A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
An Oprah.com Best Book of the Year
In 1945, on the outskirts of Salzburg, American soldiers discover a train filled with unspeakable riches: gold watches and wedding rings, picture frames and Shabbat candlesticks. Jack Wiseman is the lieutenant tasked with guarding this treasure in the chaotic aftermath of war—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian woman 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, and charges her with returning it to its owner. And as Natalie searches for the woman whose portrait and unknown fate have come to haunt her, she will come to understand the secret her grandfather took to his grave.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 11, 1964
Place of Birth:Jerusalem, Israel
Education:Wesleyan University, 1986; Harvard Law School, 1991
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
• 1 •
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.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Love and Treasure, Ayelet Waldman’s ambitious and mesmerizing novel that weaves love, intrigue, and politics against the true story of the Hungarian Gold Train.
1. Love and Treasure is a novel that illuminates the shifting nature of identity. In the beginning of the novel, Jack Wiseman is described as a New York Jew whose father’s parents are of “authentic German Jewish stock,” (page 18) yet he finds it a struggle to connect with both the American soldiers under his command and the European Jews he encounters. How does Jack’s definition of himself change over the course of the novel? How do Jack’s fellow soldiers view him? How is he viewed by the Hungarian civilians he meets? What does this say about the how cultural heritage is assigned or interpreted?
2. On page 12, Jack admits that for many years the “contents of the pouch had been a kind of obsession” to him. In what ways does his granddaughter internalize this obsession and make it her own? What drives Natalie’s quest? Did Jack send her on this mission out of duty to the owner or to renew the “glimmer of interest” (page 13) in his granddaughter that had been destroyed by her divorce? Both?
3. When Jack first meets Ilona, he declares that she is all “wire and sparks” (page 29). How does her presence help Jack to better understand his identity as a Jew? As an American? How does she challenge his views about the war or its aftermath?
4. Throughout the novel, Jack is caught between his duty to country (in maintaining his position of watching over the train) and his duty to the people of Hungary (in trying to ensure that the goods are returned to their rightful owners). How do these two missions conflict with each other?
5. Chart Jack’s view of the military over the course of the novel, taking into account his interactions with his fellow American soldiers. Does he relate to any of the soldiers? If so, who? Discuss his conversation with Lieutenant Hoyle at the bar after his breakup with Ilona. How did you interpret the violence at the end of this encounter?
6. Jack’s encounters with Aba Yuval give him a more fully realized understanding of the political situation facing the Jews of Europe. What is Jack’s mind-set going into the trip where he helps smuggle the refugees over the border? What are his feelings toward the group’s goal by the end of the mission? How does this encounter challenge his understanding of nationalism?
7. Ilona and Natalie are described as physically similar, with both having fiery red hair. Is the author’s choice to have the two women share this feature purposeful? What else, if anything, do the two women share?
8. On page 139, Natalie struggles to admit to Amitai that the pendant is stolen, instead saying her grandfather “found” it during the occupation. Why does she stumble over these words? What does her hesitation say about the definition of discovery? Of ownership? How are these problems echoed throughout the novel? How are they reflected in the world of stolen paintings that Amitai deals in?
9. Compare and contrast the failed marriages of Amitai and Natalie. How do their failed marriages prepare them for meeting each other? Discuss the symbolism of Natalie wearing the pendant to her wedding to Daniel.
10. Why is Amitai hesitant to share his military past with Natalie? What other sins of omission occur throughout the novel? ( page 156)
11. Amitai is Israeli but he craves “the anonymity of the immigrant, to be a man with a vague accent in a city of vague accents” (page 175). How does this desire for erasure contrast with Natalie’s desire to understand her cultural heritage? How do their respective homelands encourage or complicate those desires?
12. When Natalie Stein becomes Natalie Kennedy, she meaningfully disrupts the established script for her behavior. What does this say about the fluidity of identity? How does this transgression embolden her?
