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Authors: Ayelet Waldman

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Sagas

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BOOK: Love and Treasure
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“What is it?” Jack said. “Is there a problem?”

“It’s lovely,” the cook said. “But see below the coronet? It is engraved with an
H
. Not a
C
for ‘Herr General Collins.’ The guests of Herr General will be confused.”

Jack considered explaining to her the true provenance of the silver, suggesting as well the likely fate of the Hymans or Hirschorns or Herzfelds,
but he knew what her response would be. Bewilderment. Perhaps sympathy. And most definitely defensiveness. She would have seen nothing, have heard nothing, have known nothing about the fate of the Jews. None of the Austrians would admit to having known anything. If pressed, they might acknowledge that they understood the Jews to have been deported, resettled in the East. They themselves had disapproved of this, they would assure their American interrogators. They had personally been on good terms with any number of Jews, but then what could a mere citizen do? Even to express opposition to the Nazi regime had meant denunciation, imprisonment, death. In this regard the Austrians only echoed their German cousins, but somehow it bothered Jack more. Austrians were always so eager to remind Americans that they had been Hitler’s first victims, so reluctant to recall the way they had welcomed their invaders with roses and confetti.

Jack said, “You can just tell them that
H
is for ‘Herr General.’ ”

“Ha!” A raucous voice rang out across the high, vaulted ceiling of the room. “Very clever, soldier.”

General Harry Collins was all jaw, with a deep cleft chin and a smile that, though thin-lipped, was amiable and approachable. He never bothered to affect the smoldering scowl, borrowed from Patton, that was almost universal among the brass in the ETO.

Jack stood at attention, permitting himself to give no outward sign of how furious it made him to watch Herr General make a slow, appraising circuit of the table, taking stock of the loot.

“Very nice,” Collins said. He picked up a crystal wineglass and held it to the light coming in through the French windows. He set it back down on the table, licked the tip of his right index finger, then whirled it slowly around the rim until it keened. He looked up and down the length of the table and frowned. “No champagne glasses?”

“Yes, sir,” Jack said. “Ninety champagne glasses, as instructed.”

“Where are they?”

“They are here!” the cook said triumphantly, pulling a champagne glass out of a crate, trailing a shower of excelsior. She took a corner of her apron and polished the glass, but her beefy arms and plate-sized hands were better suited to boning a haunch of beef or beating a glossy meringue, and under the pressure of her fingers the crystal shattered.


Gottverdammt!
” she muttered.

“That’s no problem, sir,” Jack said. “I will send someone over with a replacement, pronto.”

It seemed to him that his voice soured as he said it, and he hoped that the general would not hear or otherwise sense his disapproval of the expropriation of the train and its contents. Indeed Collins turned, his eyes narrowing as he looked Jack over with the same amiable avidity he had brought to his inspection of the looted silver, linen, and china. He pointed to the Rainbow insignia on Jack’s uniform.

“You’re one of mine. What’s your name?”

“Wiseman, sir. Lieutenant Jack Wiseman, Two Hundred Twenty-Second, sir.”

“Wiseman. Wiseman. What company?”

“H Company, sir.”

“H Company. Wiseman, yes, Lieutenant, I’ve heard about you. Mickey Fellenz once told me he could drop H Company blindfolded and ass over elbows in the middle of the Sahara, and a week later you’d have them back at Camp Gruber without a grain of sand in their undershorts.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jack said, feeling the flush of blood in his cheeks, and just like that he felt his outrage slipping away. Was this all it took to make him forget Ilona’s father, the receipt for his stolen business burned to ash in the ovens of Auschwitz? A compliment from his commander? A word of praise, the fact that the general knew who he was, even remembered his name? Was this enough to make him forget the responsibility he’d assumed over the contents of the train, the responsibility he felt toward the vanished owners of the property? Apparently so.

“Wiseman,” the general repeated. “Son, would you by any chance be of the Jewish persuasion?”

Jack stiffened. “Yes, sir, as a matter of fact I am.”

“Well, that’s just swell. Terrific!”

“Sir?”

“Come on into my study, son. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Jack followed the general into a spacious room lined with empty bookshelves that had been spared the ministrations of the baron’s zealous crowbar. The room was otherwise, typically, bereft of furniture but for two matched leather armchairs, from one of which rose Rabbi Eli Bohnen, one of the Rainbow Division’s chaplains.

