By Matt Robinson/JNS.org
Best known as a popular radio host on Sirius XM’s Symphony Hall channel, Martin Goldsmith has a deeper and darker tie to music.
As the son of the famed German musical couple of flutist Gunther Goldschmidt and violinist Rosemarie Gumpert Goldschmidt, Goldsmith has highly personal ties to Classical music and defines the genre as “an exciting and moving expression of what’s best about humanity.” But through that same genre, his family was exposed to an example of the worst humanity has to offer.
In 2000, Goldsmith published “The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany,” a book detailing his parents’ experience performing in the “Jüdischer Kulturbund,” an all-Jewish orchestra maintained by the Nazis from 1933-41.
“Even though I lived with certain aspects of the story my entire life, I did not know many of the details until I was well into my 40s,” Goldsmith tells JNS.org in an interview conducted ahead of this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27).
More recently, in April 2014, Goldsmith released another book on his family’s story, “Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance,” which chronicles a trip he took with his wife to retrace the steps of relatives who were killed by the Nazis.
Though his parents, like many other Holocaust survivors, did not speak much about their past, Goldsmith says he did learn “the basic outline” of his family history piece by piece. His uncle and grandfather were among the passengers on the infamous MS St. Louis—a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees that was denied entry into Cuba, the U.S., and Canada, forcing the refugees to return to harm’s way in Holocaust-torn Europe.
Goldsmith’s grandfather, Alex Goldschmidt, was a World War I veteran who made a name for himself selling women’s clothes in Oldenburg, France. As World War II was erupting, Alex took his son Klaus on the ill-fated St. Louis, hoping to find freedom across the Atlantic. Instead, upon returning to Europe, Alex and Klaus spent three years in France before being deported to the Auschwitz death camp in 1942.
“I had long been interested in this story of my grandfather and his son trying to escape Europe and then being brought back,” Goldsmith says.
While Goldsmith had been able to put together pieces of their story, completing the puzzle took years.
“I knew, for instance, that they had been passengers who had been returned to France,” Goldsmith says of his grandfather and uncle. “I knew they returned to France in 1939 and entered the French [concentration] camp Rivesaltes in 1941, but there was an 18-month gap I did not know about.”
After conducting research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, Goldsmith found individuals in France to help guide his investigation. Eventually, he took a 6,000-mile journey with his wife from the U.S. to France, Germany, and Poland that would retrace the steps his uncle and grandfather took to their deaths during the Holocaust. That trip is the subject of his latest book, “Alex’s Wake.” Goldsmith says that, as is the case with great music, categorizing the book is nearly as complicated as composing it.
“On the one hand, it is an act of bearing witness and a travelogue, and the story of a second-generation American Jew trying to come to terms with his emotional past and to deal with the feelings of guilt and shame that he thought was his emotional inheritance,” says Goldsmith. “It is also a history of the voyage, and of France and Germany during the years 1938 through 1942. It’s all those things. It fits in so many categories.”
Goldsmith’s father and brother both recently died, and he says the grief from those losses propelled him away from the radio microphone and back to the writer’s desk—where he sought to explore the story of different relatives, his grandfather and uncle. The author’s trip with his wife began in his grandfather’s birthplace of Saxony, Germany, after which point the couple traveled to Oldenburg, where Goldsmith’s father was born, and then to Hamburg, from where the St. Louis sailed in 1939. Goldsmith and his wife also traveled to the French port where the boat docked after its ill-fated mission, before visiting the sites where Goldsmith’s uncle and grandfather were incarcerated and killed.
Spending about two to three days in each spot, Goldsmith was able to get a sense of place. He says that some of the locations were “really quite horrific,” but that he would look forward to returning to many others in order to spend more time with local residents.
“We met people who had known my father and uncle and grandfather, and who shared their stories of dealing with the after-effects of the Nazis and the Vichy period in France,” Goldsmith says. “It was quite illuminating.”
Though his ancestors boarded the St. Louis in 1939, while Goldsmith and his wife took their journey in 2011, the author had difficulty shaking a strange feeling that he had “missed” his relatives by only a few days.
“It was always a little odd pulling into a new place,” he says. “I remember a particular stop at [the French port of] Boulogne-sur-Mer, which looks across the English Channel. I got the strong impression that we had just missed [my uncle and grandfather] by a couple of days… that we had literally missed the boat.”
“The journey was always haunted by the ghosts not only of my family, but of the other people who had taken the trip [on the St. Louis],” he adds. “Every day brought the joy of discovery and the sorrow over having missed them, and over what had happened to them and so many others.”
Goldsmith’s European journey ended with the placing of a plaque on his grandfather’s former home that described the family’s fate. “The people who live there now did not have to do that, but they wanted to,” he says.
Such an action, Goldsmith says, proves that “it is possible to remain hopeful in the face of cruelty.” Regarding “Alex’s Wake,” the author adds, “A lot of today’s sorrows have roots that can be learned about through reading this book.”
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