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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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“Ilona—”

“Every day they took something different, and every day we waited in queues. All of us waiting so patiently to give up our possessions to the bank.”

Ilona walked down one of the aisles that Jack had created out of the pallets and crates. She knelt down beside a small stack of empty suitcases on which the owners’ names were chalked in large clear letters.

“They told us, put everything in packages and envelopes, write your name on everything. They gave us receipts with lists of what we turned in. My father kept these receipts in his billfold. He was terrified that if he lost the receipts, when the war was over he would not be able to put in a claim. He carried those papers all the way to Auschwitz, to the gas.”

Jack caught himself just before he could tell her how sorry he was.

“What will your army do with all these things?” she asked.

“They’ll return them, eventually.”

“Return them,” she said, and now the mocking tone was back again. “I wish them luck.”

In fact Jack had often wondered how the owner of any specific item in the vast store would ever be identified. His soldiers brought him anything they found with writing on it that might indicate to whom the objects belonged, but aside from the documents initially handed over by László Avar, there was little to connect most of the items with the people from whom they had been taken. More often Jack and his men found references to cities, a stack of empty silver picture frames stamped with the name and address of the silversmith, or labels in the collars of fur coats embroidered with the names of shops or dealers. Even if there were survivors who came looking for their belongings, Jack worried about how anyone would ever find, for example, a specific set of silver Shabbos candlesticks among the tens of thousands that had filled the train. Which of the thousands of gold watches belonged to a father, which lynx coat from among the thousands belonged to a mother, which album of those filling the sixteen huge crates of stamp albums belonged to a son? How would anyone ever know?

The door of the warehouse burst open with a bang, and in stormed Lieutenant Colonel Price.

Resisting the urge to shove Ilona behind a shelf, Jack instead took her arm and led her up to the front of the warehouse.

“Colonel,” he said, steeling himself to face the music.

The colonel’s tie was askew, his face purpled with agitation. He was clutching a sheet of paper and thrust it toward Jack. “As if we weren’t already up to our necks in bullshit!” he said. “Now I’ve got this to deal with.” He noticed Ilona and snatched back the paper.

“Lieutenant Wiseman,” he said. “There’s a civilian in the warehouse.”

“Yes, sir.”

“A female.”

Jack stood, paralyzed, trying desperately to come up with an excuse, any excuse to justify his flagrant violation of the rules, the one against fraternization, the one against allowing a civilian in the warehouse, the entire scaffolding of military regulations, mandates, and injunctions that he was violating every time he held Ilona’s hand. It was not that he was
afraid but rather that he hated the idea of exhibiting such a failure of control to his superior officer. But he could think of nothing.

Price stared at Ilona, who gazed back, a glint in her eye.

“This warehouse is off-limits to unauthorized personnel!” Price said.

“This is what your lieutenant here keeps telling me,” she said. “He has refused to allow me, a representative of the Hungarian Displaced Persons Property Reclamation Authority, access! I wish to make a formal complaint.”

Price looked confused. “A complaint?”

“Yes! I demand access on behalf of the HDPRPA.”

HDPPRA, Jack thought, though thankfully Price didn’t notice the jumbled acronym. Jack could not help but stare admiringly at his girl. He never would have expected her to be such an accomplished liar.

Price blustered, “This is a U.S. Army facility, miss! You can’t demand anything here.”

“You and your subordinate will be hearing from the governing board of the HRDRPPA,” she said, and flounced out the door of the warehouse.

“Jesus Christ,” Price said. “That’s all we need right now.” He handed Jack the paper.

The document was entitled “Requisition Memorandum” and read:

1. The Commanding General directs that you give first priority to obtaining without delay the following listed household furnishing:
a. Chinaware (all types necessary for formal banquet and other meals). Sufficient for 45 people.
b. Silverware (same qualifications as above and to include serving forks and spoons). Sufficient for 45 people.
c. Glassware (to include water glasses, highball glasses, cocktail glasses, wine and champagne glasses, and liqueur glasses). Sufficient for a formal banquet involving several kinds of wine for 90 people.
d. Thirty (30) sets of table linens, each set to consist of 1 tablecloth and 12 napkins.
e. Sixty (60) sheets, sixty (60) pillowcases, and sixty (60) large bath towels.
2. The General desires that all of the above listed items be of the very best quality and workmanship available in Land Salzburg.

