Author Martin Goldsmith is no stranger to St. Louis: Not only was he born here, but his mother was a longtime violinist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. But it was a different St. Louis and a different family connection that recently caught his attention.
In “Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and Journey of Remembrance,” Goldsmith traces the journey of his grandfather, Alex Goldschmidt, and uncle, Helmut Goldschmidt, Jewish refugees who tried to escape Nazi Germany aboard the MS St. Louis.
In 1939, the ocean liner’s 937 passengers were denied entry to Cuba and the United States, and were forced to return to Europe in June 1939. After landing in France, the two men were shuffled from one concentration camp to another in France, where they wrote frantic letters to Martin Goldsmith’s parents about the terrible conditions they were facing. “Please do everything in your power to get us out,” Goldsmith said the men wrote; his parents, however, were recent U.S. immigrants and were unable to do much more than occasionally send money.
While concentration camps are often associated with Nazi Germany, Goldsmith said France’s camps are often overlooked. “There were literally thousands of camps built by the French,” he said, some dating back to the Spanish Civil War. “There were no gas chambers and no electrified fences, but conditions were wretched.”
Goldsmith paraphrased an American Red Cross report in which a visiting delegate wrote that “no self-respecting zoo keeper would treat his animals the way I have seen these people treated.” Many prisoners died from exposure and disease.
Instead, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt were moved to camps in Germany. Both men were killed at the Auschwitz extermination camp.
During his six-week, 5,700-mile route, Goldsmith visited the house his grandfather, who had owned a women’s clothing store, bought after serving in World War I. The current owners did not know the house’s history, and offered to mount a plaque about the family. Goldsmith ended his journey back at that house in September 2012 for the unveiling of that plaque. He said seeing it unexpectedly gave him closure, and “conveyed a sense of immortality for Alex and Helmut.”
The Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis includes an exhibit on the MS St. Louis.