Ayelet Waldman’s Peephole Into a Hungarian Jewish Past

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Hungarian Arrow Cross militia and a German Tiger II tank in Budapest, October 1944.Credit: Wikipedia

“Love and Treasure,” by Ayelet Waldman, Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95

At the opening of Ayelet Waldman’s latest novel, “Love and Treasure,” we’re in present-day Maine, where a dying man is meeting with his just-divorced granddaughter. Within pages, however, we find ourselves in newly liberated Salzburg, in the summer of 1945, where we now encounter the aforementioned grandfather, Jack Wiseman, as a young U.S. Army lieutenant. A recent graduate of Columbia University and an assimilated Jew, Jack has been assigned to guard a train-full of valuables – art, furnishings, jewelry and the like – stolen from the Jews of Hungary, some half a million of whom have been killed in mass executions, death marches and concentration camps. One of the threadbare survivors, a plucky redhead named Ilona catches Jack’s eye.

Just when we’re deep in the still-budding romance between soldier and survivor, history steps in, and Ilona finds herself more drawn to the Zionists who are recruiting would-be immigrants in the DP camps than the prospect of a future with Jack in America.

And with that, we’re catapulted back to 2013, where Wiseman’s granddaughter, Natalie, is on a search to find the rightful owner of an unusual locket that Grandpa gave her back in Maine, just before he died: It is in the shape of a peacock, with colorful semiprecious stones and Jugendstil enamel, designed in an art-nouveau style popular around the turn of the 20th century.

Natalie, a quasi-doppelgänger of Ilona with her ringlets of red (once Jack failed to get his girl, he nursed his wounds by marrying another ginger-haired woman) travels to Budapest in search of the locket’s owner – or, more realistically, the owner’s descendants. It was her grandfather’s dying wish, we learn, for her to set right the wrong he felt he’d done by taking the stolen jewelry to America in the first place, and so Natalie hurries off to Europe a few weeks after his death.

In Hungary, she meets Amitai Shasho, an Israeli of Syrian extraction who specializes in the sketchy business of “Holocaust reclamation.” Though a decent and likable chap, he earns his living from the nice cut he takes making ethically questionable deals that enable persons in possession of European Jewry’s stolen goods and the goods’ rightful owners to earn money and closure, respectively.

Like Jack decades before him, Amitai has a deeply ambivalent relationship to his country’s army. Despite the skeletal-looking survivors walking around the DP camps, Jack experiences anti-Semitic barbs from his American compatriots, and is dismayed to watch higher-ranking U.S. officials pilfering the “gold train.”

For his part, Amitai suffered discrimination as a Mizrahi (Jew of Middle Eastern or North African extraction) on the kibbutz on which he grew up, and is physically and emotionally marred from combat he saw in Lebanon. Like Jack, Amitai finds himself falling in love with a savvy-but-scarred redhead who walks into his life and makes him want to rethink everything he knew to be true.

Amitai’s profession has made him an expert in assessing the value of jewelry, art and furniture in the blink of an eye, and he shows Natali that the locket contains a hidden clasp that opens to display a tiny photograph. The two women in the photo, they learn through some sleuthing, are Hungarian Jewish suffragettes who had attended the International Women Suffrage Congress in 1913. Thus we are taken 100 years back in time from the point at which the novel started.

Multi-period novel

Ayelet Waldman, a novelist and essayist, has become something of a household name in the United States. Formerly a lawyer, she became a focus of controversy in 2005 when she argued in an essay that her love for her husband – who happens to be the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon – takes precedence over her love for her children.

She continued to stir debate in the parenting world with her bestselling nonfiction book "Bad Mother: A Chronicle Of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, And Occasional Moments Of Grace" in which she laid bare her struggles to raise four children and not succumb to the inevitable feelings of inadequacy that so many working mothers feel – and are sometimes made to feel by other women. “Love and Treasure” is Waldman’s fourth general interest novel, not including seven “Mommy-Track Mysteries.”

There is something about this multi-period Jewish novel, taking the reader on a journey through time in America, Europe and Israel, that feels imminently familiar. The overall arc of the plot, with its objets trouvés that span generations, feels similar to the blueprint of other contemporary novels by major Jewish American female writers, such as Nicole Krauss’ “History of Love” and “Great House,” and Dara Horn’s “In the Image.”

In each of these, a mysterious found object – a desk, a book, a set of photographic slides – provides a labyrinthine link between past and present. And whether in the foreground or in the backdrop, there is always a Holocaust angle present. The more one unpacks the past, these stories all suggest, the more one understands the present. There is something about this path that feels slightly timeworn.

