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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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“Can I help you, ma’am?” Jack said, jumping lightly down from the truck. “
Gyerünk vissza dolgozni!
” he said to the POWs. Of all the Hungarian phrases he’d learned, “Back to work!” was particularly useful, since the Hungarians’ interest in finishing the task of unloading the train was severely hampered by their desire to continue to receive U.S. military rations. They knew that once this work was done, they’d be sent to a POW camp.

“This train,” the woman said, “it is from Hungary?” Her voice was low, husky. Her accent had a British inflection. She pointed to the white letters painted on one of the boxcars:
MÁV HUNGARIA
.

“Are you Hungarian?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “From Nagyvárad. In Transylvania.”

One of the Hungarians called out something.

The woman’s face softened for a moment, but then she seemed to marshal her anger and spat out a sentence whose tone of vituperation was unmistakable. The young Hungarian flushed and turned away, dragging self-consciously on his cigarette.

“Back to work,” Jack said again. He lifted his hand to his sidearm. “Now.” The Hungarians turned back to the boxcars, making their usual show of great effort. He asked the woman, “What did he say to you?”

“He says he is also from Nagyvárad.”

“And what did you say to him?”

She narrowed her eyes and cocked her head, sizing Jack up. In a tone brittle but bright, even cheerful, she said, “I ask him did he guard the ghetto there, maybe he helped my grandmother onto the train for her trip to Auschwitz.”

Before he could stop himself, Jack laughed. There was nothing funny about what she had said; it was the audacity of this woman. She was no ruined wraith. She was all
wire and sparks. As he covered his mouth in shame at his outburst, her eyes widened, and then she laughed, too. Darkly, bitterly, a laugh almost—but not completely—wrung free of joy.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean … it’s just—his face. You shut him up good.”

“Time for him to shut up, I think,” she said. “Time for them all to shut
up. Now, this Hungarian train here. There are people on this Hungarian train or only soldiers?”

“It’s a cargo train. There were some people on it, but not the kind of people you’re looking for.”

“You know what kind of people I am looking for?”

He did not normally blush. It was rare that he embarrassed himself, and around women he tended to be remote rather than tongue-tied. But something about this woman made him feel like an awkward child with an ungovernable mouth. It was curious, since she was much younger than he had initially assumed—perhaps no older than himself.

“I mean there are no Jews.”

“You think I am looking for Jews?”

She let him hang there, flustered, trying to figure her. It was true that all kinds of people had gone to the camps: homosexuals, Communists, prostitutes. But the woman had mentioned her grandmother. In the awkward silence Jack became conscious of the gazes of his men upon him. They had to be surprised to see their cool and unflappable CO looking so decidedly flapped.

“Excuse me,” he told her. He turned to his men and gestured with a thumb toward the Hungarians. “Sully, take the truck and three of these bozos on over to the warehouse. Get unloaded and then get back here, fast. The rest of you: patrol. You remember how to do that, right?”

Steadied, now, Jack turned back to the woman.

“This is a secure area, miss,” he said. “I’m afraid I can’t let you stay here.”

“Yes,” she said, without moving. She watched as two of the Hungarians kicked a long roll of carpet out of one of the boxcars like lumberjacks rolling a felled log, then struggled to lift it onto their shoulders.

“So,” she said. “No Jews. Only carpets.”

“Miss, you cannot stay here,” Jack said. “I’m sure you must have somewhere you’re supposed to be.”

“I have a pass,” the woman said, reaching into the pocket of her skirt. She thrust a scrap of thin blue paper covered in smeared ink at him. “I stay at the Hotel Europa, but today I have a pass. You see?”

“That’s fine, I don’t need to see it.”

