While for many the sheer magnitude of the numbers of atrocities are more than enough to define the Holocaust, nothing seems to drive home its horrors, even after more than half a century, like the personal narratives of those who suffered and their families. It is these personal narratives that most clearly drive home the moral imperative, never again.
Alex’s Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany – and a Grandson’s Journey of Love and Remembrance is Martin Goldsmith’s heartbreaking account of the failed attempts of his grandfather and uncle to escape the clutches of their Nazi persecutors coupled with his own attempt to honor their memory and assuage his own feelings of survivor guilt by following in their path from their home in Oldenburg through an abortive voyage to Cuba on the St. Louis and an illusory respite in France to their deaths in Auschwitz. It is a harrowing tale filled with more than enough guilt not only for the Nazis and their sympathizers, but for all of those around the world who could perhaps have helped, but in fact did nothing. Alex’s Wake is a book with a lesson for today.
While focusing his attention on what he could learn about the plight of his grandfather and uncle, Goldsmith makes sure to pay attention to the larger historical context. He talks about the rise of Fascism in Germany after World War I and the effects of the Treaty of Versailles on German Nationalism. He talks about the politics that kept the United States from helping the refugees on the St. Louis. He goes back to the Dreyfus affair to help account for the complicity of Vichy France with the German agenda. There is nothing new here for anyone familiar with the wealth of material on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, but what is there provides necessary context.
Goldsmith’s own journey is not all bleak misery. He takes time out to rest in sunny Provence. A host of Sirius XM’s Symphony Hall, he and his wife take the time to visit the birthplace of J. S. Bach and even to the Indra in Hamburg where the Beatles performed. They have pleasant al fresco lunches of crusty bread and cheese, and breakfast on croissants, jam and honey. One doesn’t begrudge Goldsmith these moments of relief from the emotional stress—they function for him in much the same way comic relief functions for the audience of tragedy.
If I were to quarrel with anything in Goldsmith’s account, it would be his failure to include any specific Jewish response to his memorial. After all, he is writing about two men whose only crime was the crime of being Jewish—whether they were religious or not made no difference. They were Jews. He visits Auschwitz and leaves a photo of his grandfather and whispers “I love you,” certainly a heartfelt personal response. But perhaps a more universal tribal response would be appropriate as well. Ritual has a healing function: religious or not, perhaps a yahrzeit lamp and kaddish might have made a satisfying tribute.
That said, with all of today’s headlines about ship loads of refugees sinking in the Mediterranean and overcrowded refugee camps all over the Middle East, Goldsmith’s narrative makes clear the more things change, the more they stay the same.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0306823713]