June 05, 2014


Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance. By Martin Goldsmith. Da Capo. $25.99.

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Penguin. $18.

     Among some people, there seems to be an insatiable desire for more and more books about details of World War II, resulting in the production of a steady stream of such books – most of them highly detailed and well-meaning. For those preoccupied with the war and its effects, especially those with a strong personal stake in the war’s events and its outcome, these books can be salutary experiences. But they are very clearly niche productions – for many of today’s readers, a war that ended nearly 70 years ago is simply not a significant factor in everyday life. Alex’s Wake is a perfect example of a book written by someone with a strong personal attachment to wartime events, for readers feeling an equally strong involvement in the war. The book chronicles the personal journey of author Martin Goldsmith, who apparently feels guilty because he did not suffer and die in the war, which ended seven years before his birth. To assuage that guilt, he decides to retrace the journey taken by two doomed members of his family: his grandfather, Alexander Goldschmidt, and Alexander’s son, Helmut. Make no mistake: this is a book about a harrowing journey, or rather two of them – the one long ago and the one Goldsmith undertakes. Alexander and Helmut were passengers aboard the MS St. Louis, which sailed from Hamburg in May 1939 bearing Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi Germany. The world did not yet know all that was going on in Hitler’s Third Reich, or at least was not yet galvanized against it, and the ship, which headed for Havana, Cuba, was denied landing rights there. So the 900 refugees journeyed to Canada and the United States – but were refused admission by both countries and forced to return to Europe. There was no World War II yet – Hitler’s invasion of Poland did not occur until September 1 – but the Nazi campaign against the Jews was gathering momentum, and both Alexander and Helmut were caught up in it, sent to Auschwitz, and eventually killed in the gas chambers there. This was a tragedy of the time – one among millions – and it is certainly comprehensible that Goldsmith wants to understand it as part of his family history. His reasons for feeling uncomfortable, even guilty, about his own solid and apparently happy life, are harder to fathom. But they are the driving force behind the six-week journey that Goldsmith takes through France, Germany and Poland, attempting to follow the route of Alexander and Helmut and lay to rest, in his own mind, the ghosts of these people he never knew. Goldsmith’s trip eventually takes him, intentionally and inevitably, to Auschwitz, a site that produces intense emotion even among people who have no personal connection with it. It then takes him, at the end, to his grandfather’s family home, where the unveiling of a memorial plaque represents a triumph of sorts and provides Goldsmith with the comfort he has been seeking. Alex’s Wake is unfailingly well-meaning, carefully researched and skillfully written. It is clearly a work with considerable meaning for its author and, by extension, for those who share a similar family history and similar connections with the Second World War. For other potential readers, though, it will be curiously uninvolving. Those unfamiliar with the story of the MS St. Louis, which is not an especially well-known one, will find some matters of interest here; those familiar with the depredations of war in general and World War II in particular will find confirmatory material aplenty – but no more than in many, many other books about the war and its impact on families and the world as a whole. Alex’s Wake is a personal memoir that makes little attempt to reach out to anyone who does not already share the background that led Goldsmith to his quest – a self-limiting, self-limited work that will have considerable meaning for a few readers but very little for many others.

     Americans as a whole might be expected to take more interest in Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, originally published last year and now available in paperback. This is, after all, a book about one of the seminal events in the establishment of an independent United States. But as a nation, the U.S. tends not to be very inwardly focused or very past-oriented. Historians such as Nathaniel Philbrick therefore doom themselves to serious consideration by only a small portion of the population at large, even when writing books that are not intended as academic exercises. In the case of Bunker Hill, George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and other well-known Revolutionary War figures do appear, but the central character is Joseph Warren, a 33-year-old physician who was largely responsible for fomenting rebellion and fanning its flames when they gave every indication of flickering out. Philbrick not only uses primary sources to excellent effect here but also absorbs some of the rhetorical flourishes of the 18th century and adapts them into a style for the 21st. Thus: “In the fall Warren had worked to soothe the outrage of the country people. By the spring, he was desperately attempting to inject some life into what had become a dangerously listless Provincial Congress. …What [Warren’s medical apprentice William] Eustis and other patriots took to be Warren’s natural and laudatory adjustment to the increasingly perilous times was seen by loyalists as part of a highly calculated strategy.” Warren was as active in political circles – and rabble-rousing – as in military confrontations. His pronouncements were scarcely moderate, as in one letter he wrote for widespread distribution, seeking recruits for the provincial army. “‘Our all is at stake,’ he wrote. ‘Death and devastation are the instant consequences of delay. Every moment is infinitely precious. An hour lost may deluge your country in blood, and entail perpetual slavery upon the few of your posterity who may survive the carnage.’” Warren looms so large in Philbrick’s narrative that the actual Battle of Bunker Hill – in which Warren was killed – nearly brings Bunker Hill to a screeching halt. After the battle, it was Washington who was left to assemble the militiamen of Warren’s command into an army that would withstand the British, and it is to Washington and other well-known figures of the time that Philbrick turns his attention after Warren’s death. This is, of course, a matter of historical necessity, but Bunker Hill becomes less interesting when it happens. And Philbrick knows this: his narrative continues for only another few dozen pages, with the almost-100-page balance of the nearly-400-page paperback devoted to extended and somewhat overdone notes, a very extensive bibliography in very small type, and an index. Near the end of the narrative portion of Bunker Hill, Philbrick quotes Thomas Paine’s famous words from Common Sense: “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” This was hyperbole, but Philbrick does his best to show in what way the words were true for the fledgling United States. It is worth remembering that American independence was not easily won: the American Revolution was a six-year war, as modern Americans often do not realize, and even though the battles ended in 1781, the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 1783, eight years after hostilities began. But by the time of Warren’s death a few days after his 34th birthday, the path to the future was already becoming clear. It is a shame that so few 21st-century residents of the United States are aware of the role played by patriots such as Joseph Warren in making their modern way of life possible.

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