Ayelet Waldman Goes In Search of Lost Treasures in New Book

Kaitlyn Fajilan

 

The year is 1945. The setting, the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria. Newly victorious American soldiers approach a series of over 40 passenger and freight wagons from Hungary. To their surprise, inside the wagons are the countless possessions of Hungary's displaced Jews--from gold watches, to silver candlesticks, to silk bedsheets, to old manuscripts--they number in the hundred thousands, their records of ownership tenuous at best. This mass of abandoned items will become known to history as the Hungarian Gold Train, and from it emerges a mysterious keepsake: a jeweled pendant designed with an enameled peacock of amethyst and peridot. This necklace will transcend generations with its beguiling history, entwining the lives of three different women whose combined stories span over the course a century.

 

 So begins Love and Treasure, Ayelet Waldman's latest, critically-acclaimed novel. With a precision to detail that astonishes and sweetens with each page, the reader is introduced to Jack Wiseman, a Jewish-American lieutenant charged with the duty of reorganizing and cataloguing the Gold Train's contents. In doing so, he meets and falls in love with Ilona, a Hungarian Jew who has lost her entire family to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

 

Desperate to locate Ilona's family possessions from amongst the Gold Train's contents, Jack discovers within its piles a peacock necklace from Ilona's hometown of Nagyvarad. When Ilona abandons Jack for life as a Jewish refugee at the border of Palestine, Jack pockets the peacock necklace in an act of wistful sentimentality. Decades later, he asks his only granddaughter, Natalie, to find the rightful owner of the peacock necklace, the true history behind which is not illuminated until the final third of the novel.

 

With Love and Treasure, Waldman has clearly employed an arduous amount of research to create an air of verisimilitude that brings both the politics of early 20th century Hungary and the bedlam of postwar Europe to life. Through each interweaving tale Waldman explores issues as diverse as American reparations in the face of World War II's unspeakable atrocities, anti-Semitism and the Jewish diaspora, early Freudian techniques of psychotherapy and dream analysis, Suffragism and feminist literature, even the underground Communist movement in Budapest.

 

Though the novel jumps from one steep socio-political climate to another, a continuous theme found throughout is the question of rightful ownership, particularly in regard to the invaluableness of family heirlooms, and the transcendence of memory through material items. This theme in particular is what drives the events of the second part of the novel, in which Natalie and Amitai Shosha, a Syrian-Jewish art dealer who specializes in recovering stolen Holocaust art pieces, find themselves sussing out the relation between 20th century suffragist Nina Einhorn and the aforementioned peacock necklace, as well as her connection to a lost painting by an artist named Vidor Komlos.

 

 

The slickly unctious Amitai serves as a kind of foil to the conscientious Jack Wiseman, whose guilt over stealing a single necklace from the thousands of forsaken items on the Gold Train plagues him to his very deathbed. Amitai, on the other hand, is more concerned with gaining a commission off stolen art treasures than deriving any satisfaction from proper repatriation or reinstatement of rightful ownership. Natalie, however, seems to share her grandfather's indomitable sense of duty, a stubborn adherence to honor that spurs her on a madcap hunt across Europe to locate whomever  possesses the best claim to ownership of the necklace, be it through bloodline, marriage, or friendship. In rectifying her grandfather's crime, Natalie not only honors an old man's dying wish, but she symbolically memorializes her slain Jewish countrymen, restoring the dignity of ownership to those who were made to forfeit their treasures and family heirlooms to the Hungarian Gold Train.

 

At one point in the novel, Peter Elek, a seasoned jewelry and art dealer, and Dr. Dror Tamid, a professor of history, engage in a heated argument over the rightful disposition of the Herzog collection, a compilation of art amassed by the Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, a Budapest Jew, and the cause of a "diplomatic fracas" between Hungary and the United States.  Though he acknowledges the Herzog family's right to restitution, Elek regrets the possibility of Hungary losing yet another historically significant art treasure to a Western country. Upon finding out that Elek is himself a Jew, Dr. Tamid, who sides with the Herzogs' right to ownership, reprimands Elek for lacking sympathy. To this, Elek responds:

 

"For whom should I have sympathy? The Herzog family? Aristocrats whose gold allowed them to escape in comfort and safety while the rest of Jewish Budapest tried to keep from being shot and thrown in the Danube? A gang of robber barons who got out with millions and lived to produce a gaggle of squabbling spoiled heirs?....What about those like my family, who lost everything, though it was so little? To my mother, a new pair of shoes was worth more than an El Greco to a Herzog. Where is her compensation?"

 

In uttering these words, Elek not only points to an obfuscation of "rightful ownership" when dealing with Holocaust victims due to varying levels of wealth and opportunity, but argues for a kind of nullification of personal inheritance in the face of vast historical significance. After all, as Elek is quick to point out, "Baron Herzog's is one of the last great collections remaining in Hungary." To Elek, the Holocaust's extant art treasures carry the weight of Europe's murdered Jews, regardless of who claims ownership to them. These treasures, like Nina's necklace and the Komlos painting, tell a story of livelihood lost, an insight into one of the darkest eras in history. And despite aiding Amitai in his reclamation of stolen art for many years, the spirit of this argument bristles somewhat against Amitai's penchant for splitting proceeds with the descendants of the very people who stole the art in the first place.

 

 

In pursuit of Nina Einhorn, the Komlos painting, and the history behind the peacock necklace, Amitai gradually undergoes a re-examination of his attitudes toward rightful ownership that culminates in a field trip to the renowned Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. While standing in the museum parking lot, Natalie confesses to Amitai that her pursuit of the necklace's rightful owner had simply served as "a container for (her) grandfather's grief. In the same vein, her lifelong fascination with the Holocaust had nothing to do with her own personal history, but was simply a vehicle by which to experience the pain and suffering she, a Jew, had been spared from undergoing.  Conversely, Amitai suddenly feels justified in identifying with the Holocaust by sheer virtue of his Jewishness, as evidenced by the following realization:

 

"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 thoses Jews rising up into the infinite ceiling in the Hall of Names."

 

Rightful ownership in Love and Treasure, then, appears to be somewhat of a nebulous concept. Though Natalie and Amitai unknowingly trace the necklace back to its original owner's nearest living relative, their ignorance concerning the keepsake's true provenance ironically results in the relative choosing to sell it off to bolster a foundering household income. The reader is thus left with a series of questions: What, exactly, is true ownership, and how is it established? Is it established via blood relation, association? Does historical significance rightfully relegate it to a national museum? Is it solely possessed by the individual, or does historical significance  establish collective ownership by an entire country? By a group of people? Or does it belong, perhaps, to whomever develops a sentimental connection to the item? Can ownership be claimed by identification of history?

 

The answers, much like the individual histories uncovered in Love and Treasure, may be rather complicated.

 

Author Bio:

Kaitlyn Fajilan is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

Popular: 
not popular
Photographer: 
Pixabay; Wikipedia Commons
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><div><img><h2><h3><h4><span>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.