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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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“Well,” Ilona asked, neatly folding her napkin, “shall we walk?”

“Would that be all right for you?” he said, recalling her limp. “Would you prefer to take the streetcar?”

“I like to walk. Especially after a meal where I have eaten everything but the tablecloth and the flowers in the vase.”

“I saw you eyeing the flowers,” he said. “Frankly I was a little worried for them.”

She laughed and took his arm. They meandered along the east bank of the Salzach, until they rounded a corner at Mozartsteg and came face-to-face with Lieutenant Hoyle, Jack’s roommate. Hoyle had his arm slung around the waist of a girl, young, giggly, no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. Her lips were painted with an inexpert wobble of clown red that reminded Jack uncomfortably of Ilona’s lipstick. She staggered
along on a pair of high-heel sandals at least a size too big, as if she’d borrowed them from an older sister or even her mother, a little girl playing dress-up as a cheap whore.

When they saw each other, the two men stopped, each taking careful inventory of the other’s date, drawing all the likeliest conclusions.

“So,” Hoyle said. “Looks like we got a couple of out-and-out fraternizers here, eh, Wiseman? Couple of flagrant violators of the rules.”

Hoyle was right; by the book, a dinner date with an of-age DP was the same as raping an Austrian child.

“Looks that way,” Jack said.

“Good thing there’s a loophole.”

“Is there?”

“Yes, brother, there is.” He gestured for Jack to lean closer and whispered loudly so that the girls would easily be able to hear. Jack smelled booze on his breath. “Technically, now, it ain’t fraternizing, if you don’t talk while you fuck ’em.”

Ilona gasped.

“You can go to hell, Hoyle,” Jack said, grabbing Ilona’s hand and pulling her around the other couple and down the street.

“Pig,” he said once they’d left the other two behind. “Ilona, I’m so sorry.”

Ilona said, “You are always so sorry, Jack. This also is not your fault.”

“I know. I just …”

“You don’t want me to feel like a Chocolate Girl?”

“No! Of course not.”

“But why not? Some of those girls, they support their whole families with gifts from their GIs. You know the price of American cigarettes on the black market? So high! And that meat you give me in the can?”

“Spam?”

She laughed. “Spam. Ridiculous. We eat for three days from what I get for this Spam of yours. You gave me a beautiful meal tonight, Jack. And lovely company. And we will do this again, yes? Not just because I want another meal but because you like me, right?”

“Yes. I like you.”

“Okay. I like you, too. You may kiss me if you want.”

He stopped and turned to face her. She was tiny; her head would fit snugly beneath his chin. He bent over as she lifted her face, and he brushed his mouth against hers. The lipstick had all but rubbed away, and her lips felt hot, chapped. When she didn’t resist, he flicked his tongue between
them. Though she didn’t return the kiss, she allowed it, and he moved closer, pressing her body against his. His cock got hard and to spare her its importunements he kept his hips shifted back and to the side. He was not like Hoyle, he told himself. This was different. Finally she put her hands on his chest and pushed him gently away.

“Okay,” she said. “Enough.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing!”

He started to apologize for that, too, but caught himself just in time.

“I like you very much, Ilona. Not only because you’re beautiful, but—”

“Shh,” she said, squeezing his arm. “You don’t know, Jack. I am not good for you.”

“Of course you are!”

She seemed to consider saying more but thought the better of it. They walked for a while in silence. Finally, she spoke. “It is a beautiful night, and we had a lovely meal. And a sweet kiss. That’s enough, don’t you think? For now.”

For now, he thought as he walked back to his billet. For now.


5

IN THE HARDT FOREST
, Jack had taken a 7.92 × 57 mm Mauser round to the shoulder, a clean shot through the deltoid that missed bone and arteries and left two neat holes. The wound had obliged him to spend only three days away from his unit and on his return had given him little pain or trouble, through bad weather and hard fighting. He had remained on equable terms with the holes in his shoulder, in fact, until now. Captain Rigsdale had turned responsibility for the Werfen train over to the Property Control Branch of the Reparations, Deliveries, and Restitution Division and, with it, Jack himself. Though he’d protested, petitioning to be returned to his unit, the army had decided to leave Jack there, in charge of the contents of the train. Jack’s latest CO, Lieutenant Colonel Clancy K. Price, had ordered him to complete a preliminary inventory and reorganize the property. The unloading and cataloging of the contents of the train required that Jack spend ten hours a day hunched on a stool over a desk fashioned from a door and two sawhorses. Pain radiated from his shoulder to his neck. It forked like lightning down to the small of his back. He needed a goddamn chair.

