the St. Louis could disembark in either France, England, Belgium or Holland. And my grandfather and uncle disembarked in France. They set foot on dry land for the first time in six weeks in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
GOLDSMITHYes. The ship left Homburg on May 13, 1939 and then on June 20, 1939, my grandfather and uncle disembarked in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France.
REHMNow, was there a resupplying of the ship along the way even though passengers were not allowed to get off? Were the Cubans, were the Americans, were the Canadians allowing the ship- to be restocked?
GOLDSMITHNo. They sailed back with what they had left Homburg with. And I talked to a gentleman who was 12 years old at the time of the voyage. And he told me about the stark difference between the voyage to Cuba and the voyage coming back when things were far less ornate and the mood was of course much darker. And the food and the facilities were far less.
REHMDid they have enough food?
GOLDSMITHThey did. They did, yes. But everybody was terribly afraid that they were going back to Germany. And when the deal was brokered to allow them to land in these four countries, there was a great surge of joy through the passengers. They signed a card of thanks to Morris Toper. And one of the treasures I found at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington is -- was a copy of that card that was sent to Morris Toper. It was signed by all 907 people onboard the St. Louis. And among them my grandfather's and uncle's signatures very plainly seen on that card, which I've reproduced in the book.
REHMWhat did you hope to accomplish by your journey?
GOLDSMITHThat's a very interesting question, Diane. I'm not exactly sure what I wanted to do other than to bear witness. I wanted to stand where they stood. I wanted to breath the air they breathed, even though it was 70 years later. And ultimately I think I wanted to lay flowers on their graves. They had died such a horrible death in Auschwitz in 1942 and I wanted to have some remembrance given to them.
GOLDSMITHSo I thought that I -- on the one hand I wanted to learn more. I wanted to learn more facts about where they had been during those three years between 1939 and 1942. All that time they had spent in France so I wanted to know the details. I wanted to know the facts. But as someone once said to me, there are the facts and then there is the truth. And I wanted both.
REHMHad they chosen to disembark in other than France, would the two have fared better?
GOLDSMITHWell, certainly had they disembarked in England they would have. Everybody who disembarked in England was beyond the reach of the Nazis. Certainly when they landed in France, and had they landed in Belgium or Holland, I'm sure they breathed a sigh of relief saying, well at least we're not in Germany. Nobody, I imagine, foresaw that in the spring of 1940 the German army would overrun the little countries and France. And my uncle and grandfather, after spending a couple of months in a really idyllic agricultural reeducation center in (word?) , a former spa town in Northeastern France, they were there in July and August of 1939.
GOLDSMITHThen came September 1, 1939 the Second World War began. Germany and France were at war. And my relatives' metamorphose in the eyes of the French from displaced persons, unfortunate refugees to enemy aliens. They still, after all, carried their German passports. And this was the beginning of the French seeing the Jews as undesirables. And so they were immediately taken off to a camp in (word?) near (word?) . And then that began their three-year odyssey being sent from one camp to the other in France.
REHMMartin, tell us about your grandfather. He was a successful businessman.
GOLDSMITHHe was. He fought in the First World War on the German side naturally earning the iron cross first class. He returned from the war and established the (speaks foreign language) the house of fashion, a woman's clothing store in Oldenburg, Germany. And did extremely well for himself, so well that in 1919 he purchased this extraordinarily beautiful house on garden (word?) right next to the Schlossgarten the former ducal gardens of the Duke of Oldenburg.
GOLDSMITHIt was just a beautiful, beautiful big house with servants and gardeners. And he, as you say, did extremely well for himself. He was a pillar of the community and a real Maher in Jewish circles.
REHMAnd your father was raised in that house.
GOLDSMITHYes. My father was actually born in 1913 in the apartment they lived in above the house (word?) . But then in 1919 they moved to this beautiful house. And yes, my father remembers -- remembered very happy times growing up in the house and going out the door and running down the street to the Schlossgarten and playing in this beautiful park.
REHMReally quite extraordinary, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers waiting. I'm going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Shirley in North Manchester, Ind. Hi, you're on the air.
SHIRLEYGood morning. Good morning, Diane. Thank you so much for your program.
REHMThank you, Shirley.
