Monday, April 20, 2015

Martin Goldsmith's "Alex's Wake"

Martin Goldsmith, author of Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany--and a Grandson's Journey of Love and Remembrance, is the host and classical music programmer for Symphony Hall on Sirius XM Satellite Radio and previously hosted NPR's daily classical music program, "Performance Today," from 1989 to 1999. He is the author of The Inextinguishable Symphony and lives in Maryland.

Goldsmith applied the “Page 99 Test” to Alex's Wake and reported the following:
Page 99 of Alex's Wake lands the reader in the midst of the initial developments that would become infamous as the tragedy of the SS St. Louis in the spring of 1939. A series of improbable events had culminated in more than 900 Jewish refugees being booted out of their native Germany on board one of the world's luxury liners. After a twelve-day voyage that included fine meals and spirited dances with a live orchestra (unfamiliar treatment for those refugees, who had faced increasingly violent discrimination for six years), the St. Louis pulled into Havana harbor and was not allowed to disembark its passengers. What began as a political standoff between Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru and other factions of his government evolved into a shameful episode of American history that chillingly resonates to this day.

The international aspects of the situation and how it would soon involve the U.S. government are right there on Page 99:
At one point in the discussions, Cuban Secretary of State Juan Remos met with President Bru to argue the moral implications of denying asylum to these victims of Nazism and to remind the president that his stance might cost him the disfavor of the United States. Unbeknownst to the secretary, the plight of the St. Louis refugees had indeed become a topic for debate in official American circles, but so far the direction of those discussions did not, in fact, contradict the Cuban president's position. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State George Messersmith wrote in a memorandum that it was his understanding that the United States would not "intervene in a matter of this kind which was purely outside of our sphere and entirely an internal matter of Cuba."
That passage hints at what was to come. Over the next week, as the St. Louis plied the waters off the coast of Florida, the U.S. government concluded that the plight of the 900 refugees was "purely outside of our sphere" of moral responsibility. Policies and mores that were equal parts law, politics, and a polite but lethal anti-semitism led to the "saddest ship afloat today" (in the words of the New York Times) being turned away from our shores and sent back to Europe. Nearly a third of the passengers, including my grandfather Alex and uncle Helmut, would be murdered in concentration camps.

And yet the voyage of the St. Louis is merely the most historically celebrated portion of the long lonely journey of Alex and Helmut, a journey my wife and I retraced in the spring of 2011. Over the course of six weeks and 5,700 miles we stood where they stood, bore witness, and met some extraordinary people along the way. On the final leg of the journey I discovered a means to escape the churning emotional waters of Alex's wake and to set aside the burden of guilt and shame I'd long thought was my emotional inheritance. It seems to have struck a chord with many members of the Second Generation, the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors. At more than one of the many groups of readers I've met, someone has told me, with barely concealed tears, "You've written this book for me."
© 2015 Martin Goldsmith
Visit the Alex's Wake website.

--Marshal Zeringue