A spellbinding new novel of contraband masterpieces, tragic love, and the unexpected legacies of forgotten crimes, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure weaves a tale around the fascinating, true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War.
In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman—a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.
A story of brilliantly drawn characters—a suave and shady art historian, a delusive and infatuated Freudian, a family of singing circus dwarfs fallen into the clutches of Josef Mengele, and desperate lovers facing choices that will tear them apart—Love and Treasure is Ayelet Waldman’s finest novel to date: a sad, funny, richly detailed work that poses hard questions about the value of precious things in a time when life itself has no value, and about the slenderest of chains that can bind us to the griefs and passions of the past.
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Ayelet Waldman is the author of the novels Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, and Daughter’s Keeper, as well as of the essay collection Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace and the Mommy-Track Mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and four children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
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they found the train parked on an open spur not far from the station at Werfen. When they pulled up to the siding in their jeeps, Captain Rigsdale jumped out with a show of alacrity, but Jack hung back, eyeing the train. More than forty wagons, both passenger and freight. The nature of the cargo was as yet undetermined, but in this green and mountainous corner of the American Zone, a string of boxcars was never something Jack felt eager to explore.
Fencing the train were enemy troops uniformed in ragged khaki. They carried fég 35m rifles, but they had flagged their right sleeves with strips torn from white bedsheets, and they displayed no apparent satisfaction with their prize. By the side of the rails, a woman crouched over a wooden bucket filled with soapy water, wringing out a length of white cotton shirting. Two small boys took turns leaping from the door of one of the passenger cars, marking the lengths of their jumps with pebbles and bickering over who had leaped farther. They spoke a language unknown to Jack, but he assumed, based on what Rigsdale had told him, that it was Hungarian.
“Come on, Wiseman,” Rigsdale called over his shoulder. “You’re supposed to be fluent in gibberish.”
Jack climbed down from the jeep and followed Rigsdale toward the train. He had never worked for this particular captain before, but by now he was used to receiving sudden assignments to the command of senior officers tasked with undertaking excursions into obscure and doubtful backwaters of the Occupied Zone. Jack had a gift for topography and a photographic memory for maps. He had a feel for landscape and a true inner compass, and in his imagination the most cursory and vague of descriptions, a two-dimensional scrawl on a scrap of paper, took on depth and accuracy. This aptitude, which in civilian life had meant little more than always knowing whether he was facing uptown or downtown when he came up out of the subway, had found its perfect application in the war. Even during the confusion of battle, command had always been able to rely on Wiseman’s company to be where it was supposed to be and, even more important, to be moving in the right direction, something not always true of the rest of the division. This spatial acuity, along with his fluency in German, French, Italian, and (less usefully) Latin and ancient Greek, kept him in demand with the brass, who contended among themselves to have him attached to their commands.
“What’re they saying?” Rigsdale said.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, figure it out, goddamn it.”
One of the enemy soldiers ducked back into the passenger car from which the boys were leaping. Jack lifted his rifle. A moment later, a portly little man in a gray suit, complete with vest and watch fob, emerged from the same carriage and stepped down, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief, still chewing a mouthful of something. Like the guards, he had tied a scrap of white fabric around his upper arm.
The man hurried over to the half-dozen American soldiers standing by their two jeeps, his expression at once servile and calculating, as if they were potential customers of undetermined means. He extended his hand to shake Captain Rigsdale’s, seemed to think the better of it, and instead gave him a crisp, theatrical salute.
Rigsdale kept his own hands tucked by the thumbs into the webbed belt at his hips.
“Captain John F. Rigsdale, U.S. Army, Forty-Second Division. You the conductor of this choo-choo?”
The man shook his head, frowning. “No English. Deutsch? Français?”
“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” Rigsdale said, motioning Jack forward.
“Deutsch,” Jack said.
The man’s German was fluent, although the Hungarian accent made the language sound softer, mellifluous, the r’s rolled on the tongue rather than the back of the throat, the emphasis placed on the beginning of the words. Jack’s accent had its own peculiarities. Beneath the elegant High German cultivated by the Berliner refugee who had taught his German classes at Columbia University, Jack spoke with a touch of the Galicianer Yiddish of his maternal grandparents. His father’s parents, of authentic German Jewish stock, had never to his knowledge uttered a word in that language.
“His name is Avar László,” Jack told Rigsdale. “He’s in charge of the train.”
“Ask him if he’s a military officer, and if so why he’s not in uniform.”
