TORONTO — For years, American author Ayelet Waldman avoided writing about the Holocaust, fearful of broaching the magnitude of the tragedy, of somehow cheapening the horrific events that occurred or of getting things wrong.
The keynote speaker at the opening night presentation of the 34th annual Holocaust Education Week (HEW), held Nov. 2 at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Waldman was featured in conversation with Ben Kaplan, a writer for the National Post. She spoke about the process of writing her latest novel, Love and Treasure (2014), and her decision to approach the Holocaust from a unique angle.
The event began with opening remarks from CTV reporter Naomi Parness, herself a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, who spoke of the importance of passing on the stories of survivors, particularly as the generation who lived through this period passes away.
Hers were followed by brief remarks from Janet Carding, director and CEO of the ROM, Marilyn Sinclair, chair of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and Doris L. Bergen, the University of Toronto’s HEW scholar-in-residence.
Sinclair explained the theme of this year’s HEW, which is collaboration.
“We’ll be exploring the ways that individuals, groups and governments collaborated during the Holocaust,” she said. “Those who worked purposely with the Nazis as well as those who defied them with rescues and righteous acts. We’ll be doing this through artists, exhibitions, films and survivor testimonials.”
This theme was chosen to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the order of Adolf Eichmann.
Bergen spoke of the collaborative role played by local Hungarian officials, who decided things such as where the Jewish ghettos should be located.
Non-Jewish citizens in Hungary, she said, though not necessarily “foaming at the mouth to see Jews dead,” were quick to collaborate when it would benefit them, for example, stealing from them when they were deported.
Waldman’s book, which she then sat down to discuss with Kaplan, was a fitting centrepiece for the event, as it deals with the Hungarian Gold Train, a Nazi-operated train that, in 1945, carried a massive stock of valuables stolen from Hungarian Jews from Budapest to Berlin, just as the Russians were encroaching and the Nazis’ loss of the war was imminent.
En route, the train was seized by American forces, but with two-thirds of the Hungarian Jewish population murdered, Waldman explained that the question of “who owns this?” came into play.
Fascinated by this history, she said, and by accounts of Hungary’s rich Jewish life before the war – both of which Waldman researched extensively in the Budapest Jewish archives and Holocaust museum – she wove a tale centred around the Gold Train, with her three main characters, despite existing in different time periods, unexpectedly bound by a deeply significant piece of jewelry.
Love and Treasure depicts life in Budapest, the capital, both before and after the Holocaust, and in Salzberg, Austria, just as World War II was ending, but the action doesn’t directly focus on events during the Holocaust itself. Waldman said she felt she “couldn’t write about the Holocaust in terms of portraying ghettos or concentration camps, because I would be committing a crime of exploitation.”
Given this worry of not being able to do justice to the atrocities, Waldman said she felt more comfortable exploring the period through the somewhat offbeat perspective of the objects that remain after those who owned them have been wiped out.
“The narrative became about these fragments that remained and their value,” she said. “About the transient nature of life versus the permanent nature of objects, and art. This seemed to me such a tragically compelling lens through which to look at the Holocaust.”
HEW runs until Nov. 9 and includes more than 150 events in schools, synagogues, churches, community centres and other institutions across the city.
Its sponsors include UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Azrieli Foundation, CTV and the National Post.