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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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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 were 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.

“No,” Avar replied. “Hungarian government.”

“Wait a minute,” the captain said when Jack translated Avar’s response. “Hungarian government officials have been here?”

No, not here in Werfen, Avar said. But before the end of the war, there had been individual government officials who had taken items from the train. He had tried to keep an inventory. He would show them.

“Anything else of value in this car?” Captain Rigsdale barked.

Avar opened another case. “Watches,” he said. “Gold. Gold plate. Very valuable. And you see? Also untouched.”

In another car, Avar pulled out an old steel box, unlocked, that appeared to contain mostly envelopes.

Jack crouched down next to the box and pulled out an envelope. It was torn open and empty. “What does this say?” Jack asked, showing it to Avar.

“It is a name,” Avar said. “Korvin György. This is an address in Kolozsvár, a city in Transylvania.” He pointed to another line. “And this says, ‘Gold ring set with diamonds. One karat.’ ”

“Where’s the ring?”

Avar shook his head. “When we did the sorting, we removed the items
from the envelopes. And also, we usually removed the precious stones from the jewelry.”

“Why?” Jack asked.

“So we could protect what was most valuable.”

Or, Jack thought, to make it easier to sell.

The rest of the steel casket was filled with pages of paper covered in ornate and spidery handwriting, liberally decorated with accents and umlauts.

“Inventory,” the Hungarian said. “With names.”

It was while going through a boxcar that contained household silver—cutlery, tea services, platters and bowls, candlesticks—that Jack caught on to the origin of the treasure on the train. Up to his elbows in a crate his superior officer had instructed him to open, he grabbed hold of a heavy silver candelabra. For a moment he wasn’t sure. But there were four arms on either side, and one in the middle. He disentangled the menorah from the other silver pieces in the crate and then dug out a silver cup decorated with Hebrew writing. A kiddush cup like the one his grandmother had on her mantel. Without seeking Rigsdale’s permission, he grabbed another crate and split it open with a crowbar. In this one he found a silver breastplate and crowns that looked very much like the ones that had decorated the Torah from which he had chanted on his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, nine years before.

“Everything in this wagon is silver?” Rigsdale asked Avar.

Avar gazed at him blankly.

“You know, silver? Wiseman, ask him if this car’s all silver.”

“Captain,” Jack said, the only evidence of his distress the beads of sweat collecting on his lip. “All this stuff is Jewish, sir.”

“What do you mean?”

He held up the Torah breastplate, pointing to the Hebrew words. He picked up the caps for the Torah handles. They were hung with silver bells that tinkled in his trembling hands. “This is from a synagogue.”

He turned on Avar. “Where did you get this?” he said. “And this?”

Avar looked blank but not quite blank enough.

“This is stolen from Jews!” Jack said. He pawed through the pile of silver, yanking out candlesticks and kiddush cups, waving them, piece after piece, at the man.

Avar let loose with a string of German, but Jack was far too upset to understand more than a few phrases—“civil servant,” “official government
business.” Avar shrank into himself, like a turtle hiding beneath its bureaucratic shell.

“What’s this ‘Property Office’ that you work for? What property?” Jack shouted.

Avar raised his chin defensively and informed Jack that he was an employee of the Jewish Property Office, a division of the Hungarian Ministry of Finance, and that it was in his role as an employee of that department that he had protected this property on behalf of the Hungarian government.

“Wiseman!” Captain Rigsdale said. “Get down here. Now.”

Jack willed his body to still, his breath to even out.

“Yes, sir,” he said and leaped lightly to the ground.

“Your orders are to translate, Lieutenant. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do your job.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, what the hell is going on?”

It was important that the Americans understood, Avar said, that he and the other officials on the train were civil servants, tasked with carrying out the law and protecting the assets under their control. These assets had come from the banks.

And before that? Captain Rigsdale pressed him.

Avar admitted that the valuables had been collected from the Jews of Hungary by the commissioner for Jewish Affairs.

“Why?” Jack asked.

“Why?” Avar repeated. “To help in the war effort.” He himself was responsible only for the transport of the property, not for its collection. The Jews had turned in their property to the banks; the banks had turned it in to the Jewish Property Office; officials from the office had sorted it and loaded it into the boxcars, at which point it had been turned over to him. He had protected the property, he told them, at great risk to his life.

As Jack translated this last for Captain Rigsdale, he wondered at Avar’s confidence that the danger to his life had passed.

Rigsdale said, “Ask him if there’s anything else he needs to show me.”

“Moment,” Avar said, and spun on his heel. Jack thought how easy it would be to lift his weapon, fire off a single bullet, and send the man crumpling to the ground.

Avar returned a moment later with a small suitcase, which he balanced in the opening of the boxcar and unsnapped. In the suitcase were bundles
of currency in a rainbow of colors. Hungarian pengő, U.S. dollars, British pounds sterling, Swiss francs, reichsmarks. Even a small banded-together stack of green-and-yellow bills: Palestinian pounds. Jack had never seen those before. Avar opened a small sachet and poured a handful of colored gemstones and pearls into his palm.

“That’s what we’ve been looking for,” Rigsdale said. Avar put the gems back in the sachet, tied it closed, and tucked it into the suitcase. Then he buckled the suitcase and, with great solemnity, handed it to the American officer.

On Captain Rigsdale’s orders, Avar’s men turned over their ammunition. Rigsdale sent a GI to the station to bring back the stationmaster and a few railroad workers to uncouple the passenger cars. Arrangements were made to escort Avar and the rest of the Hungarian civilians to a DP camp. Rigsdale ordered the now-unarmed guards to accompany the train to Salzburg, under the guard of a few GIs. Then he turned to Jack.

