Barry Goldsmith, who escaped, dropped out and came back, dies at 82

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Barry Goldsmith, who escaped, dropped out and came back, dies at 82
Goldsmith, who survived the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States and built a successful career as an architect, died on Dec. 6, 2020, in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 82. Via Goldsmith family via The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tsvi Hirsch Goldschmidt planned to escape alone from the Jewish ghetto in Iwje, Poland, on New Year’s Eve, 1942. News was spreading that the Nazis, who had forced the city’s Jews into the ghetto a year earlier, were planning to liquidate it. But then his youngest son, Dov Baer, began to cry.

He picked him up and ran into the forest, leaving his wife and two older children, Pesach and Chaya Pesha, behind. They were ultimately murdered.

That one heartbreaking decision made possible a life, Dov’s, that encompassed much of the modern American experience, from immigration and the promise of postwar abundance, through the tumult of the 1960s, to the search for meaning in a secular society — and finally, in the early 21st century, to the ravages of a pandemic. It was a life of struggle that ended with a modicum of solace.

Dov Baer Goldschmidt, who became Barry Goldsmith after he arrived in the United States in 1950, died on Dec. 6 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was 82. The cause was complications of COVID-19, his daughter Gwen Goldsmith said.

He was born on May 1, 1938, in Iwje, a town in what was then eastern Poland and is now western Belarus. His father, who later changed his name to Harry Goldsmith, was a bricklayer; his mother, Golda (Volpianski) Goldschmidt, was a homemaker.

Germany invaded the region in 1941, forcing the approximately 3,000 Jews of Iwje into a ghetto. Beginning in early 1942, German soldiers rounded up and murdered thousands. The final liquidation of Iwje was to begin at the new year.

Barry Goldsmith’s memory of the time was uneven, and often filtered through conversations with his father, who said that he only brought him on his escape because he had been small enough to carry.

Goldsmith told one of his children that his family had been protected by a Christian family in Iwje. While a memorial book about Iwje says that the Goldschmidts were aided in their escape by partisans, Goldsmith later said that he and his father had spent time in the woods alone.

They eventually joined with the Bielski partisans, a celebrated group of Jewish resistance fighters led by the three charismatic Bielski brothers, he said. His father built shelters and bunkers for the partisans, who rescued hundreds of Jews before Soviet forces swept through the region in 1944.

After the war, the Goldschmidts joined tens of thousands of other Holocaust survivors in making their way to Italy, where Western forces had set up displaced persons camps. The pair spent several years living outside Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence near Rome, where Goldsmith learned Italian from the nuns who ran the camp.

Many at the camp hoped to move to Palestine, and to prepare them, representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel operated a “hachsharot,” a form of training station, where the refugees learned farming and other skills.

Goldsmith never said whether he and his father had intended to join the move to Palestine. In 1950 they sailed to New York, where they settled in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

Barry Goldsmith quickly blossomed into what his first wife, Lois (Kessler) Goldsmith, called “a perfectly American Jewish boy.” He spent weekends at the beach. He played soccer at Thomas Jefferson High School, which educated generations of Jewish immigrants and their children, including actor Danny Kaye, director Paul Mazursky and Lloyd Blankfein, the investment banker and former chairman of Goldman Sachs.

A photo from Goldsmith’s 1955 yearbook shows a smiling, confident young man with thick black hair. According to the yearbook, he aspired to study engineering, though by the time he met Lois, he had entered Cooper Union on a scholarship as an architecture student. They married in 1960, and in 1962 Lois gave birth to their first daughter, Gwen.

Not long after, Goldsmith and his family moved to College Station, Texas, where he completed his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M in 1965. He received his master’s degree in architecture from Columbia in 1966, the same year the Goldsmiths’ second daughter, Robin, was born.

Goldsmith began a rapid ascent in the world of New York corporate architecture. He joined the firm Oppenheimer, Brady and Associates, which had just won a contract to build Independence Plaza, a trio of 39-story apartment towers in what is now luxurious Tribeca but was then grungy downtown Manhattan. Goldsmith, who turned 30 in 1968, was made the lead designer.

The gargantuan complex embodied all the contradictions of postwar urban architecture. Complete with shopping and office space, Goldsmith’s towers were a city within a city, subsidized to keep middle-class New Yorkers from fleeing for the suburbs. But their construction required the demolition of several dozen acres of New York history, and their fortresslike street front turned a back on the city they were intended to help save.

Independence Plaza was completed in 1975, but Goldsmith had since been hired away by the elite firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to work on Westway, a multibillion-dollar plan to bury much of the West Side Highway in Manhattan.

To his colleagues, Goldsmith was going places: an Ivy League-educated architect already reshaping the New York skyline. Inside, though, he was starting to crack. The pressures of his job and the weight of unprocessed trauma bore down on him; he took up pot smoking and began skipping work. He fought with his wife, eventually moving out of their house in Brooklyn. Skidmore fired him.

One day in 1972, he just left.

For months he drifted around the country, said Lois Goldsmith, who remained in contact with him during the period. He stayed for stretches at communes populated by hippies and, increasingly, people like him: young professionals who, after the social unrest of the 1960s, chose not to be burdened by the pressure of modern adult life.

Barry Goldsmith settled in Taos, New Mexico, then as now a counterculture hot spot. He lived simply, learning to make drums and sandals from Native Americans. He fell in with a loose group of radical architects, some trained, others self-taught, who were designing earth-friendly underground homes that were built with recycled materials and heated by the sun.

In 1973, a friend from Brooklyn, Avrahum Bernstein, traveled to New Mexico to persuade Goldsmith to return to his family. Bernstein, like Goldsmith, grew up secular but had recently embraced a form of mystical Orthodox Judaism. The two spent days talking about faith, and by the time Goldsmith went home at the end of the year, he had become Orthodox, too.

He tried reconciling with his wife, but she had moved on. “He went from the Ivy League, to being a hippie, to being an Orthodox Jew,” Lois Goldsmith said in a phone interview. “I said, ‘Forget about it, what are you, crazy?’”

They divorced in 1980. That year Barry Goldsmith married Victoria Lubina. They had a son, Alan, and divorced in 1988.

Goldsmith went to work in 1981 for the New York Department of General Services, where he oversaw facade renovations on city-owned property. If his first turn in architecture involved grand gestures that erased the city’s history, this time he was saving the past, one terra cotta slab at a time.

He was proud of one project in particular, completed soon before he retired in 2000: the renovation of the Brighton Beach branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, near the shore where he had spent weekends as a teenager. The library, he liked to point out, had been cramped and utilitarian; he rounded its edges, punched in skylights and recast it in brick tiles — a New Mexican adobe in southern Brooklyn.

In retirement, he filled his home with cactuses, building tools and Beatles records. By then he had developed pulmonary disease and early onset dementia; his social circle narrowed to a few friends, his temple congregation and, occasionally, his children.

Goldsmith in 2018 traveled to Albuquerque for the wedding of his daughter Gwen, who had long felt that he disapproved of her being a lesbian. But at the dinner reception he embraced her and even said a prayer over the challah before breaking it — a rite typically reserved for an elder or rabbi.

Goldsmith never returned to Brooklyn. He broke a bone a few days after the wedding and ended up in a nursing home near his daughter. She visited him daily, taking him swimming or driving around the Sandia Mountains.

“He was working through his demons, but he got to end his life surrounded by friends,” she said.

Along with his daughter Gwen, Goldsmith is survived by his other daughter, Robin, a son, Alan, and a granddaughter. He was buried in Har HaMenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem, not far from the grave of the man who had carried him into the woods so many years before.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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