He was, Avar said, a civil servant, the former mayor of the town of Zenta, currently working for something he called the Property Office.
“Ask Mr. László why the hell his men haven’t turned their arms over to the U.S. government,” Rigsdale said.
“Avar,” the Hungarian said in German. “My surname is Avar. Dr. Avar. László is my first name.”
Jack asked Dr. Avar if he was aware that the terms of surrender required that enemy soldiers turn over their weapons.
Avar said that he was aware of the order, but regrettably the guns were necessary to protect the train’s cargo. He said his men had been fighting off looters since the train’s departure from Hungary. In May they’d been in a shoot-out with a group of German soldiers, and recently they’d been dealing with increasing problems from the local population, whose greed was inflamed by rumors of what was held in the wagons.
“Tell him I’m deeply sorry to hear how hard his life has been lately and that the U.S. Army is here to unburden him of all his sorrows,” Captain Rigsdale said. “And his guns, too.”
By now a small group of civilians had descended from the passenger carriages. One of them stepped forward and conferred with Avar, who nodded vigorously.
Jack translated. “They want us to know that nobody’s given them any provisions. Avar says they’ve been starving.” Jack looked doubtfully at the vigorous guards, the men in their neat suits, the plump-cheeked children. “Starving,” he supposed, was a relative term.
The captain said, “Tell him they’ll all be fed once they get to the DP camps. Now I want to have a look inside the cars. See what all the fuss is about.”
Avar led them to the first of the cargo wagons, its doors officially sealed with bureaucratic wallpaper bearing an elaborate pattern of stamps and insignia. Jack looked down the row of boxcars. Some of the seals along the train remained intact. Others looked tattered, torn away. What that proved or didn’t prove, he wasn’t sure. There was no way of knowing whether the seals had been put there six months or six hours before.
At the door of the first cargo wagon, Avar hesitated. He conferred in Hungarian with one of his colleagues, a lanky, elderly gentleman with extravagant mustaches waxed to points, before making his wishes known to Jack.
“What now?” Rigsdale said.
“He’s asking for a receipt.”
“The fuck he is.”
“To show that we assume protection of this property on behalf of the Hungarian government.”
Avar didn’t need Jack to translate the look on the captain’s face. Puffing up his chest, the little man asked Jack to remind his commanding officer that the cargo of the train was Hungarian state property, and therefore he, Avar, with all due respect, could only turn over the custody of said cargo if assurances were made that it would, in due time, be returned to the government of Hungary.
“Lieutenant, please remind Mr. Avar that the government of Hungary just got its ass handed to it, and suggest to him, if you would be so kind, that he, his men, and his whole damn country are now under the authority of the Allied forces. I am not going to give him a goddamn receipt, and he should please open this motherfucking door now, before I use his fat head as a battering ram.”
In as formal a German as he could muster, Jack said, “Captain Rigsdale reminds you that he speaks with the full authority of the United States Army, and requests that you delay opening the boxcar no longer.”
Avar glanced at his guards, and Jack silently cursed the military command that had sent six men to disarm sixty. Though he never made vocal his disapproval, he had learned by hard experience that a soldier rarely lost money betting against the wisdom of his superior officers. The institutionalized idiocy was one of the many reasons that for nearly all of the past year and a half since his enlistment Jack had hated the war, hated the army, hated even the civilians who all too often seemed to despise their American liberators far more than they had their German conquerors. The only people he didn’t hate were the men with whom he served in the 222nd Battalion of the 42nd Infantry, the Rainbow Division, none of whom he’d known for longer than a year and all of whom he loved with a devotion he had never felt before for anyone, not even the girlfriend who had predictably broken his heart in a letter a mere three weeks after he received his commission. He was especially fond of the men of H Company, whose dwindling ranks he had led on a relentless slog through the torn-up landscape, through France and across the Siegfried line until they reached Fürth, where the battalion commanding officer, after a grueling exchange with a recalcitrant local farmer, had decided that he needed the assistance of an aide conversant in German and transferred Jack away from the men who were all that he cared about in this miserable war. His many attempts to return to his company defeated, Jack was left stewing in his loathing and waiting to earn enough points for a discharge. Even considering the battle decorations he’d received at a recent cluster muster, he was three points shy of the eighty-five he needed to be sent home. Best possible outcome, eighty-two points put him in Salzburg for three more months. Worst possible, he was heading to the Pacific.
The Hungarian having failed to respond to his order, Jack repeated, “Please open the boxcars.”
