The closest Jack had come in his life to celebrating the holiday of Purim was to eat the three-cornered hamentaschen his bubbe used to make. But if the wild revelry going on right now in the DP camp was what Purim was like, he had had no idea what he was missing. The roadways and paths of the Muelln camp, a former army barracks, were teeming with people in costumes and masks. It was like Halloween, except here the adults dressed up, too. There were jesters and queens, leopards, witches and Cossacks. One young man had scavenged most of an SS uniform…
The camp orchestra led the way, a battered hodgepodge of clarinetists and violinists, bassoonists and saxophonists, many of the finest lights of European classical music, playing a raucous version, half polka, half circus, of John Philip Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell”.
observations: The Hungarian Gold Train – a major feature of this book – was a real piece of history. Small portable items of value, taken from Jewish families in Hungary by the Nazis, were collected and shipped out with the aim of getting them to Berlin. The train eventually fell into the hands of the US Army; but the next moves were badly mishandled, and left no-one very happy. It’s well worth looking up the real story of the Gold Train, though very depressing.
There are three separate stories in this book, linked by an item of jewellery. Jack, a Jewish GI in Salzburg at the end of World War 2, is set to guarding the Gold Train. He meets and falls in love with a young woman, a Displaced Person who has survived the camps. He ends up back in the USA with something from the train: more than 65 years later, he gives it to his granddaughter, and asks her to find out whose it was. She researches this in modern Budapest, and finds out the outline of a story dating back to before the First World War. Then the third part of the book deals with the first owner of the peacock pendant.
Ayelet Waldman is a very accomplished writer – other books by her have appeared on the blog here and here – and the book is fascinating, a really good read, despite the strange structure of its division into thirds, each with its own climax and ending. In a most unlikely way it all reminded me of The Sound of Music – Salzburg, families of singers, Nazis, walking across the mountain to freedom.
The book very convincingly raises a lot of questions (some of them unanswerable) about the aftermath of war, and the question (one we don’t want to have to think about) of what should be done with seized goods whose owners have been murdered in the most cruel circumstances. The characters argue and discuss all this, and it is a tribute to Waldman that they do not come over as mere mouthpieces. The Jewish characters face up to discussion of what people could have done differently, and they criticize and fight with each other about the past and the future: you feel you get a glimpse of real people, and real conversations that perhaps they might not have with or in front of Gentiles.
Ayelet Waldman is married to blog hero Michael Chabon, who gave CiB a Passover entry, and has featured on the blog in various ways.
Love and Treasure covers some of the same ground as Julie Orringer’s Invisible Bridge – Orringer is thanked in the credits - but I found this one a much better and more readable book.