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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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Today, Jack poked his head through the open door of the room Ilona shared with half a dozen other women, on the third floor of the wing of the building opposite from the one where Zweig was now comfortably and safely ensconced, Maria and the other two Ukrainians having disappeared within days of Jack’s first visit. Ilona was sitting on the edge of her cot while one of her roommates made up her face. The other woman wore a stained and baggy coverall. Her patchy hair was held back by a bright scrap of blue-dotted muslin, and her mouth was done up in the same garish maraschino red that she was now busy applying to Ilona’s lips.

The woman scolded Ilona in Hungarian, rubbed away the smear she’d made when Ilona had smiled. Then she turned to the door to see what had inspired the grin. “Oh-ho.”

“Hello,” Ilona said to Jack.

Until that moment he had not noticed how she’d changed over the past couple of weeks. She had filled out. Her features had softened. And
now two slashes of cherry red had transformed her abruptly from the object of his pity to a woman he might conceivably, indeed almost certainly, want to fuck. He thrust the box at her, tongue-tied, suddenly at a loss, no longer a benefactor with provisions but a suitor with a gift.

The box was so heavy that the makeup artist had to help Ilona ease it to the ground. She lifted the steel lid. All the women in the room craned forward to look.

“Foie gras!”

“Caviar!”

They cooed and sighed and exclaimed as Ilona pulled out tins and jars and packets. “My God, Jack,” she said. “Are you trying to give us gout?”

He wondered if she was, in her own bitter and broken way, flirting with him.

“I like your lipstick,” he said.

“It’s Luba’s,” Ilona said. She switched to German. “Luba, this is Jack. Maybe if you harass his Hungarian POWs he’ll bring you some sardines, too.” Luba giggled.

“You’ll never guess where Luba got the lipstick,” Ilona said.

“Where?” he said.

“Bergen-Belsen!”

At the look on his face, all the girls in the room burst out laughing.

Luba said, “After we were liberated, the British Red Cross came to inspect. We had nothing. People were still dying every minute. I remember seeing once a woman with a scrap of soap, washing herself from a cistern in which floated the body of a dead child. But the Red Cross came, and then, a few days later, ten crates of lipstick arrived, no one knows how or where from. We have no food, no bandages, but lipstick we have. And my God, so much! Boxes, boxes, boxes. We were so happy. All of us wore it all the time. Woman squatting in the corner, emptying her bowels from dysentery, but her lips! Perfect red. My friend she dies holding her lipstick in her hand. Most important thing she owned.”

Ilona said, “In the camp everyone is just a bald head, a scrap of cloth, a number. But”—she smacked her lips together—“you put lipstick on and you are a person. A human.”

“You look beautiful,” Jack said.

“Maybe not beautiful,” Ilona said. “But I look a little more like myself.”

“Come to dinner with me tonight,” he said.

The women in the room clucked and cooed and made a great show of turning away to allow them a semblance of privacy.

“Is that an order?” she asked, and he still couldn’t decide if she was flirting with him or not.

He took Ilona to a place called the Salzburger Café, one of the few restaurants in the city whose menu could be relied on to feature meat. The menu offered reassuring promises of
entrecôte de boeuf
and
lammkotelett
, but Jack had been in the area for four months without seeing a cow or a lamb, and it was his view that the remnants of the once-splendid German cavalry brigades, now roaming freely through fields and forests outside the city, nightly met their fate in the kitchen of the Salzburger. He debated keeping his theory to himself, but in the end he guessed that Ilona would see the bitter humor in it.

She laughed. “I hear rat is quite tender,” she said. “When the horses are gone.”

She pored over the menu as if it were the Sunday
Times
, reading the name of each item aloud, regardless of whether it was available. When the food came, she dispatched it with a terrible ardor. She licked sauce from the tines of her fork, from the flat of her knife.

“I have gained new respect for horses,” she said. “Also for Austrian chefs.”

