“Love & Treasure” by Ayelet Waldman is historical fiction based on the true
story of the Hungarian Gold Train. In May 1945, the American Army found and seized 24 of approximately 46 freight train cars in the town of Werfen, Austria. The cars contained personal property taken, seized, confiscated or stolen by the Hungarian Nazi government from Hungarian Jews and later moved to Salzburg.
The author tries to incorporate what ethics governed the custodians of property that can never be returned. Lieutenant Jack Wiseman is put in charge of guarding the contents of the Hungarian Gold Train. Jack has a special facility for languages and is one of the first to realize the implications of what the Americans have captured. Jack, a Jewish American soldier, is assigned the responsibility of cataloguing and guarding the stolen goods.
He tries to treat this complicated task with all the reverence and care it deserves, but despite his efforts some of the valuables are requisitioned for the personal use of U.S. generals such as the non-fictional Major General Harry J. Collins and others. Many items were auctioned in 1948 by the U.S. government, while many others were lost or destroyed.
The author divides the novel into three sections. The link between these separate stories is an enameled pendant in the form of a peacock that Jack steals on his last day in Salzburg. Seventy years later Jack, now a retired Classics professor dying of cancer, gives the necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie, and asks her to find its rightful owner.
Part One is set in Salzburg in 1945-46. Jack meets Ilona Jakab, a young refugee and survivor of the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps who is desperately searching for her sister. Jack and Ilona fall in love.
Part Two is set in Budapest and Israel in 2013. This section is told from the point of view of the art dealer who basically profits from the Holocaust, dividing the profits among the current owner, the rightful owner or heirs, and his company. Part Two traces Natalie’s effort to return the pendant to its owner’s relative. It is there, in Budapest, that an Israeli art dealer thinks the pendant could help locate a lost painting by an Hungarian artist.
The final part of the novel is set in Budapest in 1913. This is where the reader learns about the origin of the pendant and about Budapest before the war. Dr. Zobel, a psychoanalyst, is the narrator.
This is a compelling, multigenerational novel of love, of what people most cherish and of what “things” can represent when one has lost everything.
The author has done her research carefully in exploring the history and politics
of the last 100 years. Anyone wishing information on The Hungarian Gold Train may read “A Settlement Agreement,” a written order by U.S. District Court of Southern Florida, Federal District Judge Patricia A. Seitz, presiding, April 8, 2005.