He went by the book, through the usual channels. He approached the Rainbow Division support battalion, and when he was told they couldn’t help him, he turned to the Quartermaster Corps and from there to the engineers. It seemed to be the case that there was not a serviceable desk chair in the entire Occupied Zone. Any chair that had survived the winter without being chopped into firewood had long since been looted or commandeered by the U.S. Army Air Corps, whose postwar mission appeared to require a remarkable amount of sitting. In the meantime Jack reported every day to the warehouse and set his back on fire.

Under his organization plan, all furniture recovered from the train was stored in section C of the warehouse, at the back, between furs and household goods. There were two hundred sixteen chairs in section C. Jack had counted every one.

He considered a fancy ball-and-claw mahogany side chair with a torn pink silk cushion, a leather-and-aluminum wheeled desk chair that
he discovered the hard way had a sprung spring aimed at the center of his left buttock, a high-backed oak office chair that seemed too regal for the task, before settling at last on what he took for a plain kitchen chair, with black lacquer paint that would resist scratches and eighteen holes punched in the back, for ventilation, he supposed. It did not promise or indeed provide any padding or back support; it was plain, the simplest chair he could find. He figured it for the cheapest, though years later he would see the chair’s twin in a museum exhibit of the works of Josef Hoffmann, the noted furniture designer of the Vienna Secession, and realize that he couldn’t have chosen a more valuable chair if he’d tried.

Jack sat a moment in the straight-backed chair, trying to decide whether the relief that sitting afforded exceeded the trouble it gave to his conscience. He was no saint. Like all the soldiers in the victorious armies—in victorious armies since the dawn of war—Jack had done his own share of souveniring. Rolled in a couple of towels in his duffel, back in his billet, were two Lugers, one of them engraved with an elaborate oak-leaf design. On the windowsill next to his bed stood an eight-inch-high marble bust, “liberated” from the home of a minor Nazi Party official in Anzenbach near Berchtesgaden, of Tacitus, whose
Dialogus de Oratoribus
had been the subject of Jack’s undergraduate thesis at Columbia. Taking the guns and the bust of Tacitus had caused him only minor pangs, but this was different. He took his responsibility as official custodian of the contents of the Werfen train seriously, and that was part of what troubled him as he carried the black lacquered chair out to his makeshift desk in the front office, sat down, and felt his shoulders unknotting. But mostly what troubled him was the thought of the murdered Hungarian Jew whose kitchen chair might be the only remaining trace of his ever having existed.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the ghost that haunted the chair. “But my back is killing me.”

“Even when you are alone, you apologize.”

Jack leaped to his feet, his cheeks burning, as if caught in the midst of committing a bestial and unforgivable act.

“You’re here,” he said, gratuitously.

“Am I not permitted?”

“No. I mean, yes. Well … actually, no, you aren’t supposed to be here, but it’s fine. It doesn’t matter. Nobody in this place gives a damn but me.”

“I think that may be true,” Ilona said, with what might have been tenderness or pity.

He came around from behind the desk and took her hands in his.

“I’m glad to see you,” he said. “Come on in. I can probably manage a cup of tea.”

“Tea would be nice.”

She looked around her for a place to sit, and Jack quickly steered her outside to where his men had set up a tiny field kitchen with a Coleman pocket stove and a cache of tea bags, powdered coffee, and milk. He pulled an overturned bucket up to the stove, cleaned it of dust, and offered it to her. Private Willie Streeter, a sweet-tempered New Yorker who was Jack’s favorite by far of the men under his command, offered to prepare the tea, but Jack insisted on doing it himself. When the water had boiled, he put a tea bag and a dollop of sweetened condensed milk into a metal mug and handed it to Ilona.

“Thank you,” she said. “It was so crowded in the Europa, I couldn’t be there no more.”

“Anymore.”

