If you’re a Jewish writer, sooner or later you’re going to have to address the Holocaust. If you’re a reader, Jewish or not, countless novels, memoirs, and other nonfiction books on the topic vie for your attention.
For a story to stand out among so many stories, it needs an unexpected angle, spectacular writing, and compelling, nuanced characters. Ayelet Waldman delivers all three and more in “Love and Treasure,” her new novel based on the strange but true story of the Hungarian Gold Train.
In 1945, this train and its car after car of “watches, jewelry, and silver … carpets, thousands of coats and stoles and muffs of mink, fox, and ermine, crates of microscopes and cameras, porcelain and glassware, furniture, books and manuscripts and tapestries, gold coins and bullion … all the items, valuable and less so, that constituted the wealth of the Jews of Hungary …” came to a stop in Austria.
A half million of those Jews had been deported to Auschwitz the year before the train debarked. Most of them were dead by the time its wheels stopped rolling and the Gold Train came under the jurisdiction of Allied forces.
The true story is striking enough, but Ms. Waldman’s historical fictionalizing is even better. She invents Jack Wiseman, a Jewish Army officer from New York, and puts him in charge of organizing and protecting the goods removed from the train. Of course he falls in love with a starved but beautiful red-headed refugee.
One of the objects from the train, a necklace with a peacock pendant, leaves Europe with him and is passed on to his own passionate, red-headed granddaughter. Another era, another love story.
This novel intrigued me because it dealt with the complexities of a tragedy that most Holocaust literature avoids. In America, at least, to qualify victims (some good, some bad) is distressing. We’d call it “blaming the victims.”
American Jews are currently wrestling with Zionism, and those who oppose Israel’s political actions are liable to be called “self-hating,” or worse. For those reasons, I was shocked when Ms. Waldman’s Palestinian Jewish characters deride the Eastern European refugees they’re shepherding to Israel.
Jack’s beloved, one of the refugees, clarifies their attitude. “I know they look at us and think, Why are you alive when so many others are dead? I know they wonder, Did this one steal bread? Did that one betray his friends? ... I think the same. I ask the same questions.”
Jack begs to marry her, to take her away from the horrors she’s lived through. Her answer is telling: “I don’t want to go with you to New York, where even you cannot promise me it is not the Jew-dapest of tomorrow. I want to go to Tel Aviv and live where everyone is Jewish, and if your neighbor steals your bicycle it is because he is a thief, not because he is an anti-Semite.”
Fast forward to 2013, when Jack’s granddaughter Natalie meets Amitai, an art dealer who recovers Holocaust art. Amitai, who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, isn’t recovering these artifacts because he wants to reconnect the descendants of the victims with their family mementos, but because it’s a lucrative business.
Ms. Waldman opens an intriguing topic here about the repatriation of art lost or stolen during wars or oppressive political regimes, and she presents a fresh perspective. Amitai, whose cynicism melts when he falls in love with Natalie, is my favorite character in a novel filled with good ones.
His reaction to the Holocaust, like Jack’s, changes as the novel gets deeper. After he engages a tour with a professor of Holocaust Studies in order to learn more about the objects he’ll soon be buying, Amitai voices what many readers will find a disturbing viewpoint. The whirlwind tour of Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps infuriates him, but not for the predictable reason. Instead he wonders, what “was the point of elevating the history of Jewish calamity to such fetishistic heights? Wasn’t it a kind of idolatry?”
These are questions you won’t often hear asked in America, but they’re important in light of this country’s relationship to Israel. However, that’s not why you should read “Love and Treasure.” Read it because it’s a wonderful book, filled with energy and wit, its tragedies leavened with love and insight.
Susan Balee is a member of the faculty of OASIS, a summer school of American literature convening this month on the Isle of Procida in the Gulf of Naples.