Ayelet Waldman on chance, and obsession

Folded into Ayelet Waldman’s illuminating new novel, Love and Treasure, is enough provocative material to fuel Jewish and feminist discussions for months to come. Paternalism and tenderness in the early days of psychoanalysis, the loosening of attitudes and corsets for progressive women of the European upper classes, the emergence of first-wave feminism and the suffragist movement. And: art and jewelry looted by the Nazis, controversies over the founding of the State of Israel, the tight family lives of Syrian Jews in the Diaspora. Ayelet Waldman talked to Susan Weidman Schneider just before the book’s publication. 

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sws: So, in 2013 a young New York lawyer goes to Budapest to return a necklace her Jewish grandfather took from the Gold Train — filled with valuables that had belonged to Jews in Hungary when the Nazis rounded them up in 1944. Was it thinking about the lives behind those watches and rings and lockets that spurred you? What triggered this broad-sweep historical novel?

aw: I was a Holocaust-obsessed teenager, but I was not familiar with the specific history of Hungary — and had no idea about this train! Here’s the real story of how I came to this. One of my dear friends became ambassador to Hungary just when I was starting a new novel. I wanted to visit and deduct it from my taxes so googled “Hungary, Holocaust, art.” The Hungarian Gold Train was my first hit. As soon as I read that Wikipedia entry, I knew this was my story.

I found that when one goes to a foreign country to research a novel, it is very helpful to have a friend who is the U.S. ambassador. A brilliant feminist historian in Budapest, Judith Acsady, told me that if I was interested in the pre-WWI period I’d have to read this amazing women’s newspaper. I spent a week in the archives of the Budapest main library with a young graduate student in women’s history translating for me material about the suffragists. The whole book just landed in my lap then — from women not being allowed out without an escort to creating a women’s movement in just a few years! “A big hat is a kind of imprisonment,” wrote Rosa Schwimmer, the Jewish feminist leader — and she also wrote a critique of the dowry system as sexual slavery of women — side by side! So impressive!

There’s a whole archive of Rosa photos in the New York Public Library. That the 1913 Seventh Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Budapest was photographed is incredible!

sws: After WWII, the novel spools back to the early years of the 20th century, and enmeshes us in the facts and the drama of the suffragist movement in Eastern Europe, which was fueled in part by Rosa Schwimmer and her secretary, Gizella Weisz, a Jewish dwarf from an illustrious family of scholars and performers. 

aw: Later, Gizella and her family were both tortured and saved by Mengele in Auschwitz.

sws: Then you have the disaffected Israeli guy, Amitai, from a large Syrian Jewish family of art dealers. He has been pretty immune to the history of the Holocaust, and feels resistant even to the State of Israel, but he’s also on a search for looted art.

aw: Israel. I even made aliyah myself once for 6 months. I had a boyfriend who was a Syrian Jew — his parents were sent by Youth Aliyah to live on a yekkish [German Jewish] kibbutz. I visited them. Those Germans on the kibbutz were as German as I had ever experienced.

My Israeli publisher, before they bought this book, said, “Seems a little anti-Semitic.” Of course my British publisher said, “It seems a little pro-Israel.”

sws: Characters in the book talk about how post-Shoah Zionists used the survivors to move world opinion — and the British — to help form the State of Israel.

aw: I used actual quotes. When an Israeli character in the book says of the Holocaust survivors that “They are garbage,” I pulled the quotes from letters of Ben-Gurion. I knew I couldn’t write this without being accused of anti-Zionism, so I quoted directly. The idea that those who survived could only have survived by evil means, that they were broken and ruined by their experience and also evil…. They needed the boatloads of survivors, and especially children — to be fired upon — and the British would be forced to turn over Israel.

sws: Nothing ties up totally neatly in this book. Ilona, a young Hungarian woman who survived the camps, manages to get smuggled into Italy, then to pre-state Israel. We never hear about her again.

aw: I wanted to mirror the sense of the fragmented stories — especially regarding the Holocaust. You can never really know the truth when people have vanished and their stories have vanished. You can only imagine — and some of it is wrong. I wanted readers not to know—mirroring the sense I had in doing my research that some isn’t knowable.