When he had first arrived in Salzburg, Jack had done a week of guard duty at one of the DP camps. The inmates there were mostly forced laborers awaiting repatriation back to their native countries in the East,
who must have felt as though they had changed one warden for another, a hair more lenient, more generous, but still armed. None of the American guards had any MP training, and they chafed against the constant checking of passes, the breaking up of endless arguments over firewood or cooking oil, or, more disturbingly, over the nationality and background of the well-fed individuals with SS haircuts who, in those early days and weeks, had tried to hide themselves among the crowds of refugees. It was hard to do the work of a jailer without feeling like one, to imprison people without treating them like prisoners. He had often found himself furious with the attitudes of the replacements in his command, boys who had never seen a camp or fired a shot in battle and who were as disgusted by the bedraggled DPs as they were enamored of the plump and eager Austrian girls. The Austrians were clean; they were hardworking; they lived in pretty little houses painted in sherbet colors. The DPs, crowded together with few possessions, fewer legal sources of income, nothing to do but fear the future and trade on the black market, repelled the American soldiers. The replacements would make jokes about typhus and lice as they kept at arm’s length the half-starved children who milled around them, calling “Candy! Candy!” By the end of a week of this, Jack had been ready to court-martial half the soldiers under his command, though he feared that what made him so angry was a suspicion that their attitude was uncomfortably similar to his own. Though it shamed him, he knew that he, like his men, flinched when he saw the survivors of the camps, and avoided speaking with them, or even looking at them. This girl was, he thought, the first camp prisoner with whom he’d had more than the most cursory of contact.

The young woman put her pass back in her pocket and stared over his shoulder at the train cars.

“Did someone tell you the train was here?” he asked.

“I am passing by only. I saw the Hungarian writing, and I thought maybe there’s someone on this train. But I found only them.” She waved at the Hungarian soldiers. “And you.”

It was time to get back to work. If he drove the men hard enough, they could finish before dark. He must send her on her way.

“Is it your family that you’re looking for?” he said.

Her face grew slack, her animated frown dissolved, her bright and furious gaze lost its focus. She looked at once like a little girl and like an ancient crone, blind to anything other than the past. But she allowed
herself only a moment before she shook her head and steeled her jaw. She looked at the growing pile of items that the Hungarians had heaped, stacked, and scattered on the ground.

“Where are you taking all this?” she said.

“To a secure facility, where it can be stored pending investigation.”

“Okay,” she said, as though granting him permission.

Jack started to tell her that this was a restricted zone and he must return to work, but she was already going. She walked with a slight limp, a small hitch in her step, but she moved quickly.

“Miss!” he called, but by then she had crossed the street and couldn’t—or pretended not to—hear him.


3

THE NEXT DAY AFTER
Jack finished his duties, he gathered a stack of C rations, opened them, and sorted through the M units, discarding the ones that contained chopped ham or frankfurters, and swapping in extra cans of chicken and vegetables, which had the virtue of being not only marginally more kosher but also more palatable. He added as many packs of Brach’s fudge disks, Jim Dandee cookie sandwiches, and vanilla caramels as he could find. He shoved everything into a sack and set out on foot for the Hotel Europa.

He was not so foolish as to expect it to be easy to find a nameless young woman among the thousands of displaced persons who had taken refuge in Salzburg, but he had allowed himself to imagine some kind of lobby, a desk clerk with a registration book. Failing that, there would be U.S. Army guards, one of whom was sure to remember a decent-looking young redhead with a quick temper and a ready command of English.

The main entrance was blocked by rubble, heaps of shattered bricks and paving stones, splintered boards, the kind of disaster zone that had by now become so familiar. In the courtyard, groups of shabby men gathered, smoking foul cigarettes and trading in information and goods in a babel of tongues. As he crossed the courtyard to the lobby where, in better days, a reception desk had surely stood, Jack witnessed a brisk trade in sacks of cucumbers and potatoes, bread and cabbages, and of course the ubiquitous packages of Chesterfields and Luckies. A brace of game birds changed hands, too small to be ducks, too colorful to be pigeons. No one bothered to hide his activities from or even take notice of the American officer in their midst. He was taken aback by their brazenness, but when he found the GIs ostensibly guarding the place, he understood. The American soldiers were themselves busy selling off the contents of their C rations and of the packages their mothers and girlfriends had so lovingly sent them from home.