General Collins said, “Rabbi, I believe this young man’s one of yours.”

Jack knew Bohnen though he had never sought the man’s counsel or ministry. Jack was such a confirmed unbeliever that at first he had
not even bothered to have himself listed as “Hebrew” in the army rolls, changing his mind only because the lack of designation subjected him to constant importuning by the chaplains of various evangelical Christian denominations, who were desperate to save his soul before he lost his life on the battlefield. But Bohnen made it his business to get to know every Jew in the unit, no matter how disaffected or irreligious, and so he and Jack had spoken a few times. He was a thoughtful man, friendly without being pushy, with a trace of Toronto in his accent. No matter Jack’s lack of interest in the practice of his putative religion, he could not help but like the rabbi.

“Indeed he is,” Bohnen said. He had long ears and a firm chin, a small mouth that broke into a ready, easy smile. “Lieutenant Wiseman, how’ve you been?”

“Can’t complain, Major.”

Collins said, “The rabbi here’s been filling me in on the situation in the DP camps. It’s a terrible thing, Wiseman. A cruel thing.”

“Yes, sir,” Jack said.

“And more of the poor bastards coming west every day.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You were there with us at Dachau, weren’t you, Jack?” Bohnen said.

“Yes, sir.”

“All those emaciated, diseased, beaten, miserable shadows of human beings. I still have nightmares about it.”

“Yes, sir,” Jack said. He refused to allow his mind to wander back to the things he had seen when his unit had been among the first to liberate the camp.

“Our brothers, Jack. Our poor broken brothers. I tell you, when I saw that place I felt like apologizing to my dog for being a member of the human race.”

Jack’s throat closed around his words, and he could only nod.

Bohnen said, “There’s nothing left for the survivors of the camps. Their families are dead. They’ve lost everything. They don’t belong in Poland and Romania anymore. And the one place they do belong won’t have them.”

Confused, Jack said, “Where’s that, sir?”

“Why, Palestine, Lieutenant,” Bohnen said, looking mildly offended. “Of course. Eretz Yisrael.”

“Ah,” Jack said. “Sure.”

“The British won’t let them immigrate to Palestine. Not legally, at any rate. So they come here, looking for our protection.”

“It’s a tragedy, is what it is,” General Collins said. “A tragedy on top of tragedies.”

Rabbi Bohnen said, “A righteous man can do only one thing in the face of such compounded tragedies.”

Again, though he could see that Bohnen expected him to be following right along, Jack was clueless as to what the rabbi had in mind. It did not seem to him that, faced with the horror of Dachau, the shame and squalor of the DP camps, a righteous man would know his ass from his elbow. But he did not say as much. Instead he just tried to look politely patient, waiting for Bohnen to let him off the hook.

“Lend a hand, however he can,” Bohnen said.

Jack agreed that this was indeed incumbent on all righteous men. He wondered if evicting an old Ukrainian bat from her apartment and smuggling Spam and powdered lemon drink to Ilona and the Zweigs counted as lending a hand.

The general said, “Shouldn’t you be in Vienna, Wiseman? With the rest of the Two Hundred Twenty-Second?”

“I’ve been reassigned, sir. To the PCB of the RD and R.”

“You due to rotate home soon, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.”

“Not enough points?”

“Not yet, sir.”

Collins said, “Given any thought to signing on for another six months?”

“I’m considering it, sir.” Jack had, in fact—much to his surprise—given it some thought. For more than a year, his every waking moment not devoted to keeping himself and his men alive had been spent contemplating his return to New York, but now suddenly, at the ass end of it all, he was starting to dread the thought of leaving. He had stopped throwing away the memoranda encouraging him to extend the period of his service, though he’d yet to reach a final decision about signing on for another hitch. That decision, he had come to understand, was not in his hands at all, but, like his heart, was in the hands of Ilona Jakab.

“You bet I have, sir,” he said.

“That’s encouraging news, son,” the general said. “We need every one of you old-timers. Men who know what we’re doing here, what we
fought for. Too many of these young replacements have a hard time remembering who the enemy was, do you find that, son? Among your men? Do you find that they’re so green they can’t tell friend from foe?”

