Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure” opens with a grim, fantastical image that seems lifted from some perverted children’s story: a train of more than 40 boxcars filled with household goods — carpets, linens, cameras, dishes, paintings, vases, radios, watches, purses, teapots, candlesticks and much more.

Where did it all come from?

Why is the train chugging through the Austrian countryside?

Why are all these items sorted and labeled with German efficiency?

We’ve had 70 years’ experience with the varied grotesqueries of the Holocaust, but the U.S. soldiers who stop this train in Salzburg in 1945 are baffled. Adopting the euphemistic style of the Final Solution, a civil servant explains to them that “to help with the war effort . . . the valuables had been collected from the Jews of Hungary by the commissioner for Jewish Affairs.” How generous of those patriotic Jews.

“Love and Treasure” by Ayelet Waldman. (Knopf)

Waldman is a wonderfully imaginative writer, but she’s drawn the central event of her absorbing new novel directly from history. The Hungarian Gold Train, as it came to be called, carried a trove of stolen goods worth millions of dollars.

The Allies intercepted the train before it reached Germany and promised through various international agreements to return the property. That pledge to the dead Jews and their families was gradually thwarted by politics, postwar chaos and, yes, the victors’ avarice.

In its geopolitical scope, this crime is so encyclopedic that it could easily overwhelm a novel’s boundaries. But Waldman has devised a multi-part structure that allows her to focus on several distinct moments during a 100-year period. As with the painting in Susan Vreeland’s “ Girl in Hyacinth Blue ” and the manuscript in Geraldine Brooks’s “People of the Book,” the link between these separate stories in “Love and Treasure” is a pendant decorated with the picture of a peacock.

In Waldman’s exceedingly clever treatment, this piece of jewelry is not intrinsically valuable; it accrues value only as it passes from one unlikely hand to another, demonstrating the curious and tragic ways that history binds us together.

At the center of the novel is Jack Wiseman, who in 1945 is among the U.S. servicemen who seize the contents of the Hungarian Gold Train. A Jew with a special facility for languages, Jack is the first to realize the ghastly implications of what they’ve captured, and he’s put in charge of cataloguing and guarding the stolen goods until they can be returned to the rightful owners. He treats this complicated task with all the reverence and care it deserves, but vultures quickly swoop in — including U.S. commanders who requisition items to decorate their quarters.

While Waldman has invented conscientious Jack, she uses him effectively to dramatize several miserable historical facts that have faded from modern consciousness. Beyond the shameful way that some of the Hungarian Jews’ property was essentially re-stolen by the Allies, she brings us into the raw horror faced by displaced person (DPs), especially Jews, who were left sick, starving and wandering across Europe in the aftermath of the war.

When Jack falls in love with a Hungarian woman in a nearby refugee facility, he hears that Jews who return to their homes are being killed by angry mobs and that Gen. Patton has “packed the Bavarian Provincial Administration full of Nazis” because “it would be silly to get rid of the most intelligent people in Germany.”

In the novel’s most morally disturbing section, Jack learns that the solidarity among Jews forged by the war is far less pure than he imagined. “What happened in Poland could never have happened in Palestine,” a Jewish soldier fighting for a homeland tells him. “No one could have slaughtered us in our synagogues, in our fields. There would have been no Jewish councils fulfilling the Nazis’ demands for bodies. Every Jewish boy and girl in the Yishuv [settlement] would have taken a gun and shot every German soldier they saw. Even if we had lost, we would have lost fighting.” For Jack, that cruel appraisal of European Jewry is eclipsed by the cynical way that survivors of the Holocaust are suspected of collaboration. The Hungarian Jews who remain are whisked to Palestine as human shields against British bullets and as propaganda tools in the battle for a Jewish state.

This could not have been easy or comfortable for Waldman to write. The incalculable sin committed against those millions of people naturally encourages a kind of reverence that’s antithetical to the moral complexity of good fiction, but of course even the victims and saviors were real, which is to say, complicated people with motives of every hue.

Waldman’s triumph here is her ability to dramatize these challenges to Jack’s naivete with a tense and romantic story that never seems polemical or overdetermined. “You, my friend, have the luxury of a sensitive stomach,” a Zionist soldier tells Jack. “We in the Yishuv can afford no such delicacy.” And in a sense, neither can the good novelist.

Not all the sections of “Love and Treasure” are as compelling as this postwar episode. Another part, set in present-day Europe, focuses on a crucial step toward reclaiming the stolen peacock pendant. But the storyline is clotted with academic and commercial details, and a moment of madcap silliness near the end feels forced.

Far more satisfying is the book’s last section, set in Budapest in 1913. Here Waldman writes in the first person as Dr. Zobel, a Jewish psychologist composing an expansive case study. Though the details and characters are wholly fictional, the story presents a rich vision of the elegant, class-bound city at a moment when Jews enjoyed the benevolent tolerance of Franz Joseph I.

Even more charming is Dr. Zobel’s lack of control over his own narration, the way he poses as a disinterested man of science while being emotionally drawn into the treatment of a brilliant young woman named Nina. Inflamed with radical ideals and determined to study medicine, Nina has been sent to the good doctor for treatment of her hysterical symptoms, which she knows (correctly) are perfectly normal conditions.

Their sessions together provide a marvelous panorama of early 20th-century attitudes about women and fascinating portraits of feminists who shock society by refusing to act like fashion-obsessed girls. Waldman also offers an amusing critique of the looniness of psychology in those heady Freudian years.

Dr. Zobel has no trouble interpreting Nina’s recurring dream of missing a train as an expression of her fear of missing out on “a normal sexual life.” But we know what nightmare trains lie in the decades ahead. Waldman, however, never emphasizes that connection. Her point is the tenuous, accidental relations among these disparate episodes.

When the peacock pendant comes into Nina’s hands, it’s by a course that interested parties could never divine in the early 21st century. Only the overarching vision of this moving novel makes that provenance — and so much else — clear.

Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Ayelet Waldman

Knopf. 334 pp. $26.95