Across Avar’s face seemed to pass the entire history of his benighted people in this interminable war: pride, belligerence, bravado, defensiveness, anxiety, despair. And, finally, resignation. He removed a large iron key from the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket, inserted it into the heavy padlock, and, with a grunt, sprung the lock. When he pushed the door back, the seals tore with a pop like the bursting of an inflated paper bag. The door rumbled open on its runners.
The boxcar was heaped with wooden cases and crates. Some of the cases had iron hinges and clasps; others were nailed shut. Toward the back of the car they stood in orderly stacks, but many of those nearest the door had been pried open and were piled haphazardly one upon the other.
“Pull a couple of those over here, Lieutenant,” Rigsdale said. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
Jack climbed up into the car and dragged over an open crate. He dug through the straw and pulled out a teacup decorated with a pink rose and a scattering of green leaves. The gilt-edged handle came off in his hand.
“Vorsicht!” Avar said.
Jack gave a meaningful glance at the jumble of open boxes. No one else had bothered to take the care that Avar seemed to expect of him.
“Try another crate,” the captain said.
The next crate contained a pile of expensive-looking camera equipment, none of it padded with straw or excelsior. Some of the lenses were cracked. What, Jack wondered, were these Hungarians doing riding around the Austrian countryside with a trainload of household goods?
Captain Rigsdale ordered Avar to open another boxcar. This one contained rolls of carpets. Most were stacked neatly, but someone had been pilfering those nearest to the door; smaller carpets had been unrolled and draped over the piles, and there were muddy boot tracks everywhere.
“Looters,” Avar said.
“After the treasure,” Captain Rigsdale said after Jack had translated. “All this must have been on its way to the Alpenfestung.”
Among the strange ideas held in common both by the Allies and the defeated German troops was the chimera that, hidden in the mountains of southern Bavaria, defended by one hundred thousand SS officers, the Nazis had erected a final stronghold. Although there was no more evidence for the existence of this national redoubt than there was for that of the city of Atlantis or the valley of Shangri-la, everyone on both sides seemed to be sure that it was there, hovering high above them, a Valhalla for the desperate Germans and an anxiety dream for the Allies, many of whom had a hard time accepting that their mythic Teutonic-warrior opponents had not fought to the end predicted by their death’s-head insignia.
“Strange kind of treasure,” Jack said, holding up a crystal liqueur glass. “Sir, this doesn’t look like bank assets. It just seems to be a lot of, well, stuff.”
“Let’s keep looking,” Rigsdale said.
Avar led them through the train, a car at a time. He showed them crude pine crates of bed linens and fur coats, cases of men’s pocket and wrist watches, of women’s jewelry. Jack opened up a box full of evening purses, most of them beaded or decorated with silver chains. Another of silver sugar basins, silver teapots engraved with monograms, bronze statuettes of men on horseback. In some cars they found heaps of leather wallets alongside silver cigarette cases, heavy musty-smelling furs piled on top of brightly colored Oriental carpets, tangles of costume jewelry, paintings of all sizes stacked one upon the other. The contents of other cars had been painstakingly sorted, the radios neatly loaded into wooden crates, the silver candlesticks separated from the vases, the sets of china plates and porcelain platters carefully packed.
In the fifth car, Avar opened an unlocked small wooden casket with brass hinges. It was full to the brim with small misshapen loaves of gold and gold coins stamped with mysterious insignia. This indeed was treasure, like a child’s imaginary pirate’s trove, lustrous in the sunlight.
“You see?” Avar said in German. “Untouched since we left Brennbergbánya.”
“Where is Brennbergbánya?” Jack asked. “Is that where you came from?”
“This train was loaded in Brennbergbánya. Before that we did the sorting and organizing in the Óbánya Castle in Zirc. Before that most items were stored in the warehouses of the Postal Savings Bank.”
“But who does it belong to?”
One of Avar’s companions said something in Hungarian.
Avar said, “All property belongs to the people of Hungary. It must be returned to the people of Hungary.”
When Jack translated this, Rigsdale said, “Tell him the American government is not in the business of stealing anybody’s property.” Rigsdale pointed at the small casket. “Is this all the gold?” he asked.
There was more gold, Avar told them, but they had distributed it throughout the train to make it more difficult for looters to find. There was also a small number of precious gems. Avar had done his best to protect the most valuable property, but there had, as he’d said, been looters. And also government officials had removed much of it.
“U.S. government?” Rigsdale asked.
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