Jack was less enamored of the dark fist of horseflesh sitting clenched and bloody on his plate. He found it gamy and tough, ribboned with strings of fat, so at a certain point he just laid his fork down and got his pleasure from watching her go at it. After she had cleaned her plate she belched and then covered her mouth with her hand. It was the first time he’d seen her blush. Then her eyes drifted toward his plate, and he saw hunger fight its way through the embarrassment. He passed it across the table toward her, and she cleaned that, too, sopping up the gravy with a piece of the white bread that had suddenly become available in the city, the bakers catering to the tastes of their American occupiers. When there was nothing edible left anywhere in the vicinity of their table, Ilona pushed back her chair, settled her hands on her belly, and smiled sleepily, looking, with her yellow-green eyes and red hair, like a contented ginger cat.

“You save any room for dessert?” he asked.

She blushed again. “Maybe a little. Do they have coffee?”

“They have something they call coffee. What it is, I don’t know.”

When the waiter had served their strudel and the watery brown liquid he insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, on calling coffee, Ilona managed to slow down, lingering over the dessert.

“The Red Cross nurses who come to the DP camp keep saying be careful, be careful,” Ilona said. “They say our digestions are not used to protein, to fat. And it’s true; at first I got sick sometimes. But now?” she patted her belly. “My stomach is like the horse I just ate. Maybe I’ll go home and eat your foie gras, too.”

“My grandmother used to make strudel like this,” Jack said. “Actually, I think it was her cook. But she used to say it was her grandmother’s recipe.”

“This is your German grandmother?”

“Yes. I mean, generations back. But they’d been in America so long they weren’t really German. They were barely Jewish. They had a Christmas tree every year.”

“My family is like your father’s, I think. Only just a little bit Jewish. We celebrate every year Christmas. In America, there are many Jewish army officers?”

“Some,” he said. “I wouldn’t say many.”

Jack had been one of only three Jews in his officer training course. Early on, the NCOs had targeted the Jewish officer candidates for special mistreatment, and their fellow OCs, relieved to find scapegoats for their misery, had eagerly joined in. Kleinbaum had washed out after only a few days of the abuse. Finkelman, a wiry little graduate of NYU law school, had responded to the attacks by growing steadily more belligerent. By the time he and Jack received their bars, Finkelman had been involved in at least a dozen scraps. He was saved from being shit-canned from the course only because his victims were too embarrassed to complain that a skinny, four-eyed, Jewboy shrimp had cleaned their clocks. Jack had never run from a fight, but he did not consider truculence to be a sustainable philosophical approach to life, and so he had chosen to survive officer training by keeping his mouth shut and his head down. He made no friends, but neither did he, unlike Finkelman, lose any teeth.

“And it’s okay, life for a Jew in your army?” Ilona asked.

“It’s fine,” he told her, and indeed things had improved once he joined the Rainbow Division and found himself in the company of a fair number of Jewish enlisted men and even a couple of other Jewish officers.
Despite the ease with which many of his men and fellow officers tossed around words like “kike” and “sheeny,” he would not have described them as anti-Semites. True, the running joke about “Abie and Sadie,” who managed, despite rationing, to get tires for their car and sugar for their tea, depressed him, as did the fact that when conditions got particularly bad he frequently heard GIs complaining that the only reason they were being forced to endure the misery was because they were fighting Hitler for the sake of the Jews. But the men’s antagonism was born of ignorance—Jack and the others in the division were the first Jews many of them had ever met. So he was generous with his forgiveness of them and stingy in his praise of the Jewish enlisted men. He was harder on the Jews in his command than on the Gentiles, holding them to a higher standard of comportment and conduct in a way that was, he supposed, a kind of secret favoritism, as though he believed in his heart that more could be expected of a Jew than of his Gentile brother-in-arms.

Ilona said, “Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather were officers in the Hungarian Honvédség; you know what this is?”

“No.”

“The Hungarian unit of the Austro-Hungarian Army. They fought for the emperor. They both had the rank of
ezredes
. In German,
Oberst
.”

“ ‘Colonel.’ ”

“Yes. My grandfather would be higher, even, than
ezredes
, but he died in the Great War. His regiment, the Twentieth Nagyvárad, was very brave. Many were killed. My mother said we must be glad he was dead because if he had lived to see his men turn on him, it would have broken his heart.”

Jack considered posing the question that had been on his mind for so long, the question he both wanted and dreaded to ask.

