Ayelet Waldman accomplishes a deft feat in her new book, “Love and Treasure.” The Berkeley writer’s elegant, sweeping Holocaust novel does not once visit the concentration camps, but still conveys the scope of the tragedy as well as the richness of Hungarian Jewish history.
An engrossing multigenerational story is set in motion by a mysterious jeweled locket and a search for its origins, traveling through three distinct time periods spanning the 20th century. The necklace, readers soon learn, came from the Hungarian Gold Train.
Though the book is largely fictional, the Gold Train is not. Seized by Allied troops in 1945 as Nazi Hungarian bureaucrats were trying to pass it through Salzburg after the war, the train was filled with the confiscated belongings of more than a half-million Hungarian Jews. Few of the valuables — furs, cameras, carpets, jewelry, gold, silverware, works of art — were ever returned to the owners or their heirs, and many were misappropriated by U.S. forces.
Waldman, 49, said she’s always wanted to write about the Holocaust, describing herself as “totally obsessed” since she was young. “But there are so many of those Holocaust kitsch novels, and I didn’t want to do one of those,” she said in a recent interview. “I waited until I had more faith in my skill to approach it.”
“Love and Treasure” knits together ambitious plotlines told through three main characters: a Jewish Army lieutenant stationed in postwar Salzburg, Austria, assigned to oversee the Gold Train; a 19-year-old Jewish suffragette in Budapest in 1913 who is connected to the locket; and an American woman who in 2013 travels to Budapest and Israel to unravel the mystery, with the help of a disillusioned Israeli war hero turned art reclaimer.
Waldman spent three years researching and writing the book, including two weeks in Budapest accompanied by her daughter Sophie, now 19. When Waldman learned that a women’s suffragist conference had taken place there in 1913, during a time that was relatively safe and prosperous for Jews, she immediately knew she would include it in her story.
“I wanted to write about that period right before World War I, where cities like Budapest felt like New York. Half the doctors were Jewish, the vast majority of currency traders, stock market analysts were Jewish. The industry in Hungary was virtually controlled by a number of very prominent, ennobled Jewish families. It was an amazing time to be a Jew.”
Waldman also spent time in Salzburg researching the Displaced Persons camps, where survivors were warehoused for months and sometimes years after the war waiting to emigrate. A scene in the book describing a Purim party in one of the DP camps, where the refugees drink and dance with surprising joy and abandon, was based on a first-person account Waldman found. She also includes a chapter about a truckload of DPs who, with nothing left to lose, try to cross the Italian border to reach a Palestine-bound boat.
All four of the author’s grandparents left Eastern Europe — Kiev, Belarus, Minsk, Odessa — before and after World War I. “But my entire extended family was wiped out [in the Holocaust]. My great-grandmother had many, many siblings, and none of them survived. So I have a sense of loss about knowing what I was missing, which I think is true for many Americans.”
Waldman, who was born in Israel and grew up in New Jersey, remembers how her grandmother “had this incredible anxiety about the possibility of another Holocaust, almost the inevitability. She was just the most jingoistic Zionist you could imagine, stemming from this feeling that there needed to be a place of refuge. She used to say, ‘Never forget you’re always just around the corner from an oven.’ Crazy, right? I used to laugh at her all the time and think she was just nuts.
“But if you read enough about Budapest in 1913 and see how similar it is to New York,” she said, it’s easy to become convinced that nothing is as safe as it seems. “I’m not saying [paranoia] is a goal, but I understand it all of a sudden in ways that I never did before. The current political situation in Hungary is profoundly depressing. It is remarkable to me how tenacious European xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism is … even in the absence of Jews.”
Waldman, mother of four and wife of the writer Michael Chabon, has written three other novels, a mystery series, the memoir “Bad Mother” and numerous essays about parenthood. But “Love and Treasure” is her best work, she said, “by an order of magnitude.”
“Love and Treasure” by Ayelet Waldman (331 pages, Knopf, $26.95). For upcoming book events, visit www.ayeletwaldman.com.