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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

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View of the “MAV Hungaria” (Magyar Allam Vasutak, Hungarian State Railway) identification printed on the side of one of the freight cars of the Hungarian Gold Train in Werfen, Austria, 1945. (Photo treatment Tablet Magazine; original photo United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.)
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Hardly a month goes by, it seems lately, without another story about the discovery of Nazi-looted art and the ensuing struggle to decide who should get to keep it. Just last month, Tablet reported the case of a Norwegian museum that decided to return its prize Matisse to the heirs of the original Jewish owner, after learning that the painting had been stolen by Hermann Goering. Last fall, a collection of looted art worth a billion dollars turned up in the apartment of an elderly Munich art dealer, whose father had been involved in the forced sale of Jewish property during the Nazi era. Then there is the biggest case of all, the return of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer to the sitter’s niece, after a prolonged Austrian court battle. That painting ended up in New York’s Neue Galerie, after it was purchased by Ronald Lauder for $135 million.

Coming on the heels of all these stories, Love and Treasure, the new novel by Ayelet Waldman, couldn’t be more timely. Waldman builds her narrative, which moves between three distinct stories and time periods, around one of the most notorious cases of property theft in WWII. This was the Hungarian Gold Train, a train loaded with possessions, including but not limited to fine art, that had been confiscated from Hungarian Jews by that country’s Fascist government. In the chaos at the end of the war, the train was captured by American forces, who thus became responsible for figuring out what to do with thousands of sets of dishes, silverware, clothing, and linens, as well as a caches of gold, gems, and paintings.

Most of the original owners of these items had been sent to Auschwitz, and the Hungarian Jews who did survive had no way of tracking down what had been stolen from them. The United States was reluctant to hand the goods back to the official Hungarian Jewish community, since the country was under Soviet control. What’s more, high-ranking American officers were using the Gold Train as their private department store, confiscating items to furnish their quarters. Eventually, the remaining contents of the Gold Train were auctioned off in New York City, with the meager proceeds going to benefit international refugees.

It is a story ripe for retelling, not least because it seems open to so many different approaches, even different genres. It would be easy to imagine the Gold Train at the center of a play by Aaron Sorkin—a courtroom drama in which the claims of the various parties to the stolen goods could be passionately litigated. If it were a movie, it could be a heist story, in which the main concern is the fate of the valuables themselves. There are elements of both these approaches in Love and Treasure, but its title promises that Waldman will make the Gold Train a backdrop to a story of romance, set in the picturesquely ruined world of postwar Europe.

In fact, Love and Treasure offers not just one romance, but two—one tragic, one comic. The book opens with a prelude, set in the present day, that introduces us to Natalie Stein, a youngish woman who has just gotten divorced and is plainly in need of a romantic savior. She is visiting her dying grandfather, Jack Wiseman, who remains haunted by the unfinished business of his days as a soldier in World War II. The symbol of that business is a “gold-filigreed pendant … [that] bore the image, in vitreous enamel, of a peacock, a perfect gemstone staring from the tip of each painted feather.”

To explain what it means and how he came to own it, the novel flashes back to Salzburg in 1945, where Wiseman—a tough and brainy Jewish soldier, used to dealing with casual anti-Semitism from his fellow G.I.s—is in the hopeless position of trying to catalog and guard the contents of the Gold Train. Not until he meets Ilona, a Holocaust survivor who comes to inspect the train, does Wiseman realize that the items on the train are specifically Jewish property.

Inevitably, Jack falls in love with Ilona; how can he help it, when Waldman seems so in love with the character herself? Beaten-down, haunted, and malnourished, Ilona hardly seems like someone prepared to feel or inspire passion. Yet Waldman gives her all the familiar qualities of a modern romantic heroine—she is spunky, confident, sarcastic, and despite all her sufferings, beautiful. When she and Jack are together, sparks fly.

Still, the whole premise of their relationship leaves the reader uneasy, as Waldman knows it will. How can a recent inmate of a concentration camp dive into a love affair? When Jack uses his Army connections to get food and clothing for Ilona, is he doing a charitable act or subtly bribing her to love him? Is Ilona any better than the so-called “chocolate girls” of postwar Austria, who exchange their favors for gifts of chocolate and other unavailable luxuries? Certainly their sex scene, when it comes, is as far as possible from a happy ending: Waldman evokes “the dry rasp of her vagina as he pushed into her, her suppressed whimper … how quickly he came, how, when he pulled out, the semen pulsed onto her belly as he buried his face in her neck.”

As Jack’s story evolves, in fact, one begins to feel that his love affair with Ilona, which is ostensibly Waldman’s main subject, is more like a burden for the author—a generic obligation that fails to engage her deepest attention. It is the Jewish dimension of the story that involves Waldman in a more personal and vehement kind of writing, and soon Love and Treasure turns into a much more intimately Jewish story than it appears at first sight.

Jack’s conscience insists that he try to return the Gold Train “treasure” to its rightful owners. But who, Waldman asks, are the rightful owners? The Hungarian Jews who send a delegation to the Army, trying to claim the property; or the Jewish Agency in Palestine, which claims the goods as the legitimate representative of the interests of the Jewish people? Ilona, who has been languishing among her fellow refugees, gains a new lease on life when she is exposed to Zionism and starts to believe that the only future for her lies in emigration to Palestine. In 1945, however, this was still illegal, and soon Ilona is playing on Jack’s loyalty to convince him to help smuggle refugees across the border into Italy.

Following all of this requires a knowledge of, and interest in, the moral and political dilemmas of postwar Jewry that few non-Jewish readers are likely to possess. Things get still more interesting, and ambiguous, when the major villain of the piece turns out to be not the American officers who help themselves to the Gold Train, or the ex-SS officer whom Jack enjoys beating up in a bar, but Yuval, the Zionist recruiter in charge of smuggling the refugees. As it turns out, Yuval has nothing but contempt for the survivors he is risking his life to get to Palestine—to him, they are “broken people,” of use mainly as propaganda symbols. And he is smugly insistent that the Zionists are the proper legatees of the Gold Train—and by implication, of Judaism itself:

You guard the train for us. Someday soon, your government will give it all to us, all the gold and the diamonds and the precious artworks, and we will use them to pay for this very operation of which you so disapprove. We will sell it all to buy boats and supplies and weapons. The Yishuv will owe you a great debt, Captain Jack Wiseman, which we will repay by fighting and surviving the next time you and yours allow yourselves to be herded like lambs to slaughter.

This sneering caricature leaves no doubt about Waldman’s attitude towards Yuval and everything he represents. He is far from the sheer niceness of the American Jew, Jack, or the tragic romanticism of the European Jew, Ilona. Yuval might object that niceness is a luxury that not everyone can afford, and that it is better to be a cynic than a victim of tragedy; but this point of view gets no hearing in Love and Treasure. Waldman’s characters are judged on the basis of likability, and there is no doubt that Jack is the most likable Jew on offer.

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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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

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