“Anymore. I thought I would come to meet you here, instead of waiting for you to pick me up. I hope it’s all right.”

They had a date; they were—though it was a New York verb, an activity too dumb and innocent and tinged with swing music to apply to anything Ilona Jakab could or would ever consent to engage in—dating. David Ball had gotten them tickets to the first night’s performance of the reopened Salzburg Festival. Neither Jack nor Ilona took much interest in Mozart, but it was a tough ticket to get. Only a very few Salzburgers would be in attendance, and no DPs at all, beyond the musicians drafted to replace those subject to the denazification laws.

“It’s fine,” Jack said. “I’m glad you came. I know you’ve been curious about this place.”

“Curious,” she said, quoting him back to himself, not quite ready to agree to the description. Given all that she had been through, it did not surprise him in the least that she chose to maintain or simply could not help feeling a distance between them, a gap of experience that no amount of physical closeness, intimate talk, or mutual affection could bridge. But he was and remained surprised to find that she should most often manifest this distance in the form of irony, teasing, a tinge of mockery in all her replies. She carried the cup of tea back inside the arcing shadows of the warehouse. He followed.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” she said. But her eyes as she took in the stacked boxes, crates, and pallets were not detached or ironic. They were huge in the darkness, avid and sad. “Everything is from the one train, the day I met you?”

“Almost everything,” he said.

“Silverware.”

“Lot of that.”

“Jewelry?”

“Yes.”

“Paintings, statues.”

“Some.”

“What else?”

“All kinds of personal property. Furs. Housewares. Gold.”

“Furniture?”

He felt her guessing, blindly, at the shame in his heart.

“Every kind of thing somebody might want to take or hold on to,” he said.

“It’s like a treasure train.”

“I guess you might say that,” he said. Apart from the relatively small quantity of gold bullion and gems handed over by Avar, there did not appear to be all that many items of great value on the train—no Leonardos, no trunks spilling over with diamonds—but the sheer quantity of the loot was overwhelming, and in the aggregate its value must be considerable. A single gold-filled watch was perhaps not worth more than fifty or sixty dollars, but if you multiplied that watch by a thousand or ten thousand?

“And it all came from Hungary?”

“The man who turned the train over to us was a Hungarian named László Avar. He told us that he worked for the Jewish Property Office.”

“The Jewish Property Office,” she repeated, and this time there was no hint of mockery or teasing. She murmured a few words in Hungarian, then said, “Yes. I know them.”

“What I don’t understand,” he said, “is how this stuff came to be on this train in the first place. Avar said his Jewish Property Office got it from the Hungarian banks. But how did the banks get it?” He regretted the question as he uttered it. He could never decide if beneath Ilona’s apparent fragility lay a fundamental strength or if the opposite was true. Maybe she only appeared strong but would shatter with the wrong word.

“They took it. Everything we had, they made us turn in to the bank.
First was telephones. I even remember the day. March twenty-seventh, 1944. I know because it was Etelka’s birthday. As a present to her, the government passed a law saying Jews were not to own or use telephones. How do you think we found out about the law?”

“How?”

She gave a bitter laugh. “On the telephone, of course. My uncle Oskar rang us with the news.”

She said that her father had not wanted to spoil Etelka’s birthday celebration, so he had waited until the following day to go to the bank and turn in the telephone.

“He waited in the queue all day. Who knew there were so many Jewish telephones in the city of Nagyvárad?”

Within a couple of weeks the Jews of Hungary were ordered to purchase an official form on which they were to declare all possessions whose worth was in excess of 10,000 pengő, and then turn all of it over to the banks that had collected their telephones.

“One day it was bicycles. Then radios. Then gold. Even my parents’ wedding rings. My father was a grain dealer. All around Nagyvárad there are farms. Wheat, everywhere wheat. My father would buy wheat from the farmers, sell it all over Europe. His warehouse was far too big for him to carry down to the local branch of the Royal Hungarian Postal Savings Bank. So they were kind enough to come one day and collect his keys. You know, before they confiscated his business, he sold wheat to the army, even to the Germans, right up until 1944. The SS who killed my father, maybe after they went back to the barracks and for dinner, they ate bread made from his wheat. How funny it all is, Jack, isn’t it?”

BOOK: Love and Treasure
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