LOVE & TREASURE. By Ayelet Waldman. Knopf. 352 pages. $26.95.
In 1944, pro-Nazi Hungarian officials filled a train with gold, diamonds, pearls, silver, artwork, oriental rugs, furs and furniture stolen from Hungary’s Jewish population. The “Hungarian Gold Train” was scheduled to travel to Switzerland to escape the advancing Soviet army, but it was stopped in Austria by American forces. Soldiers were charged with cataloguing the riches (valued at more than $206 million, which would equal $2.8 billion today), but eventually declared the contents too difficult to identify and therefore government property. Ayelet Waldman’s multigenerational novel, “Love & Treasure,” reimagines the lives of those touched by this significant moment in history.
It is a dense plot, and I imagine Waldman, who shares an office with her husband and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, crafted a timeline and taped it to the wall in order to keep track of characters, settings and plot line. While the plot is rich and complex, the theme is love: unrequited, passionate and forbidden. Waldman offers a view of the Holocaust that we have not seen before and examines the lives of those left behind.
This ambitious novel is divided into three sections. It begins with Jack Wiseman, an American lieutenant responsible for protecting and cataloguing the contents of the train, and Ilona, a Hungarian refugee who tugs at his heart with her hunger and vulnerability. Her family’s belongings are somewhere on the train, and every time one of Jack’s superiors demands something from the train for themselves, he is wracked with guilt and shame.
It’s an impossible love, and we are not surprised by the outcome. Waldman in this section is more focused on setting the stage than living inside the story, but she offers heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of the survivors. She writes about the way “they shuffled and scurried through the camps, the way many of them froze on the sidewalk when a black car approached, their eyes darting as though searching for a place — a hole, a burrow — in which to hide. The tears came to so many, even the men.”
In the end Jack gives in to temptation and, like his comrades, steals a pendant from the train. Years later he is sick and close to death and asks his granddaughter, Natalie, to return the pendant to its true owner. This is the weakest section of the book, and, thankfully, Waldman moves us quickly through Natalie’s quest to the third and most compelling section that takes place in the city of Budapest in 1913.
In 1913, Budapest was the site of the International Women’s Suffrage Annual Congress. One of the oldest and most influential organizations for equality and women’s rights, this convention is a defining moment in “Love & Treasure.” Our narrator Dr. Zobel falls in love with his patient, a young woman named Nina, who is caught up in the political fervor and resists her parent’s demands to “accept her role as a modest Jewish wife and mother.” Nina’s father deems her “hysterical” and sends her to Zobel for treatment.
There, in his office, we hear her frank story of oppression and witness Zobel’s admiration. A follower of Sigmund Freud’s writings, Zobel tries dream analysis and hypnosis to determine the root of Nina’s hysteria, but instead learns about living from his patient. “And yet, with each passing day of my acquaintanceship with this young woman, I had become more impressed by her intellectual acumen, by her wit, by her verve,” he declares. It is a tumultuous time in the city, and Waldman conveys the doctor’s growing attraction to this extraordinary young woman through rich descriptions of city life and dynamically drawn characters.
Waldman is a skilled writer who illuminates the unexpected ways in which our lives are connected through a poignant story of the Hungarian Gold Train.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.