Alex’s Wake: Martin Goldsmith traces his family’s history from the MS St. Louis to Auschwitz

In the spring of 1939, Martin Goldsmith’s grandfather Alex Goldschmidt, 60, and uncle Helmut Goldschmidt, 17, boarded the MS St. Louis, a luxury liner bound for Havana, Cuba with more than 900 Jewish passengers on board.

Hoping to flee Nazi Germany, the Jewish passengers were treated with dignity and respect for the duration of their trip (a far cry from the ever-increasing restrictions placed on them in Hitler’s Germany), but were ultimately turned away from Cuba once the ship dropped anchor.

After being turned away from the United States and Canada, the St. Louis was forced to sail back to Europe, where a deal was brokered and the refugees were permitted to disembark in either England, France, Belgium, or Holland. A happy ending, right? Wrong.

Ledger

A Thank You note to Morris Troper, the man who brokered the deal that allowed the St. Louis passengers to disembark in either Belgium, Holland, France, or England. Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt’s signatures are in the middle of the right-hand column.

“My relatives got off in France,” says Martin, the author of Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, a new written account chronicling his grandfather and uncle’s fateful journey on the St. Louis. “They spent the next three years being sent from one French camp to another before being sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.”

70 years later, Goldsmith, who is the morning host and programmer of SiriusXM Symphony Hall, followed in his relatives’ footsteps, which, in his own words, is “a tale of a lifetime of living in Alex’s wake, the guilt that my family felt, and how I was affected by following in his footsteps.”

What happened after your grandfather and uncle were dropped off in France?

Martin Goldsmith: They were taken to what was called an Agricultural Education Center. The plan was after Kristallnacht in late 1938, a number of Jewish refugees planned to cross the border into France, and the French government wanted to give them an opportunity to learn new skills before they emigrated. My grandfather and uncle spent some very idyllic months of July and August 1939 in a this little camp in the northeastern part of France. My grandfather learned to be a chicken farmer during those two months, and my uncle helped raise sheep.

All would have been well, but then the war began on September 1, 1939, and my grandfather and uncle went from farmers to displaced refugees to illegal aliens that still carried German passports. And that began their very unfortunate three-year odyssey through France.

What was the passage like on the ship itself? Were the Jewish passengers treated well, or like second-class citizens?

MG: One of the very odd things about the voyage of the St. Louis is that was indeed a first-class experience. In fact, it must have been extremely strange for the 930 Jews on board because all of them were leaving Germany under duress. This was not a pleasure cruise for any of them. They were essentially being kicked out of the country. For instance, my grandfather was arrested on Kristallnacht, and he spent nearly a month in the concentration camp Sachsenhausen before being released and then being told, “Well, you’ve got six months to leave the country or we’re going to arrest you again.” And my grandfather’s situation was very much like everybody else on board the St. Louis. They had been treated terribly over the past six years since Hitler became chancellor in ’33. But thanks to the ship’s captain, Gustav Schröder, who was fervently anti-Nazi, they were treated like first-class passengers. During the couple weeks they were on board, they were treated to first-class meals. There was a band on board the ship. There were dances. They were really treated extremely well.

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The MS St. Louis

How do you think the French population, soldiers, and police rationalized the sudden mistreatment of Jews? One minute they’re harboring and training Jewish refugees, then the next they’re shipping them off to death camps. 

MG: Following the defeat of the French army in 1940, the French government surrendered, and this fellow Marshal Petain became the head of France. He was a right-winger, and he and his government instituted these anti-Semitic laws, which were very similar to the infamous Nuremberg Laws of Germany, but the French anti-Jewish laws were enacted on October 3, 1940.

And again, very much like in Germany, you suddenly were not allowed to be in the civil service. They couldn’t be doctors or lawyers. They had curfews. They had to be off the streets by 9 p.m. during the summer and 8 p.m. during the winter. All Jewish businesses were forced to carry little signs in the windows saying, you know, “This is a Jewish business,” so it was all because of this very right-wing government and the laws that they enacted in 1940.

What do you think people will learn from this book about the Holocaust that they might not have known before?

