Ayelet Waldman finds fresh Jewish identity in new novel

Headed for literary festival in Jerusalem, Berkeley-based writer talks about how ‘Love and Treasure’ helped her question her Holocaust obsession

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Author Ayelet Waldman, wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon. (Reenie Raschke)
Author Ayelet Waldman, wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon. (Reenie Raschke)

Author Ayelet Waldman will be arriving in Jerusalem in mid-May for the International Writers’ Festival just as her new novel, “Love and Treasure,” comes out in Hebrew. She’s unreservedly positive about her Israeli publisher’s timing, but somewhat less so about her visit to Israel, the country of her birth. It will be her first time back in 22 years.

Her relationship with the Jewish State is complicated, as is her sense of Jewish identity.

“This two-week trip is going to be fraught as hell,” Waldman tells The Times of Israel during an interview in the book-filled Berkeley, California house she shares with her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband author Michael Chabon and their four children.

The purpose of the interview is to discuss “Love and Treasure,” which is about the Hungarian Gold Train, a Berlin-bound Nazi-operated train carrying stolen property (including fine art and expensive jewelry) of Hungarian Jews that was intercepted by American forces in Austria in 1945.

Almost none of the stolen items were returned to their rightful owners or their heirs. The US government ignored requests from the Central Board of Jews in Hungary and the post-war government in Hungary to return the property. Some items were permanently “borrowed” by US Army brass, some were sold through army exchange stores in Europe, and the remainder was auctioned off at pitifully low prices in New York in 1948, with proceeds benefiting the International Refugee Organization.

American soldier guards the Hungarian Gold Train in Werfen [Salzburg], Austria, May 1945. (Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 239-PA-1-1-9)
American soldier guards the Hungarian Gold Train in Werfen [Salzburg], Austria, May 1945. (Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 239-PA-1-1-9)
It quickly becomes evident, however, that there is no way to discuss the Jewish issues Waldman raises in her new novel without discussing Waldman’s own Jewish issues.

Waldman is known for both her fiction and her personally revealing and provocative essays on being a wife and mother. She says she was ready to write this book only at this stage of her life. Did writing this book change her— or at least answer some of her questions?

“Yes, I think so. I’ll tell you how much I’ve changed when I get back [from Israel],” she promises. “This book was in many ways for me plumbing the depths of this identity crisis.”

For the author, 49, secularist Labor Zionism was at the core of her youthful Jewish identity. As an adult she replaced it with a Holocaust fixation, but her identity crisis followed at the realization that the substitution didn’t work.

Waldman is the daughter of a Canadian father who went to Israel in 1947, founded a kibbutz and joined the Palmach. Her mother, also a Canadian, met Waldman’s father in Montreal years later when he was an emissary for the Israeli government and agreed to move to Jerusalem with him. But she lasted only a few years in Israel.

'Love and Treasure' by Ayelet Waldman (courtesy of Knopf)
‘Love and Treasure’ by Ayelet Waldman (courtesy of Knopf)

The author does not remember emigrating from Israel when she was just two years old, but she imagines that as planes full of Jews making aliyah immediately following the Six Day War landed in Lod, her family was alone on the flight back to Canada.

“My whole childhood, I grew up with the message that we could be going back any day. It led me to having a sense of dislocation,” she recalls.

Although Waldman visited Israel frequently during her high school years, and even lived there for six months after college, she ultimately decided she would not make her home there.

In retrospect, she understood that she was deceiving herself and others when she said she planned to return to Israel upon the completion of Harvard Law School (where President Barack Obama was her classmate).

“I pretended for those three years,” she reflects.

“A few years earlier I had gone to the IDF draft office in Metulla and the officer in charge asked me if I wanted to be exempted from service, and I said yes. When I said no to being drafted what I meant was, ‘I don’t want this life.’”

