Ayelet Waldman’s new book, Love & Treasure, is a perfect treasure of an art novel. It begins where The Monuments Men leaves off, daring to face the difficult questions about Nazi-plundered Jewish treasures. How do you ever figure out to whom the objects once belonged? Did the owner survive the war? If not, did any of their relatives survive? To whom should the treasure be returned?
Maybe you’d like to check out the book trailer here, which beautifully conveys the historical mood of the novel. The story is based on the Hungarian Gold Train, which American servicemen recovered in Salzburg, Austria at the end of WWII. The train was full of home goods, jewelry and personal artifacts plundered from Hungarian Jews, most of whom were executed in the Holocaust.
The story begins when an American serviceman helps himself to an unusual locket that he found on the Hungarian Gold Train. Before his death many years later, he hands the locket to his grandaughter and begs her to return it to its rightful owner. The grandaughter teams up with an art dealer of questionable morals who specializes in Nazi-era art, and together they set off to Hungary and Israel on a quest to solve the mystery.
In an unusual twist, the third part of the novel is humorously narrated by a Freud-era psychoanalyst who offers a report on a patient he believes to be suffering from “female hysteria.” It turns out that his report tells the true story of the locket’s owner, a young Jewish woman who is turns out was a turn-of-the-century feminist who had dreamed of going to medical school. It is a story we never could have imagined, a life we never would have known.
And isn’t that the greatest loss of all? Not the objects or the treasures the Nazis took away, but the story of the lives behind the treasures. How beautiful then, that by offering us this one imagined life, Ayelet honors the lives of the many others whose stories we will never know.
Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: Highly recommended.
For further reading: The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary by Ronald W. Zweig