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Book Review: Alex's Wake, by Martin Goldsmith

By HistoryNet Staff 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: July 02, 2014 
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Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, by Martin Goldsmith, Da Capo Press, Boston, 2014, $25.99

In May 1939 more than 900 Jewish refugees sought to escape the growing anti-Semitic threat presented by Nazi Germany by voyaging to Cuba aboard the Hamburg America Line's transatlantic steamer MS St. Louis. Though the ship's captain was sympathetic to the refugees' plight, political rivalries, corruption and prejudice prompted Cuban officials to deny asylum to the Jews. After also being turned away by the United States and Canada, St. Louis—called "the saddest ship afloat" by The New York Times—returned to Europe. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's European director, Morris Troper, and other sympathetic organizations, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands accepted the refugees.

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Among France's group were the author's grandfather, Alex Goldschmidt, and uncle, Helmut Goldschmidt. France, however, proved no haven. As the result of Germany's insatiable desire for Lebensraum and the puppet Vichy government's assistance in rounding up Jews, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt spent three years in six different camps throughout France before meeting their deaths at the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland.

In 2011 Maryland radio host and author Martin Goldsmith and his wife, Amy, recreated his relatives' fateful European journey. During a six-week odyssey Goldsmith chronicled his experiences visiting the German birthplaces of his grandfather and uncle, their ship's departure point in Hamburg, the French sites where Alex and Helmut resided and Auschwitz.

Alex's Wake is 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 to Alex and Helmut. His biography 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.

—S.L. Hoffman


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