Holocaust memoirs take on added urgency right now, between the revisionists who want to rewrite history and claim that the entire thing was either a hoax or dreadful exaggeration, and the fact that the eye witnesses and survivors are nearly all dead now. Martin Goldsmith retraces the journey, both academically and where possible, literally, to the places his Uncle Helmut and grandfather Alex were taken. It’s quite a story, and would be a fun read if it were not so horribly, terribly true. As it stands, Goldsmith’s narrative pulls his readers in one slim finger at a time, until we are held firmly to the text and must remain until it’s done.
The narrative starts out introspective and almost dreamlike. If I were not reading this free courtesy of Net Galley in exchange for my review, I think I might have set it aside about twenty percent of the way in and not returned, thinking to myself that of course, I know the Holocaust was real, but do I want to read about it again? It’s not an enjoyable topic, and what good can it do to revisit it? Furthermore, I started to believe that this particular narrative was not so different from other heartbreaking stories, and might be more of interest to the writer and his surviving kin than to strangers like me.
I am glad I kept reading, because just past this point is where we quit the runway and the story takes wing. The writer starts with the visits, first to the Holocaust museum, and then to Europe. He is greeted warmly in his family’s former homeland, and he makes speeches and accepts certificates and expresses appreciation to the family who now occupies what was once the family manse for their clumsy token gesture. The current owners clearly understand that circumstances have skewed things badly, and they want to make it up in some impossible way. They were wondering what he would think of a nice plaque on the building’s exterior noting its place in history and recognizing his family.
He understands these folks aren’t the ones who stole from him. He says and does the right things, but the edge is unmistakably there, as part of him longs to say that if they really want to make things right, to give him back his family’s home. Like many who lost wealth and/or family in the Holocaust, he waxes nostalgic, looking with poignancy at the beautiful place that should rightfully be his.
Here I squirm a bit. I don’t read rich people’s stories for a reason. I don’t believe anybody is entitled to vast wealth. It’s why the only memoirs I avoid are those of the ruling rich.
But another more important principle trumps my usual one: nobody, nobody, nobody should be disenfranchised of even a penny on account of their ethnicity or race. If anyone at all in Germany gets to have a big fancy house, then Goldsmith’s family should. His resentment is righteous; he has the moral high ground here. I think back to an old bumper sticker I once saw, courtesy of the American Indian Movement during the 1960’s that read, “AMERICA: love it or give it back.” And thus is the untenable yet irreparable theft of the Holocaust’s descendents. We can’t fix it, so here’s your framed letter, your trophy, your plaque, your award. His ambivalence runs deep and is clear and harsh. It should be.
From there, Goldsmith’s family saga telescopes out in a way that is so deft, I don’t even catch the transitions. This is rare. I spent years of my life teaching teenagers how to make transitions in their writing, and usually when it is well done in professional writing, I sit back and admire it, like the French paintings he describes. I love to watch good transitions happen, but the very best are noteworthy in that I am so deeply into the text that they float by unseen. It’s almost magical. And so, as the family’s tale is told, we see the larger picture of France and French fascism.
Many of us today want to believe that all of France and much of Germany was simply too afraid of the fascists to resist, but Goldsmith unflinchingly grabs us by the hair, makes us look. There are cheering throngs that are thrilled when the fascists take power. They aren’t trembling; they are overjoyed. This is how fascism works, in demonizing a sector of the population, others believe themselves lifted up.
In the end, I was glad to have joined Goldsmith on his journey. For anyone with a serious interest in World War II; the Holocaust; the face and effect of fascism; or contemporary European history, this gem is not to be missed.