It is with this leitmotif that “Love and Treasure” moves back in time, from 2013 to 1945 to 1913, with a slim epilogue set in New York of 1948. For the third and last major section of the book, Waldman ditches the third-person, omniscient point-of-view she’d used up until that point, and moves to a first-person narrator. Therefore, we see the Budapest of 1913 through the eyes of Dr. Zobel, a Freudian psychoanalyst who is obsessed with 19-year-old Nina S., a brilliant and attractive young woman whom he has diagnosed with “hysteria.”

Many of the long-since debunked beliefs of the early psychoanalysts and the intellectualized misogyny embedded in Freud’s theory of this disorder are on full display here, making this section of the book an amusing romp through the early days of talk therapy. At some points I felt like I’d left “Love and Treasure” and had landed in the pages of Irvin Yalom’s “When Nietzsche Wept,” in which we saw Dr. Josef Breuer, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, pine for a patient in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Disappearing characters

With her suffragette politics and her desire to become a physician, Nina behaves in ways unbecoming a young Jewish woman from the privileged class, and Dr. Zobel comes to rescue her from herself – and prison. Throughout her ordeal, which includes running away and being arrested for working with Jewish Bolsheviks trying to overthrow the monarchy, the main concern of Zobel, her parents and her marriage suitor alike is whether her chastity has been compromised. While the developed world today tut-tuts at reports of young Muslim women in other places choosing to have hymen-reconstruction surgery before marriage, it’s interesting to be reminded that not so long ago, even secular Jews were also obsessed – as was the larger culture around them – with the same demands for virginal purity.

Indeed, the whole final section of the book seems more like an exploration of where women (and Jews) stood in pre-World War I Hungary than a continuation of the story we started out on, with good ‘ole Jack and Ilona. In fact, I found myself asking: Why are we now deep in the world of Nina and Zobel at all?

We’re here because Nina is one of the women in the picture hidden inside the peacock locket, the one Jack took from the Hungarian gold train because it reminded him of Ilona. It is a feasible link. But as the beating heart of the novel was most palpable in the chemistry between Jack and Ilona, it was disappointing that they never appear again, and that instead we end up in the story of Nina’s personal and political escapades – and her analyst’s hankering to ravish her. Although this section is entertaining and edifying, it doesn’t necessarily feel like the most logical continuation for the story of the core characters Waldman invited us to care about. We never do meet Natalie again, nor learn what’s become of Ilona.

But perhaps in this predilection for retrograde plotting, the question is less whether the arc of the novel moves in a logical direction than whether the story wows the reader. What I crave most in my main characters is a struggle that leads to a transformation. In this book, Waldman doesn’t quite stay with any of the characters long enough for us to see them fundamentally change, though there are implications that they do. But the force of Waldman’s fluid writing and her vivid peephole into the Hungarian past is more than enough to sustain the reader’s interest.

The book also provides a fictionalized overview of the Jewish struggle for survival, identity and self-determination over the past century. The Jews of 1913 Budapest are so assimilationist that some are converting to Christianity in hopes of climbing the social ladder. Jack, guilt-ridden for failing to protect the gold train and the dignity of the hundreds of thousands of Jews it represented, wants to take his own personal survivor, Ilona, back to America with him. But the brawny and brave Jews of Palestine make a stronger case, and she chooses Tel Aviv over living as a insecure minority once more.

Yet in Amitai, we meet an Israeli who has become so disillusioned with the Zionist idea – or maybe the reality – that he’s now gone to live abroad, a reverse aliyah. Waldman deftly puts it this way:

“One long night, his face plowed into the grit of a Lebanese hillside, his clothing soaked with blood – his own and that of the mangled young men beside him – had cured Amitai of humanity’s fetish for homeland. Whatever reflex or impulse that made a man care enough about such things to vote or demonstrate, to pick up arms and die, had been erased in him as thoroughly as the Jews had been erased from Eastern Europe. Now he craved only the anonymity of the immigrant, to be a man with a vague accent in a city of vague accents.”

A few lines later, Natalie is struggling to pinpoint the origins of the other woman pictured in the locket, Gizella. A young Hungarian who wants to work on his English is acting as their translator.

“But a Hungarian Jew or a Romanian Jew?” Natalie pressed.

Krisztian said, “Like I say, parts of Transylvania are sometimes Hungarian, sometimes Romanian. But Gizella is always just a Jew, you know?”

The writer, who writes features for Haaretz English Edition, is the author of the novel “Baghdad Fixer” (Halban Publishers).

Ayelet WaldmanCredit: Deborah Copaken Cogan
Love & Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman

Click the alert icon to follow topics: