Book Review: Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith
Over the weekend I finished reading the book ‘Alex’s Wake.’ It was one of those books that started with a slow drip, but ended with a wave of sadness so enormous it was impossible to hold back tears.
It is the story of The St. Louis, a ship that sailed across the Atlantic in May 1939 carrying 937 passengers. Most were German Jews, leaving behind everything they knew; this journey was their opportunity to escape certain death in their homeland. Due to political wrangling, they were turned away — first by Cuba, then the U.S., then Canada — and passengers faced a grim voyage back to Europe to face an uncertain future.
The U.S. was unwilling to help The St. Louis’ passengers, even on an emergency humanitarian basis. Some in Washington suspected the Jews could be spies (they were German, after all), and the U.S. quota of immigration was firm.
The author, Martin Goldsmith, wrote the book because his grandfather Alex and uncle Helmut were on The St. Louis. When the ship reached Europe, they were allowed into France, but were shuttled through a series of concentration camps. In the book, we learn about the gradual disintegration of their health and living conditions, and their desperate attempts to secure their release. Alex and Helmut were ultimately killed at Auschwitz.
As I watch news coverage of Syrians and Afghans risking everything to cross the Mediterranean, I can’t help but to think about the desperate voyage of The St. Louis. When I heard a soundbite from a U.S. Senator explaining we shouldn’t take in refugees because there was a possibility some might be ISIS agents, and that the U.S. quota didn’t accommodate taking them, I couldn’t help but to think of the excuses offered in 1939. History is repeating herself, it seems.
Yet there are moments of glimmering hope: Germany agreeing to help, the pope encouraging parishes to adopt and shelter families, people like Hilde Schramm, daughter of Nazi architect Albert Speer, who has opened her home. The people of Iceland seem to have said it most beautifully: “Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.’”