In a quote from the composer, Carl Nielson, author Martin Goldsmith summed up the name for his book, “The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany.”
“‘Music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable.’”
Nielson’s writing on his 4th symphony, called “The Inextinguishable” inspired the name of Goldsmith’s book.
Goldsmith spoke about his book on Thursday, Feb. 16, in the first Mary and Tony Bianco Lecture series, and then opened the floor for questions. He was joined by Bert Gordon, head of the history department, David Bernstein, head of the music department and Mary Bianco ’14.
A renowned classical music radio producer and a radio persona on air for over 20 years, Goldsmith has worked at NPR, as the producer of Performance Today, and now works at Sirius XM.
“He is a preeminent commentator on classical music,” Bianco said, explaining why Goldsmith was invited. “I thought he would be an excellent choice.”
Goldsmith held himself steadily, a calm radiating from him, quickly followed by his sharp mind and intense historical knowledge. At the reception after the panel, he greeted audience members with grace and compassion, taking pictures, signing papers and answering questions, calmly listening and considering his answers. As he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his hands shook involuntarily.
He opened by reading an excerpt from the book. In the excerpt, a tree growing in the center of his family’s house was analogous to how deeply rooted the silence surrounding his parent’s backgrounds as Jews in Nazi Germany was. When his mother died decades later, Goldsmith finally broke the silence, and asked his father about the missing pieces in their past.
“It became something of a mission,” Goldsmith said of his exploration and documentation of his family’s stories. “I had to write [the books].”
“The Inextinguishable Symphony” carries the story of how his parents, Rosemarie and Gunther Goldschmidt, narrowly escaped the Nazis’ persecution by playing their music in the Kulturbund, an all-Jewish band managed by the Nazi regime. It also details the historical shifts in power, ideals and politics of the time.
In 1941, Goldsmith’s parents caught the penultimate boat to America.
Rosemarie was a violinist, and continued to play in America, performing over 20 years with the Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio. Soon after they arrived, Goldsmith’s paternal grandfather, Alex, wrote a letter asking for assistance in fleeing Nazi persecution adding that if Gunther failed, it would be on his conscience. Newly arrived, and low on funds, Gunther was unable to fulfill his father’s plea. After receiving the letter, Gunther gave up playing the flute, and music altogether.
“I think my father gave up music as an act of penance for not getting his family out,” Goldsmith said. “I’m sure he was fraught with a huge amount of survivor’s guilt.”
This guilt created silence, and the silence left much to be said. The effects of the war and the persecution of Jews took its toll on Goldsmith’s father.
“His interpretation was ‘if this is what being a Jew means, then I don’t want anything to do with it,’” Goldsmith said of his father’s silence around identity.
While the story encompassed the overwhelming sadness and pain in the historical events, it also told the story of Goldsmith’s parents’ survival and the role that music played in all of their lives. Gordon saw the story as a reminder – both to prevent history from repeating itself, and that love can persevere through despairing circumstances.
“[The book] is a reminder that with all of the grim stories related to genocide, you can find islands of hope and love,” Goldsmith said.
When his father and brother died in close timing to each other, Goldsmith said he turned to his next book, “Alex’s Wake,” using it to come to terms with their deaths. “Alex’s Wake“ focuses on Goldsmith’s paternal grandfather and uncle whose paths went from hopeful to desolate in quick turns. Both ended up in Auschwitz, where they were killed. The parallels between his grandfather and son, and his own father and brother helped Goldsmith work through their deaths.
“I think I’m driven by the need to find out what happened. I went back to breathe the air that they breathed as a way to reach back through the generations to touch them,” Goldsmith said.
He travelled the route his relatives had taken before they ended up in Auschwitz, reconciling his comfortable experience with their hopeless one. One night, in Agde, in a room that overlooked the Mediterranean sea, Goldsmith dreamt of a strong matriarchal figure who turned to someone onstage and said, “Your grandfather would be proud of you.”
“A lot of guilt disappeared around then,” Goldsmith said.
Each of the stories is a balance in honoring the past, while working with the present.
“Some people might say, ‘You have to let go,’” Goldsmith said. “I see the wisdom in that … but I also have to tell their stories.”
After reconnecting with his family’s history, Goldsmith had an adult Bar Mitzvah in his mid-50s, since he had not had one when he turned 13.
“I’m a lot more aware of myself as a Jew,” Goldsmith said. “I am proud of these books and where they have taken me.”
When asked if he sees any connections or similarities between the Holocaust history and current U.S. politics, Goldsmith says he sees similar tactics being used between the current U.S. and Nazi Germany administrations.
“It’s not a matter of saying direct connections,” Goldsmith said. “The current administration has no regard for the truth, which is what all totalitarian regimes do.”
Because of this, Goldsmith urged community support against division.
“We all have to protect each other,” Goldsmith said. “We need to be aware of the plight of the refugees.”
He now wants to start writing a book about his paternal grandmother and aunt.
“These people can’t die anonymous deaths, these people lived,” Goldsmith said. “They existed.”
The next Mary and Tony Bianco series will feature Julia Martin, a leader in experimental music, on March 16.