Hungarian Gold Train Stops for Good Americans, Bad Israelis in Ayelet Waldman’s New Novel
‘Love and Treasure’ weaves a multigenerational tale through World War II back to a lost European paradise
Cut to the next section, which takes place in Budapest in 2013, and the same constellation of forces returns in a new version. Now the kindly, well-intentioned American Jew is Natalie, Jack’s granddaughter, who has obeyed his dying wish and come to Hungary to try to find the rightful owner of the peacock pendant. And the ruthless, cynical Israeli Jew is Amitai, a decorated veteran who has left Israel in disillusionment and set up in business in New York as an art dealer, specializing in looted Jewish artworks. Through Amitai we confront the sordid side of the whole Holocaust restitution industry: Here is a man who exploits stolen art for profit, usually by delivering the art to heirs who have no emotional connection to it and want only to turn it into hard cash. “We are not a charity,” says Amitai’s uncle and partner:
Shasho and Sons did not represent people who longed for their grandfather’s lost Degas statuette because it reminded them of their mother’s years as a ballerina and who planned to display it in a special cabinet constructed in their living room. The firm represented people who recalled with sufficient detail the items in their relatives’ collections, who ideally had some documentation backing up these claims of provenance, and who wanted nothing more than to sell the objects to the highest bidder.
This unpleasant image of greedy Jews profiteering from the Holocaust matches with the earlier image of Yuval, who also profiteers from it, albeit politically. And once again, the cynical Israeli is countered by the idealistic American: Natalie, inevitably, wins Amitai’s heart and turns him toward the light. Now, free from the burdens of 1945, Waldman is able to luxuriate in the kind of fantasy romance that the first part of the book tried and failed to supply. Here are the luxurious hotel suites, passionate sexual encounters, and snappy patter that make a 21st-century love story—on the page or on the screen. The awkwardness of Jack and Ilona is washed away by the easy embrace of Natalie and Amitai: “The stuffed cabbage for which the hotel restaurant was justifiably famous tasted fine, better even, from a room-service tray. … Modest after the fact, Natalie twisted the white sheet around her body, covering her breasts. Her curls, liberated from their restraining clip, dangled fetchingly around her face.”
As is always the case when a scoundrel falls for a good woman, Amitai is redeemed by his love for Natalie. Now the two can work together to track down the true history of the peacock pendant—a quest that leads them to a lost painting, a masterpiece by a murdered Jewish artist. Like Jack two generations before, Natalie must decide who is the rightful owner of this treasure—should it stay in Hungary, or go to Israel, or be sold for private gain? What does justice demand, what does Jewishness demand, and how can those strong claims be reconciled with one another?
The resolution of that question seems like it should mean the end of the book. But then comes the last and most interesting section of Love and Treasure—a prequel, set in Budapest in 1913, that finally reveals the true history of the peacock pendant. This section takes the form of psychoanalytic case notes by a Freudian doctor about his young female patient, Nina S., and Waldman has a wonderful time parodying the voice and form of Freud’s own case studies.
Drawing on what was clearly extensive research, Waldman brings to life the world of the Central European Jewish haute bourgeoisie, reveling in its textures, exposing its hypocrisies, and cheering on the incipient feminism that Nina represents. We enjoy the chance to scoff at Dr. Zobel as he insists that Nina’s menstrual cramps must have a psychological origin and when he blindly follows Freud in insisting that there must be some sexual trauma in her past. In fact, Nina is as healthy as can be—she is the third and best in the series of Waldman’s idealized heroines. This section also makes clear that Waldman’s Jewish ideal is neither hard and calculating, like Israel, nor soft and bland, like America, but excitingly, romantically, idealistically European.
It is easy, of course, to celebrate a paradise that is lost. But it is this third section of Love and Treasure, this fantasia on historical themes, that allows Waldman to write most freely and fully. Perhaps this is because, in 1913, the insoluble moral and political dilemmas raised by the Holocaust are not yet on the horizon. Like a film played backward, the possessions fly off the Gold Train and back into the hands of their owners, who march back home from the death camps and resume their comfortable lives. This is the kind of restitution we dream about, rather than the a partial and compromised kind the courts offer. Naturally, we can only achieve it in a work of the imagination.
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A tribute to the great Italian-Jewish memory artist, and enemy of Fascism, who died six years ago this week