Having defined Zionism very narrowly, solely as committing oneself to living in Israel, Waldman found herself at a severe loss. “I had a crisis of faith,” she says.

“Since Israel stopped being for me the most important part of my Jewish identity, I didn’t have anything to fill that gap, and Shoah filled that gap. Now, I don’t think that is legitimate, and I have to figure out a way to think of myself as Jewish and to be Jewish in a world that is not that way.”

“Other than being a woman, being Jewish is the most important part of my identity… I do not think it is valid to predicate an entire Jewish identity purely on a sense of injury, an adopted sense of loss — and that is what I have been doing lo these many years.”

Ayelet Waldman: 'Other than being a woman, being Jewish is the most important part of my identity.' (photo credit: Reenie Raschke)
Ayelet Waldman: ‘Other than being a woman, being Jewish is the most important part of my identity.’ (photo credit: Reenie Raschke)

Waldman does not have a definitive answer for herself as to the way forward, but writing “Love and Treasure” was an opportunity to examine her “messed up” obsession with the Holocaust —  and create her best work to date.

Back in 2010, the author knew only that she wanted to write about the Holocaust and she wanted to learn something about art, a subject she knew very little about. She also wanted to do research for the novel while visiting her friend Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, who had recently been appointed the US ambassador to Hungary. A Google search combining Holocaust, art, and Hungary yielded “Hungarian Gold Train,” and Waldman knew she had her story.

“The more I read about the Gold Train, these characters started jumping in my head,” she says.

There are three sections told from different perspectives in the novel: a Jewish US Army officer assigned to guard and inventory the Gold Train in Salzburg, Austria; a contemporary American Jewish lawyer teaming up with an ex-pat Israeli who recovers and sells Holocaust-era property for profit to piece together the mysterious provenance of a stunning peacock pendant; and a case study by an early Freudian psychoanalyst of a bourgeois Jewish young woman with “hysterical” symptoms stemming from her socialist and feminist tendencies in 1913 Budapest.

The peacock pendant, one of the thousands of items the author imagines to have been found on the Gold Train, is the device that connects together the sections of the triptych.

But not all loose ends of its historical mystery are neatly tied up by the book’s end.

“That’s the story of the Holocaust. That’s what the Holocaust means for me,” Waldman reflects. “All of these lives — beautiful lives, ugly lives, complicated lives, simple lives. All of these people. Their lives were no less important to them than my life is to me and your life is to you, and they just ended. Nothing was resolved. Nothing was finished. There was no tying up.”

It is fortuitous for Waldman that just as her novel hits bookstore shelves, cases of Holocaust art restitution are increasingly making headlines. Readers interested in these news stories will certainly be drawn to “Love and Treasure.”

‘It’s really about the valueless-ness of property’

However, for Waldman, the novel is not really about art. “It’s really about the valueless-ness of property,” she asserts.

“Take for instance the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer [by Gustav Klimt]. A huge, incredibly fraught story. It was hanging in the Austrian museum for decades. A niece sues… She wins and sells the painting for $135 million to the Neue Galerie.”

“What does that mean?” she asks. “Is that the real value of that painting? Or is the painting valuable because it’s of a Jewish woman at a period of time when the Jews were at the heart of the cultural, intellectual and artistic identity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a whole?”

Despite her Holocaust obsession, Waldman has managed to write a Holocaust novel that does not contain a single scene that takes place during the Shoah. And “Love and Treasure” is all the better for it.

Writing on side of car of the Hungarian Gold Train. (Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 239-PA-1-1-10)
Writing on side of car of the Hungarian Gold Train. (Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 239-PA-1-1-10)

The book trailer for the novel asks, “Where does the worth of a people truly lie?” Waldman’s strength is that she answers this question without visiting the ghettos and the camps.

Instead, she takes readers on a well-researched and compellingly written grand sweep of the last century and answers the question with another question.

“What is the value of any object when we’re all dead, when the people who built that culture have all been destroyed?”

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