Perhaps sensing the reason for his silence, perhaps following the unknowable trend of her own thoughts, Ilona said, “My mother is dead. Also my father.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack said.

“Why are you sorry? You didn’t kill them.”

“It wasn’t an apology,” he said. “Sometimes when you say you’re sorry, it just means that you are sad.”

She said, “Ah. Sad. Not sorry. It is my English. I didn’t understand. So now I am sorry. But not sad. What’s the word? Apologistic.”

“Apologetic.”

“Yes. Apologetic. I am apologetic.”

“You don’t need to be. Ilona … what … Will you tell me what happened to your parents? To your family?”

She shrugged. “The usual. Ghetto, train, Auschwitz, selection.”

Her large extended family had remained together as long as they could, she told him, all the way to the ramp at Auschwitz, but only she and her older sister, Etelka, had been directed to step to the right. By the time the two girls had been processed into the camp, the rest of her family, her parents, her aunts and uncles, a passel of cousins, her grandmother, every last Jakab of Nagyvárad, had been transformed into the grease and smoke that coated the inside of Ilona’s and Etelka’s nostrils and settled in a dingy film on their skin.

The girls were sent from Auschwitz first to Dachau and then to one of the Kaufering satellite camps in Landsberg. They had clung to each other until only a few weeks before the war’s end, when Etelka had been taken from the morning count without warning. It was only days later that Ilona found out that her sister had been moved to a different satellite camp, near Obermeitingen, and not, as Ilona had feared, sent to the gas.

“I have been looking for Etelka since liberation,” Ilona said. “Everyone that was there in Obermeitingen, I ask them.”

Jack didn’t ask the question, but she answered it anyway.

“I know she’s alive. Etelka was an athlete. Before the war, she was a champion fencer. Then came the anti-Jewish laws, and she could no longer compete, but she still trained at home with our uncle Samu. She only stopped when we went to the ghetto. She’s so strong! There was a time in the munitions factory when our job was to unload iron beams from a train and carry them two hundred meters up a hill to the smelter. She always took the rear, where the load was heaviest, because she was so much stronger than I. Also, she was a medical student before the war, and in the camps she was like a doctor to so many people. Even sometimes the
Kapos
came to her if they were hurt. When she helped them, they would give her food. If I can survive, so can Etelka.”

“How will you find her?”

“We had agreed, if we were ever separated, we would meet in Salzburg.”

“Why here?”

“We used to come here many times as children on our way to Bad Gastein, where my father liked to take the waters.”

In her smile, Jack saw flickering to life the city as it was before the war, as he had never seen it. Whimsical alleyways and squares where
there were now rubble-strewn paths. The elegant wrecks in front of the Müllner church brought back to life, buildings reconstructed behind what were now mere façades. The listing balconies righted on the Grecian reliefs that held them up, the statues’ heads restored. Gone in her smile were the orderly piles of rubble, boulders separated from blocks, flat pieces of stone stacked up by size like planks fresh from the sawmill. Gone were the bundles of wire like tumbleweeds or balls of hair hanging on telephone poles beside ruined buildings. And the richly costumed people, the men coming in from their fields in their lederhosen and jaunty feathered caps bedecked with whisk brooms, the dirndled women wrapped in embroidered aprons, not wooden-faced folk enacting an insincere pastiche of history, a parody of tradition, but pleasant, simple, generous people. He saw in Ilona’s smile a Salzburg that was not merely a picturesque corpse but a pretty, vibrant place, full of music and joy.

She said, “We even met here our English governess.”

“You had an English governess?”

“You think all Hungarian girls speak such good English? Miss Richards was with us six years as a governess, then she married my uncle and became our auntie Firenze. She would have gone with us even to the ghetto, but my father forbade it. When I find Etelka, we will go home to Auntie Firenze in Nagyvárad.”

The waiter came by again, obviously eager for them to release the table to one of the other young couples who waited impatiently to be seated. They were everywhere in Salzburg, American soldiers and their Austrian girlfriends, cheerfully violating the rules against fraternization and providing steady business to the city’s newly opened cafés and bars.

BOOK: Love and Treasure
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