SHIRLEYMy father-in-law Bruno Glade (sp?) from (unintelligible) Prussia was on the St. Louis. And he was going to Cuba where my future husband and his sister and my mother-in-law were waiting for them to arrive. And they recall seeing him on the ship. They would get on these little boats and go out in the harbor and wave to him. And my father-in-law was a concert pianist. And he has mentioned in one of the records as trying to calm the passengers on the ship by playing the piano in the salon. He was one of the fortunate ones who ended up in England. And he ended up playing with some of the best orchestras in England and became a good friend of Sir John (word?) .
SHIRLEYEventually he got to America in 1947. The family was in Cuba. That was the one place they could wait faithfully for their visa number to come up to come to the U.S. The mother and the son and daughter arrived in Cuba on July the 4th, 1940.
REHMOh my. Shirley, that's quite a story. Martin, do you want to comment?
GOLDSMITHWell, it's wonderful that he was fortunate to disembark in England and to play with the great Sir John (word?) . That's a wonderful story.
REHMThanks for calling, Shirley. And to Mim in Raleigh, N.C., you're on the air.
MIMHi. Thank you. Good morning. I've listened to your show for years. I never thought I would call in. But, Mr. Goldsmith, first of all, my -- you know, my sympathy, you know, for you that -- you know, that you -- that your grandfather and uncle, you know, were turned away and had to go back -- and travel back to, you know, the destiny branded in Auschwitz.
MIMYou know, my husband is first generation German and his mother, uncle and grandmother were on the St. Louis. And they were from Germany and they actually had visas that allowed them to disembark in Havana just by a fluke. But I guess what's more important -- not by a fluke but because they had some very -- well, very strange connections. The short of it was that a grandfather was waiting for them in Havana. I guess he had secured special visas because of the connections with the mayor of Havana through a brother-in-law.
MIMBut anyway, the bottom line was that they -- my husband's grandmother who was able to hook up with the Shoa (sp?) Foundation years and years ago when she was about 88 -- she lived to be 99 -- when I found this out. And I found out that the Stephen Spielberg was putting -- you know, interviewing Holocaust survivors. She was able to very, very thoroughly recount details about her experience on the boat.
MIMAnd it was just incredible how she recounted the passengers trying to disembark in Cuba and talking about how they were turned away. And they would go to the cable and be turned away. And so as you're telling your story, I'm almost like, you know, picturing your -- you know, very unfortunately, you know, picturing maybe your grandfather and your uncle. And so it's -- I just feel very, you know, badly...
GOLDSMITHThank you. Thanks very much for your reminiscence. Yes, it was -- it was such, I'm sure, difficult for the people in Havana who had gone to meet their relatives who were onboard the ship.
REHM...who expected them to get off.
GOLDSMITHExactly. Exactly. And yet there they were at anchor for several days.
REHMHow many days?
GOLDSMITHWell, they arrived on the 20 -- they were there for a good six or seven days before heading off to Florida.
REHM..the anxiety that must have existed. All right. We'll take a short break here. And when we come back, more of your memories. You'll hear more from Martin Goldsmith as we talk about his new book "Alex's Wake." Stay with us.
REHMAnd here's an email for Martin Goldsmith. As we talked about the journey of his grandfather and uncle onboard the "St. Louis," which left Germany, which wanted to rid itself of Jews. And so, sent them on a journey across the Atlantic, where initially, they are, with the exception of a very few, refused by Cuba, then refused by the United States and Canada and returned to Europe. An email from Sharon in Ravenna, Ohio. She says, the story of the "St. Louis" and its rejection at our ports needs to appear in history books, along with what happened to native Americans, slaves and women.
REHMThe history revisionists, who try to portray the US as pure and perfect, do history a disservice. If we don't know what we've done, and why, in the past, then chances are the same anti-other forces, alive and well in our country today, will lead us down the same immoral path.
GOLDSMITHYes. Well, as -- I got a degree in History at Johns Hopkins University thousands of years ago, Diane. And I guess I am too much of an historian to totally ignore the, what might be called, extenuating circumstances, of what faced Mr. Roosevelt at the time. I mean, the arguments from our perspective now, and certainly as the descendents of people who were onboard the "St. Louis," it is so frustrating that they were so close to landing in America and were turned away. There is another very frustrating aspect of all of this. President Bru of Cuba said he would allow the "St. Louis" passengers to land in Havana if he could be granted -- if he would be given a sum of 500 dollars for every passenger.
GOLDSMITHIt worked out to 453,00 dollars. The American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee sent an emissary, Lawrence Berenson, down to Cuba, and Mr. Berenson decided to horse trade with President Bru. President Bru wanted 453,000 dollars. Mr. Berenson said, we'll give you 443,000 dollars. He wanted to save 10,000 dollars, and he thought, well I'll enter into negotiations. President Bru was not, however, in any mood to negotiate and said, that's it. If you're not gonna pay me the 453,000 dollars, the "St. Louis" cannot land.