MG: One aspect of this book that I think will be new to a lot of people is the number of French concentration camps that there were. Many people know [how the holocaust happened and about] Auschwitz, and the many German concentration camps, but the French had thousands of camps for what they called “undesirables.” Some of them had come into being as the result of refugees pouring into France from Spain after the Spanish Civil War, but there were a number of French camps, including the Camp Les Milles–where my grandfather and uncle were before Auschwitz–that were set up entirely by the French themselves.

The Germans didn’t hold a gun to their head and say, “You will open this camp.” The French did it themselves, of their own volition. I think people who read the book will be perhaps surprised to learn about the many, many French camps and the really awful conditions under which the prisoners in those camps were forced to live.

It’s disturbing to think about how suddenly such an educated, cultured, progressive society can change after a shift in government.

MG: It is certainly striking (and Lord knows I’m not the first person to make that observation), but Germany, the country of Bach and Beethoven and Schiller and all of these amazing contributions to the human spirit also produced the Holocaust. It is a reminder that the human animal is capable of the most glorious and the most heinous acts. I guess it’s one of the reasons the Holocaust continues to be such a magnet for human consideration because it is a reminder that human beings are capable of a wide spectrum of acts.

How did your parallel journey, through sites and camps your uncle and grandfather were transported to, affect you personally?

MG: It was a schizophrenic experience, because on the one hand, I wanted so much to learn whatever I could about my grandfather and uncle and being in these six different towns where these camps had been. I was learning new facts about them, facts that would go into this book that I would share with readers.

But it was also a very guilt-inducing experience in that I couldn’t get past the fact that my grandfather and uncle were taken from place to place, often in cattle cars, or in trains at the point of a gun. When they were in these camps, they were fed badly. It was cold in the winter, hot in the summer. There was nothing to do. And contrast that with the fact that my wife and I were traveling in an air-conditioned car, going over this beautiful French countryside, staying in, not extravagant, but very nice inns.

One of the camps where my relatives were was on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. We had a hotel room with a deck that overlooked the Mediterranean, and I kept feeling guilty about how I was traveling in their footsteps, but enjoying life so much more than they were. And at times, I was afraid that somehow this was a mockery of their journey, but eventually I convinced myself otherwise. It was both thrilling and very very sad, seeing with my own eyes exactly where they were and how they were held against their will. So it was a very, as I’m sure you can imagine, intense six weeks.

Who were some of the best sources that you spoke to in the book?

MG: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington is a wonderful wonderful resource. Their archives are amazing — I found out so much from them. But I also found out a good deal from the people I met along the way. This wonderful man, Jean-Claude Drouilhet in the town of Montauban, helped me discover police records in Montauban that told me exactly where and when my grandfather and uncle were confined in that town in this old cooking factory, which was turned into a temporary prison for Jews.

I learned at the Museum of the Scholar in Paris all the marvelous research possibilities there. People in Oldenburg, the town in Germany, where my grandfather had his women’s clothing store, they were very helpful in unearthing facts about my grandfather and about my uncle.

I [also] got my uncle’s report cards from his school. I learned about this really amazing moment when my uncle was 17 years old, and in the middle of a school assembly where everybody was being harangued by this Nazi propagandist about how the Jews are responsible for all of our ills, they’re taking over the banks, they’re doing this, they’re doing that, and my uncle – 17 years old – stood up in the middle of this assembly and shouted out “These are all lies!”

As Holocaust survivors get older and pass away… what do you think younger generations can do to keep their memories alive? 

MG: I’m actually a member of a very informal group of friends. We’re all children of Holocaust survivors. Our parents emigrated and were very lucky to get out, either from Germany, Austria, or Czechoslovakia. Several of the people in this organization are children of people part of the Kindertransport, and what we all have in common is a realization that we inherited a good deal of guilt from our parents, and they had classic survivor’s guilt, and somehow they, without even trying to, passed some of that on to us, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to go on this journey.

I wanted to, as I wrote the book, get out from the turbulent waters of Alex’s wake and to learn a greater degree of peace and contentment with my wife and my friends and my current life.

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Hear Martin discuss Alex’s Wake this week on the Bob Edwards Show (Tuesday 4/8 at 8 am, 9 am, 10 am, 2 pm & 8 pm ET on SiriusXM Public Radio) and on the Maggie Linton show (Thursday 4/10 at 10 am, 12 pm and 4 pm ET on Urban View).

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