There were so many girls in the camp, the sergeant in charge told him. And most of them had already learned enough English to communicate at least a little bit.

“Red hair,” Jack said. “Curly. And thin. Very thin.” He had been ready to come up with some bogus reason for his visit, but the sergeant in charge at the Hotel Europa clearly did not care about the rules against fraternization, even less about Jack’s business.

“Feel free to look around. Word of warning, though, sir. Some of these people, you stick your head in their room, they act like you’re coming to murder their mother.”

Jack was tempted to remind the man that the experience of having a soldier walk into their houses and murder their mothers was a familiar one to a fair number of the people currently residing in the hotel, but the sergeant had three bronze battle stars on his chest. Jack wouldn’t be telling him anything he didn’t already know.

They were interrupted by furious shouts from across the courtyard. A woman barreled through the crowds, assuming—correctly, it seemed—that anyone unlucky enough to find himself in her path would give way.

“Aw, shit,” the sergeant said.

The woman had an apple face on a potato body, a thin braid of colorless hair circling her head. “Come!” she said.

“What now, Maria?” the sergeant said. “Why you all worked up this time?”

Her English was insufficient to allow her to explain. She just kept repeating, “Come! Come!” until finally the sergeant called over two of his men and told them to escort the lady upstairs and find out what was wrong. Jack, curious, accompanied the men across the courtyard, none of them moving fast enough to suit Maria, who kept stopping and waving at them to catch up, with a flick of her hand, the way you’d call a dog to heel.

She led them through a door, its glass replaced with panels of scarred timber that had somehow managed to evade the cooking fires. A stairway looped upward with vestigial elegance, and at its center rose an elevator shaft, enclosed in lacy wrought iron. It was heaped with trash, including a baby carriage missing all but one of its wheels. As they climbed up the staircase circling the defunct elevator shaft, birds nesting in the walls took off with a great flutter of wings, startling Jack, though not the others.

There were three rooms on each floor, and most of the doors were open as a concession to the thick July heat. Jack saw that the rooms had been divided into crude cubicles, with each living space separated from the others by a strung-up blanket. Six, seven, up to a dozen people were
crammed into each room, lying on bunks of crude lumber or sprawled in one of the few remaining chairs. Children chased one another through the halls. When the soldiers and their furious escort reached the fourth floor, the door to the first apartment opened, and an elderly woman walked out. Jack looked past her into the apartment and saw a couple kissing. They were standing, the woman leaning against a wall, her face turned to the door, the man’s hands planted on either side of her head. She opened her eyes just as Jack looked in. She stared at him, impassive. He turned quickly away.

Maria stopped in front of the last apartment on the floor, poked her head through the open doorway, and immediately she began yelling in some Slavic language.

“Fucking DPs,” the older of the two GIs muttered.

“Hey, Lieutenant,” the other one said in a thick Southern accent. “You speak the lingo? Think you can figure out what the hell’s going on here?”

“Not my job, Private,” Jack said, but now Maria had switched to broken German, and he was curious to find out just whom she was threatening to throw down the stairs.

He pushed into the room and found her towering over what he took, at first, for an elderly man, hunched at the waist, propped up by crutches fashioned from two lengths of broken board. The man’s body shook with the effort of staying upright. Huddled behind him were two small boys, one of them in tears.

Jack said, “Is it the children you plan to throw down the stairs, Maria? Or the man with the canes?”

Maria looked surprised at his German, though unembarrassed that her threats had been overheard. “They don’t get out, I throw them down all three.” Her accent was thick, her grammar terrible, but she had no trouble making herself understood.

“This room is for this men!” Maria said, pointing to the back of the room, where Jack now noticed two men sitting at a small table, filling the air with the smoke of their cigarettes. They acknowledged his presence with barely a glance. They appeared to have been harvested from the same potato field as Maria.

The
KZler
was lucky Maria was here, she told Jack. Otherwise the rightful residents might have taken the interlopers’ eviction into their own hands, and then all three would be crying, not just the little louse.

BOOK: Love and Treasure
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