A journey of love, loss and hope was told by author, host and classical music programmer Martin Goldsmith on his novel, “Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance” at the Kristallnacht lecture Sunday in the Campus Center.
The event was held in remembrance of Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” which happened Nov. 8, 1938 and the early mornings of Nov. 9 in Nazi Germany. A series of coordinated attacks by Nazi soldiers were held against Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes and many were killed, injured and persecuted.
Kristallnacht refers to the shattered glass that flooded the streets.
“(Kristallnacht) was the first systematic violence let loose against the Jewish communities all throughout Germany at the time,” said Daniel Skubik, professor of law, ethics and humanities at California Baptist University.
Goldsmith’s grandfather Alex Goldschmidt and his uncle Klaus Helmut were among the 30,000 Jews that were arrested.
“Alex’s Wake,” published in July 2014, is a travelogue and memoir of Goldsmith, a second-generation American Jew retracing his grandfather and uncle’s footsteps in France, where they were moved from six concentration camps to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
Goldsmith’s father escaped with his mother to Ellis Island in June of 1941 where they worked as musicians, then eventually settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where Goldsmith was born.
“My parents didn’t really talk about my grandparents, so I grew up in ignorance of what really happened to my family,” Goldsmith said.
“I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was 55 years old, when I finally had my bar mitzvah,” he said.
Before they were sent to Auschwitz, Alex and Klaus tried to escape Nazi Germany aboard the ship SS St. Louis toward Havana, Cuba, in May 1939, but were denied landing rights at the port.
More than 900 Jewish refugees were aboard the ship and proceeded to arrive in the United State and Canada, but were turned down once again, and sailed to France.
Goldsmith’s grandfather sent frantic messages to his older son, Goldsmith’s father, who was already in the US and concluded, “If you don’t move heaven and earth to help us, that’s up to you, it will be on your conscience,” but his father was unable to save them.
“I was a recipient of this burden and responsibility my father could not fulfill and I came up with the idea that it was up to me to save my grandfather and uncle.”
Goldsmith is no stranger to death. In 2009, his father died of Alzheimer’s disease at 95, and a year later, his only brother died at 60 of a heart attack.
“I came to terms with my guilt by telling the story of my family. Spring of 2011, I realized I had to go to France to breathe the air my grandfather and uncle breathed, to see what they saw and to try to understand what they went through,” he said.
With his wife, Goldsmith traveled a span of 5,700 miles in six weeks to various cities in Germany and France, till he reached his grandfather’s hometown, Oldenburg.
There, he met a number of residents who had known Alex and Klaus, and had discovered Alex’s home still standing and occupied.
He spoke to the owners and they offered to put a plaque on the side of the house to commemorate Alex and Klaus.
While visiting Auschwitz, Goldsmith learned that Goldschmidt was immediately gassed upon arrival due to his old age of 65, and Helmut reportedly died of typhus or was murdered by direct injection of phenol to the heart at age 21 while being experimented on. Goldsmith revisited the places they died and placed photographs of them where their burials should have been.
At the end of the lecture, Goldsmith read the last excerpt of his novel, describing a toast to family.
“Tonight was like the birth of a star. Alex was with us at the birth. Alex’s wake is at an end,” he said.
A short question and answer session followed the speech, where audience members took the time to both praise Goldsmith’s novel and question his past.
“I came as a representative of the Jewish student community, and I was pleasantly surprised by the lecture and actually enjoyed it,” Carissa Miranda, senior communications major and president of ULV’s Hillel club, said. “I identify with him on a number of levels, like when he talks about not knowing he was Jewish until later on, (because) I’m exploring that background of my family and what it means to be Jewish and it was really cool to see how he had sort of the same experience as I did, and has pursued it. It makes me want to pursue my history more.”
Others connected with Goldsmith’s message of light and moving on from death.
“It is a light for all eternity which invites all of us to partake in the joy of that has come out of such great unspeakable suffering,” Bernadette Skubik, a Riverside resident, said. “Their courage as a couple to reflect and mirror the courage of the people who have gone before is commemorable, and their light shines forth.”
Erum Jaffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.