“What does he think this is?” Price said. “Wanamaker’s?”

Jack was not used to having senior officers commiserate with him over
the arbitrary demands of their superiors, and for a moment he enjoyed the unexpected camaraderie.

“Goddamn it,” Price said. “We’d better make sure he gets all this crap today.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jack said. “I don’t understand. How do you want me to fill this requisition order?”

“What do you mean ‘how’?”

“Where am I supposed to find all this stuff?”

“Lieutenant, are you dense? Fill the requisition order from the warehouse.”

“Respectfully, sir. The only items like this in the warehouse belong to the Werfen train.”

“You think I don’t know that? You think I didn’t tell that to the son of a bitch who handed me this memo? Just fill the order, Wiseman.”

Jack glanced over at the chair he’d just appropriated and cringed. He steeled himself and said, “The property on the train isn’t enemy property. It didn’t belong to the Hungarian government officials who turned it over to us. They stole it.”

“Lieutenant, however they got it, there’s no question that what we’ve got here are enemy assets, and if our commanding general wants to borrow them to furnish his billet, if he wants to turn us into a team of glorified shop clerks running around filling his orders, there’s fuck all we can do about it.”

“It’s Jewish property, sir. The Hungarians stole it from the Jews. We can’t just give it away. They’ll want it back, sir.” He thought of Ilona’s father, going to his death clutching a sheaf of irrelevant documentation. “They have receipts.”

“Who has receipts? The commander of the train?”

“Not Avar. The Hungarian Jews, Colonel. When the Hungarian government made them turn over their property, it gave them all receipts.”

“How do you know that, Lieutenant? How are you such an expert on the practices and policies of the Hungarian government?”

Because I’ve been fraternizing. Because that beautiful young woman you just chased out of here is a Hungarian Jew, and her parents’ wedding rings might be lost among the other hundred thousand gold bands filling the crates and boxes stacked floor to ceiling in this miserable warehouse.

“Research, sir.”

“Lieutenant, this is the army, not debate club. You’ll get these items together and escort them personally to General Collins’s house, and you’ll do it today. Is that clear?”

Price left with the same aggravated bustle in which he’d arrived. When the senior officer was gone, Jack went to his desk, grabbed the chair, and strode back into the warehouse to the aisle full of furniture. He heaved the chair on top of a huge pile of crates and then returned to his desk to find that Private Streeter had already put his hard stool in its place. Without a word, he sat down, his back flickering with pain, and began going over the list.

The silver was easy; there were any number of sets in their original cases. He pulled three: two plain sets, without engraving or scrollwork, and one that came in an intricately carved wooden box decorated with a coat of arms and the Latin motto
GRANDESCUNT AUCTA LABORE
. Jack sketched the design in the left margin of the account book in which he had decided to record in accurate detail every item loaned by the murdered Jews of Hungary to General Harry Collins. Someday the industrious heirs to this grand coat of arms might come looking for their fish forks, and God help him but it eased Jack’s conscience to think that his care and precision might help them track their property down.

He had more difficulty with the china requisition. Finding a matching service for forty-five was impossible. Surely only the fabulously wealthy would need to serve that many people at one time. He tried to cobble together a single set from four or five others, but who knew there were so many different china patterns in the world? This one with blue flowers, that one with pink, this one with Chinese gazebos and dancing girls. In the end Private Streeter took upon himself the task of finding two or three sets of dishes that would, as he said, “complement” one another even if they did not match.

Jack sat with the glassware, noting each Ajka crystal goblet, each cut-glass decanter. Then he moved on to the linens. He easily found the desired table and bed linens, but spent an hour in a grim, jaw-clenched silence, combing through boxes of textiles, trying to find the set of sixty capacious bath towels the general required to wrap his colossal behind.