Jack was so thrilled to have the general express this, Jack’s own worst frustration, that he could not keep himself from nodding in vigorous agreement. “I try to make sure they know the difference, sir.”

“Good for you. You’re a fine officer, Lieutenant Wiseman. I’m proud that you’re a Rainbow.”

“I’m proud to be a Rainbow, sir.” Jack knew that the distinctions between divisions were meaningless, that he would have developed the same camaraderie under fire if he’d been in the 101st Airborne or the 119th Infantry. He had known from the beginning that it was to his men that he both owed and felt loyalty, and to his fellow junior officers. Not to the brass, and not to a division, an accident of classification. Nonetheless, in his chest expanded a bubble of pride and pleasure. As idiotic as it was, he felt at that moment proud to wear the rainbow on his sleeve, proud to serve under Major General Harry Collins, proud to be recognized and valued.

“The war may be over,” the general said, “but I’m afraid we’re in this for the long haul, and it’s men like you that we’ll be relying on to get us through.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The general dismissed him, and as Jack turned crisply on his heel, Rabbi Bohnen said, “Let me walk you out, Lieutenant Wiseman.”

As they passed through the gracious entryway, Jack glanced at the dining room, where the cook and her assistants were still exclaiming over the bounty he’d brought. Their exuberance caught him up for a moment, and he hesitated, reminded once again of the shameful errand on which he’d come.

When they reached his truck, the rabbi put a restraining hand on his arm.

“Jack,” he said. “What I said inside about lending a hand. I wonder. If your hand was needed, would you lend it?”

“Sir?”

“If I were to call on you someday to help our poor Jewish brethren, could I count on you?”

And though he didn’t know for what he was being asked, or even if the question was actual or rhetorical, Jack said, “Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

“I knew it,” the rabbi said. “I knew you were a righteous man.”

Jack thought of all he had done in battle, of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of men he’d killed, of the orders, rules, and regulations he followed no matter what he thought of them, followed them because they were his job and his duty. And yet, despite all that, though “righteous” was not a word he had ever used to describe himself, he realized at that moment that righteous was all he’d ever wanted to be.


6

MONTHS PASSED, THE WEATHER TURNED
, and Jack continued to spend his evenings and rare days off with Ilona and his days as a glorified quartermaster’s clerk, processing requisition orders from U.S. generals throughout Land Salzburg, all of whom, it seemed, were in need of carpets and china, linens and tableware. He filled the orders and kept his records, periodically expressed his objections to his superior officer, and waited for someone to do something about it all. And then, finally, one day it seemed about to end. He was sitting at his makeshift desk, writing a letter of recommendation for Private Streeter, who was applying to pharmacy college in Albany in anticipation of his release, when the warehouse door creaked open, and Lieutenant Colonel Price strode through, a crowd of civilians in his wake. There were five in all, a small clutch of older men in brushed and mended suits and hats, and one younger man, taller than the others, elegantly attired, with watchful eyes. Bringing up the rear was Rabbi Bohnen.

“Lieutenant,” Price began, “I’m going to need you to—”

“If I might have a moment?” Rabbi Bohnen said. “I’d like to introduce Lieutenant Wiseman to our guests.”

Not used to being interrupted by an officer of lesser rank, but nonetheless respectful of the chaplain’s role, Price pressed his lips together and nodded.

“Lieutenant Wiseman, this is the delegation from Hungary, emissaries of the Jewish community of Budapest come to review the contents of the train.”

Finally! Jack thought. “
Jó napot
,” he said.

The Hungarians exclaimed and began speaking to him in a rush of Hungarian, but Jack had to hold up his hand. “That’s about all I know,” he said.

“It’s more than I do,” the rabbi said. “Jack, I also want to introduce you to Gideon Rafael, a member of the political department of the Jewish Agency, from Eretz Yisrael.”

Gideon Rafael was the first Jew from Palestine that Jack had met. He looked nothing like the sunburned orange growers, the socialist hikers in climbing shorts, who populated the Palestine depicted in the pages of his grandparents’ Yiddish newspapers. Broad across the shoulders, dressed in a crisp white shirt and an impeccable gray flannel suit, Rafael looked every inch the European diplomat.

BOOK: Love and Treasure
13.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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