“You. With me.”

Jack followed Rigsdale to the jeep. Rigsdale, though he’d ridden beside the driver on the way to Werfen, swung himself into the backseat. Jack began to climb into the front when the captain barked, “With me.”

Rigsdale didn’t speak for the first part of the journey back to Salzburg, and Jack remained silent beside him, waiting for the inevitable reprimand and busying himself with trying to clean a smear of dirt from the knee of his trouser. Though he loathed all things military, Jack was punctilious about his uniform. Whenever possible, he kept it clean and tidy, his collar and cuffs crisp, his shirttails tucked tightly into his webbed belt. Unlike many of the other U.S. Army officers and certainly the men, he refused to slip into slovenliness, even when covered with battle filth. He tried to shave every day, had done so even during the long weeks of battle, when the possibility of bathing was as remote as the idea of going home. The more furious he became at the perverse machinery of the military, the more his belt buckle gleamed, as if to prove that it wasn’t he who was unfit for the service but the service that was unfit for him.

When they reached the outskirts of Salzburg, Rigsdale said, “That was quite a performance, Lieutenant.”

No reply seemed called for, so Jack provided none.

“You need to remember something, soldier. This is a war, not a crusade, and you’re an American soldier, not a rabbi.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, the only evidence of his furious embarrassment the flutter of muscle in his clenched jaw.


2

FOR JACK

S SINS RIGSDALE
gave him a deuce-and-a-half M35 truck and put him in charge of unloading the train. Twenty-five Hungarian POWs, a half-dozen GIs to guard against looters and black marketeers, and one truck to unload 1,500 cases of watches, jewelry, and silver, 5,250 carpets, thousands of coats and stoles and muffs of mink, fox, and ermine, crates of microscopes and cameras, porcelain and glassware, furniture, books and manuscripts and tapestries, gold coins and bullion, the few remaining precious gems, the liturgical objects, the stamp collections and silver-backed hairbrushes; all the items, valuable and less so, that constituted the wealth of the Jews of Hungary, 437,402 of whom had been deported to Auschwitz over the course of just 56 days almost exactly a year before.

One of the GIs offered to organize more transport, but Jack had seen too much of what passed for organization among his fellow soldiers. In his unit’s first days in Austria, his men had “organized” everything from alcohol to bedding, from guns to eggs to radios. Once, two corporals had even organized a Volkswagen and gone joyriding. It took them an hour to realize that the strange sound they had been ignoring in the backseat was the mewling of a baby in its basket. Jack had tracked down the frantic mother and returned the baby. His CO had kept the car.

“Come!” Jack called out in Hungarian from the back of the truck where he was loading a cargo of furs and carpets. As his captives were uninterested in learning any English beyond the words “Lucky Strike,” and as they resisted even the German their superiors spoke fluently, he’d had no choice but to acquire a few words of their language.

One of the Hungarian soldiers popped his head into the back of the truck. Jack indicated to him that he should grab an end of a rolled carpet. It still surprised the POWs to see Jack pitching in with the heavy work, humping out the crates and boxes one at a time, heaving them into the bed of the deuce-and-a-half, then running them over to the old Wehrmacht warehouse where the army had decided to store the contents
of the train. It wasn’t that he was looking for extra work or trying to set an example or, God knew, looking to give the POWs a break. On the contrary. He would have been happy to see every last enemy soldier put to hard labor cleaning up the streets and countryside instead of lying around the POW camps while the civilians did all the work. He was just looking to get the damn job over with as quickly as he could.

The carpet securely lodged, Jack headed deep into the truck to see how much more could fit into the load. He winced at the musty odor of the furs and remembered how every spring his mother would pack up her mink stole and sheared-beaver coat, even the rabbit muff she’d had since she was a girl, and deposit them at the French dry cleaner to be put in cold storage for the summer. Fur wasn’t meant to be kept baled up in a metal boxcar parked on a sunny railroad siding. He worried that the warehouse wasn’t much cooler. Who knew what state the furs would be in when they were finally sent back to where they belonged? Half drunk on the musk rising out of an armload of moth-eaten minks, he heard a commotion, a woman’s voice, a bark of laughter, shouting. He lifted the canvas flap and peered out.

One of the POWs had a young woman by the arm. He was trying to drag her away from the train. She shouted at him, scrabbling at his hand. The POW was laughing at her. The woman’s face was alight with fury.

“Hey!” Jack yelled.

The Hungarian POW looked up, surprised. He dropped the woman’s arm. She slapped him across the face, the slap sounding flat and feeble in the hot afternoon. Now the other POWs started to laugh. The GIs just stood there, looking mildly interested in the proceedings, for a change. A corporal named Sully called out, “I think they know each other, Lieutenant.”

“I do not know this man,” the woman said, in English.

She rubbed at the arm the Hungarian had been gripping. Her cotton blouse had been worn so long and washed so many times that what had once been a floral print, perhaps, was now no more than a faded smear of pink on a ground of grayish white. The woman checked to make sure that its tired seams had not given way beneath the Hungarian’s thick fingers.

She had the unmistakable look of a survivor of the camps. Even months after their release, they were thinner than the other DPs, let alone the Austrians, who were only now beginning to experience the kind of
food shortages the rest of occupied Europe had suffered throughout the war. The woman’s face was gaunt and shadowed, her frown severe, but her hair was growing back in a riot of cheerful red curls.

BOOK: Love and Treasure
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