Private Streeter finished wrapping the china he’d chosen and joined Jack in pulling various cloths from the chests. The private opened up a length of stiff, shiny cotton and smoothed it across his lap. “You know, sir, maybe nobody packed towels.”

Jack could not help but imagine Ilona’s family packing up their linens
to deposit at the bank and choosing, for whatever reason, not to include the towels. Perhaps they couldn’t bear to part with them. Or perhaps the Jewish Property Office had simply forgotten to include towels on the list of items to be relinquished.

Streeter continued, “Or maybe towels are just different in Europe. Maybe they don’t look like towels do at home. Maybe they don’t have terry cloth over here.”

Jack paused to consider this. The farmhouses he’d passed through in the French countryside had often not even had bathrooms, let alone towels. But as they pushed their way through Germany, they’d passed many nights in ordinary middle-class homes that were at once familiar and strange. The furnishings were not unlike those of his own parents, but the houses were full of goods that no one in America ever bothered with. The feather beds, for example. Even the poorest of German farmers’ wives slept on a feather bed and beneath a down-stuffed quilt that put Jack’s mother’s pricey innerspring mattresses and Hudson Bay blankets to shame. What joyless Puritan impulse had convinced his great-grandparents, emigrating from Germany, to leave this luxury behind? Why hadn’t he grown up cosseted by goose feathers?

But had there been towels in those German houses? He couldn’t remember.

“Maybe this is a towel,” Streeter said, holding up a length of white fabric edged in rickrack.

Jack assessed the cloth. It was smooth and stiff and hardly seemed designed to absorb water. And it was too pretty to be used to dry a man’s ass, even a general’s. But then the monogrammed sheets with their intricately embroidered borders seemed far too fine to sleep on.

How had he ended up here, kneeling in a sea of white linen, plundering booty stolen from Jews just like Ilona? He felt as though the train had been loaded with the limitless property of the Jakab family, as if the crystal and the dishes and these towels, if that was what they were, had been stolen from Ilona herself.

“Screw it,” Jack said. He massaged his temples where a headache had begun to pulse beneath his skull. “We’ll say they’re European towels. The general’s from Chicago. What the hell does he know?”

Lieutenant Colonel Price had ordered Jack to make the delivery himself, and so he did, despite his headache. He chewed up a handful of aspirin,
ignoring the bitter taste, and threw the bottle into the glove compartment of the truck.

Hollywood Harry, as the general was known to those who were less loyal and admiring than the men of the Forty-Second, had taken as his billet the former home of an Austrian nobleman, an early adherent of the Nazi Party. Thanks to the intercession of the archbishop of Bavaria, a Nazi sympathizer who had wormed his way into the good graces of Patton’s military government in Munich, the baron had escaped trial, though he’d lost his home to the American occupation forces. Before surrendering his house, the baron had been careful to strip the place bare. He took with him into his exile in his protector’s Bavarian villa every stick of furniture, every dish and spoon, every painting, every wall mirror. He had his servants tear the curtains from the windows and rip up the carpets from the floors. He pried paneling from the walls of the many receiving rooms and even removed a number of the floorboards in the servants’ quarters. This last was mysterious to the Americans on their arrival at the palace. Some posited that the baron had simply taken the floorboards to burn as firewood in his new accommodations, although as he had also ordered that the house’s woodbins be cleaned out, one could assume he already had a fair stock of that.

General Collins’s staff had been beating the Austrian bushes to furnish their boss’s deplumed estate, and the arrival of the Hungarian train struck many of them—not excepting the general himself—as providential. The cook and the other household servants, abandoned by the baron to face the fate that his furniture and bibelots were spared, set to work at once, unpacking the crates as fast as Jack and his men could carry them in, spreading out the loot on a massive Biedermeier dining table that had been too big for the baron to self-pillage.

One of the silver services was Austrian, from the late eighteenth century, and as the cook opened its ornamented case, she whistled through her teeth. “Lovely!” she said. Then she held up a fish server and turned it over in her hands, frowning at it in a way that might have been critical or maybe just puzzled.

BOOK: Love and Treasure
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