Love and Treasure
I’ve loved reading anything Ayelet Waldman writes, and her newest novel, Love and Treasure, is her best so far. It begins and ends in the present, but in the middle it’s about what happens to some of the people connected to a train full of household goods stolen by Nazis and then disbursed in both official and secret ways after the war, when it becomes clear that most of the original owners are dead and others are past caring what has happened to their relatives’ rugs, chairs, or stemware.
The main character, Jack, is introduced as a multi-lingual American soldier stationed in Salzburg and called to translate for the Hungarians on the train when it comes into the American zone. He falls in love with a young Jewish woman named Ilona who is a “displaced person” after having been liberated from a camp, and is faced with the impossibility of sharing their experiences:
“’You think you know. But you don’t really know how I lived for almost a year.’
‘Yeah, well, I spent a year getting shot at by Germans, and you know what? That was no goddamn picnic, either.’
Even as he said it, Jack knew that if this was the game they were doomed to play, he had already lost. In the hierarchy of horrors, as dreadful as his were, they were far down the list.”
The modern characters, Jack’s granddaughter Natalie and a dealer who specializes in finding art lost during the Holocaust, go looking for the owner of a peacock pendant and locket that ended up in Jack’s possession, it being his dying wish that Natalie find its owner. She and the art dealer, Amitai, envy what they think of as “the moral certitude of those who had never had to confront the pain of ambiguity,” believing that Jack’s generation had this kind of certitude. His story, however, told as the background to their search for the owner of the peacock pendant, reveals even more ambiguity about right and wrong. Their search is successful in uncovering truth, while unsuccessful in having the truth matter to the original owner of the pendant.
Natalie and Amitai go to a museum called Yad Vashem and contribute the facts they’ve unearthed to a biographical database of every person who was killed during the Holocaust, called The Pages of Testimony.
An American Jew, Natalie says that
“all my life, my experience of the Holocaust has been…a useful container for feelings. Here was this colossal, unprecedented tragedy that, by virtue of my religion, I was free to adopt as my own. Because of the Holocaust, I was permitted—no, I was entitled—to feel all the pain that my blessed and comfortable life had spared me. But it was never my tragedy. Collectively, as a Jew, yes. But personally? No.”
In contrast, Amitai, a Syrian Jew raised on a kibbutz in Israel, is
“feeling for the first time that the tragedy of European Jewry did belong to him. Before today, his lack of personal connection to the Holocaust had made it a distant history, no more relevant to him than any other. But Natalie, the locket, the painting, the Hall of Names, taking responsibility for Komlos in the Pages of Testimony, these had brought him to the realization that, merely by virtue of being a Jew, even a Jew from another place and time, it was his history, too. Not personally, but collectively. It belonged to him, as he belonged to all those Jews rising up into the infinite ceiling in the Hall of Names.”
After the story of Natalie and Amitai seems to have wrapped up the story of the pendant and of Jack and Ilona, the reader may well think the novel is over. As if illustrating how many stories have been lost, however, next the novel veers off onto a story about the original owner of the pendant, told from the point of view of a Freudian psychotherapist the age of her father who admires her, desires her and takes some of her secrets with him to the grave, including a growing feeling that she might have been a good doctor, had she been allowed to enter the Faculty of Medicine in post-1895 Budapest. A professional man of his time, his pronouncements often make a modern reader chafe:
“Women are naturally predisposed to care for the family, children, and the means of reproduction….However, I had concerns about exposing young ladies of class and discernment both to the rigors and to the harsh physical realities of modern medicine. Many of the common and necessary parts of a student physician’s training would be offensive and disturbing to such young ladies.”
The chafing, of course, makes the story feel more realistic, as if we’re getting another point of view on a part of this young woman’s life that no one else could have known about.
An epilogue reveals Jack’s reason for keeping the pendant, the action which makes the rest of the events of the novel possible. To him, “it had long since become clear that the property would never end up in the hands of the heirs of its former owners” but “he believed that eventually the United States would…hand over the property to the Jewish Agency to be sold, with the proceeds used to care for the DPs and to facilitate their resettlement….” But when Jack goes to an auction in New York, advertised as a sale of “war victim assets,” he finds that the entire lot of “enameled jewelry” where the pendant belongs is being sold at $1.50 for each piece. He pockets the pendant and goes out, thinking that “the real wealth of the Hungarian Jewish community had not been packed in crates and boxes and loaded onto that train” and that the story of the pendant might never be known except as he knows it, as a “complicated legacy of memory and forgetting.”
The epilogue has the effect of reminding readers that this 334-page novel is the imagined story of one single piece of jewelry from “lot 29” found on a train that actually existed, and that there must be many more stories we will never hear.