GOLDSMITHSo, you know, yes, it would have been wonderful had Mr. Roosevelt allowed the ship to land. It also would have been wonderful had Mr. Berenson not tried to save 10,000 dollars, which worked out to like 11 dollars per person.
GOLDSMITHI certainly, as I write in the book, I would be more than happy to have paid 22 dollars to have saved the lives of my grandfather and uncle. And when this deal was brokered in June of 1939, as the ship was heading back to Europe, and Mr. Troper arranged for the refugees to land in either England, France, Belgium or Holland, everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone said, well, at least they're not going back to Germany. I really don't think that people could have seen, over the horizon, to know what horrible fate awaited those who landed in Europe.
REHMOf course not. Now, you and your wife set out on a journey to retrace the steps of your grandfather and your uncle. What was that like for you?
GOLDSMITHWell, Diane, it was sort of a schizophrenic experience. Today, here in Washington, we're sitting in your beautiful studio, and behind your back, I see the beautiful blue sky of an April day, and we enjoyed beautiful weather, for the most part, in May and June, three years ago. And we were driving in an air conditioned car through the beautiful French countryside, stopping during at lunch time and going to a fromagerie and getting bread and cheese, and having nice lunches out in the countryside. And we stayed, not in extravagant hotels, but very nice inns, when we were in Ogda, on the Mediterranean, the site of one of the concentration camps where Alex and Helmut were held.
GOLDSMITHWe stayed in an inn that had a balcony overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. And I was thinking, is this journey, which I am -- which I conceived of as a tribute to my grandfather and uncle, is this actually a mockery of their suffering? I mean, when they traveled through France, they were on a cattle car, traveling at the point of a gun. And here are Amy and me, here we are driving down the road in an air conditioned car, you know, enjoying all of the famous cuisine of France. So, I was beset with doubts and a certain amount of guilt.
GOLDSMITHBut, I did also, Diane, as I mention in the book, I was -- my subconscious helped me out at one point. In Ogda, I had this extraordinary dream in which I was watching a play and it was a play about an African-American family. And at one point, in the play, as a line in the play, the matriarch of this family said, your grandfather would be proud of you.
GOLDSMITHAnd somehow, in that dream, I knew that that line, even though it was a line in the play, was meant for me. And that was a memorable moment during this journey.
REHMNow, when you came back, after your journey, was it fairly easy for you to sit down and begin pulling this together, or did you again have your own doubts?
GOLDSMITHI was determined to sit down and write the story, because we had traveled to all of those places in France, all of those sites where my grandfather and uncle had been held, including the awful transit camp in Drancy, just outside Paris. And from there, we drove to the Polish town of Oswiecim, known in German as Auschwitz, and we had a little burial ceremony where I placed a little photograph of my uncle in Auschwitz Barracks 20, where he died. And a little portrait, a little photograph of my grandfather Alex, in the ruins of one of the crematoria in Birkenau, where he had been gassed.
GOLDSMITHAnd we came back to this country, and it was my job to then begin to set down the experiences that we had had. And I was beset by a horrible depression for quite a while, because it seemed to me that the punch line of the story was that my grandfather and uncle, not to mention the rest of my family, had been murdered. You know, the bad guys won. But, fortunately, I was rescued by the confluence of three wonderful events. I had discovered quite by accident the existence of a cousin in England. He and I shared the same great, great grandfather.
GOLDSMITHAnd he, quite by chance, discovered my first book. He emailed me, we got in touch, and we began corresponding. I had already been attending a group of second generation people here in Washington. We are all descendents of Holocaust survivors, some of whom were on the Kindertransport. And we were talking about our unique view on the world, how we share these feelings of guilt and sorrow. And the difficulty we have in pushing past that. And that was very supportive.
GOLDSMITHAnd then, I learned from the people who bought my grandfather's beautiful house, that they were going to erect a plaque on the side of the house, that said, if effect, the Jewish merchant Alex Goldschmit, lived here, before the house was forcibly taken from him. He and his son and his wife and his daughter were all murdered during the Holocaust. And they were gonna put up that plaque, and they asked if I wanted to add anything to the plaque. And I found this lovely couplet by Emily Dickinson. "Remembrance has a rear and front. Tis something like a house."