13. On page 221, the pendant is returned to as close to its rightful heir as possible. What was your reaction to Dalia’s request to get the necklace appraised? What does her indifference to the physical object say about the dilution of history over time? Of personal connection to the Holocaust? To kin?
14. On pages 224–225, Natalie and Amitai fill out the Page of Testimony for Vidor Komlós, Gizella Weisz, and Nina Einhorn. What is the significance of this act?
15. The events of part three are narrated from the perspective of Dr. Zobel, a Freudian analyst. Why do you think the author to choose to include this point of view? Is the doctor reliable as a narrator?
16. Gizella and Nina are introduced as strong-willed women who are ahead their time: Nina dreams of medical school, and Gizella is active in radical politics. What challenges do these early feminists face, both from their countrymen and from their families? Why do you think Zobel seeks them out years later?
17. Stealing is a motif in the novel: Jack pockets the pendant; the American soldiers freely “shop” from the Gold Train; Natalie lifts a painting; Amitai deals in the world of stolen paintings. How do the motivations for these acts differ? Who is morally right in his actions? What does the novel as a whole assert about ownership?
18. Love and Treasure is a novel that weaves intricate plotlines among stunning character portraits, bringing to life a historical event with fictitious details. Yet as the history unravels, gaps emerge and often disrupt a clear narrative. What does this assert about memory, both collective and personal? About how history is interpreted or reinterpreted over time?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book started out beautifully. The post-WWII story of Jack and his love for concentration camp survivor Ilona was captivating,, but when Waldman took the story to a present-day format I completely lost interest. The author got lost in overly wordy sentences and endless paragraphs. Too many characters took focus away from the main story line. So although I enjoyed the first half, the second half of this book was a failure.
Copy received from Historical Fiction Virtual Tours for an honest review I really enjoyed this beautiful novel. The first couple of pages I wasn't sure where the author was going to go with the story and it didn't seem to match the description of the book. But as the story progressed everything started to beautifully fall into place. One of the key elements of this story is the sense of history and family story that is told. Although this found treasure also plays an important role, the heart and soul of the story was the family history. Many stories have been written about the Holocaust, and I think rightly so, but this had some elements that made it very individualistic. Jack and his grandaughter have a very beautiful relationship. I thought that their personal situations in life actually complemented each other. Without giving too much away, I love that Jack was able to finally see his real treasure. This was a very beautiful and very powerful book! Bravo Ms Waldman
Waldman's mind is intelligent and moving. Thus goes this terrific novel, broken into three sections, that revolves around the individuals whose lives are changed relative to a fascinating locket. Throughout the story, the history of this remarkable piece of jewelry initially found as part of a massive (a trainload) collection of household items stolen by the Nazis from Hungarian Jews is revealed. But those who possess it, whether the World War II American soldier assigned to manage the train's contents after the War, his granddaughter assigned to find an original owner (or someone connected to that person), or the two women pre-World War I whose ambitions and revolutionary lives started the saga, have much to share. I loved the history in the first section - the Gold Train and its hero; I was intrigued by the second section, in which an art dealer and an American woman try to uncover the history of the locket and return it to someone to whom it rightfully belongs falling in love along the way and my heart was broken in the third section -- the story of two young women who are fighting to get out of the constraint of their overly ruled lives. The unreliable narrator of the third section was a little off-putting for most of the story, but he does redeem himself at the end.
Loved the book but not crazy about the ending. Would have liked more historical content about Nina's family leading up to German occupation that touched on their loss.
One of the most amazing tales of the aftermath of WW2. Great characters, beautiful description of the towns and people trying to recover from the war, from the lack of food, medicine and communication. For anyone who is of German, Austrian or Hungarian heritage, this book is a real gem.
I really enjoyed the book although I felt that the narrator (a psychiatrist) hired to "cure" one of the heroines) was off-putting and I felt irritated with him most of the time. He finally softens in the end. I began to think that perhaps he was being sarcastic and that he really sympathized with Nina. I would recommend this book as a different take on events that happened during the holocaust.
A story in search of a good writer.