GOLDSMITHWhich seemed just so marvelously appropriate, so now, on my grandfather's beautiful house, at 34 Garden Strasa, there is this plaque, which memorializes him. And I felt, at the end of the journey, the journey which really didn't end until September of 2012, when I was there at the unveiling of this plaque, I really felt that I was able to divest myself of this long legacy of guilt and shame and sorrow. And I've been a much happier man since then.
REHMI'm glad. Let's go back to the phones to Karen in Middletown, Connecticut. Hi, you're on the air.
KARENOh, thank you, Diane. And thank you, Mr. Goldsmith, for your book. I'm gonna get kind of weepy. I'm very moved by this. I actually am second generation. My mother survived Auschwitz. Then my father survived a slave gang, and eventually the Death March of Bergen Belsen. And before the war, he had 14 brothers and sisters. After the war, he had one brother and one sister.
KARENYeah, and that sister escaped by -- she was 13 years old. They say that they knew they were Czechoslovakia. They knew the Nazis were coming. They were trying to get out. And they saved up their money and were going to send out two children. And were told how much the fare would be, the boat fare would be, and they had enough money for two children. They took my father and his sister to the boat docks and they said, oh, the price just doubled. And so they sent my aunt, and she was one of the, one of the survivors. And imagine, a 13-year-old girl getting on a boat, knowing, probably, that she would never see her family again, land in a country, you know, in America, with no language, no family, no skills to navigate.
KARENBut, this is what they all faced. And most of them didn't make it. My father, you know, my thing about my family, because they were so troubled by the war, and their losses, understandably, is that for our family, Hitler won the war. That's what I came away with. I, too, had the experience of where are my grandparents? Why don't I have any? Where are my aunts and uncles?
REHMAnd there must be a great many people.
GOLDSMITHYes. I understand the caller. I'm feeling weepy myself. Yes, it's -- we 2G people, we second generation folks, are grappling with this legacy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Sarah in Sarasota, Florida. Hi there, Sarah.
SARAHYes. Thank you for taking my call, Diane. And thank you, Mr. Goldsmith. First, two very quick points. There is a book about the experience of native Americans, which is called "American Holocaust," and unfortunately the use of the word schizophrenia is very often mistakenly used instead of talking about dissociating oneself from trauma. I just want to throw that out.
SARAHI also -- I'm in my 70s now. I didn't learn about the Holocaust until I was in my 30s in graduate school. And so books like this, for me, are very -- and people like me, are very valuable. Because there are holes in our souls. There are holes in our memories, and we carry the histories of other people in our bellies and on our backs, and in our dreams.
REHMAnd I think she has that so eloquently.
GOLDSMITHYes. Absolutely. Thank you.
REHMI'm sure you feel the same way.
GOLDSMITHYes. I am very -- when I look back on the journey that my wife and I took, it was an extraordinary time. And I have to say, Diane, I'm very, very proud of taking that journey. I'm very proud of my ability to bear witness and to tell this story, because these stories need to be told. The number six million has almost ceased to mean anything anymore. But, the Holocaust was made up of individuals, six million times.
REHMAnd you actually went into the camps, did you not?
GOLDSMITHYes. Both Rivasaltes and Les Milles are being preserved as museums. The Les Milles Camp has already opened as a museum. Rivasaltes not quite yet. But it's very, very striking, and kudos to the French government for seeing to it that those camps are being retained as memorials.
REHMTell me about the title of the book, "Alex's Wake."
GOLDSMITHWell, I felt, for so long, Diane, that I was swimming in Alex's wake, that I was -- I had to struggle with, as I say, the guilt and shame that grew out of my father's feeling that he had failed to save his father and brother.
REHMBecause his father and brother kept writing to him.
GOLDSMITHExactly. Exactly right. They implored him to do whatever he could. He was a new immigrant to this country. He had very little money, very little connections. So, he felt, for the rest of his life, that he had failed to save his father and brother. And I inherited that guilt. And so I felt that I was swimming in the emotional wake of what had happened to Alex. And then, I was traveling in Alex's wake throughout Europe. But then, at the end of the book, when we affix that plaque to the side of my grandfather's house, after that, we had a gathering that was similar to an Irish wake.
GOLDSMITHAnd so it became a celebration of Alex. So there is a nice ambiguity in the title.
REHMMartin Goldsmith. His new book is titled, "Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance." Thank you, so much, for telling your story here.
GOLDSMITHThank you so much, Diane. It's been a real honor and pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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