Menachem Kaiser isn’t the first descendant of Holocaust survivors and victims to go in search of his family’s roots – and their lost property — in Poland.
But his account of that search reads like no other: “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a tense, fraught examination of what the second and third generation is really after in these roots and restitution journeys. Hoping to reclaim a building once owned by a grandfather he never knew, Kaiser, a Toronto-born writer now living in Brooklyn, encounters a frustratingly opaque Polish bureaucracy. He also runs into a subculture of Polish treasure hunters, whose fascination with the Nazis is a mirror image of his own effort to make sense of a haunted history.
“What are these descendants looking for?” writes Kaiser of his fellow Jewish searchers. “I think they are often searching for answers to questions they don’t know how to ask, questions that cannot be formed. If you grew up around Holocaust survivors you know what I am talking about. If not, try to imagine trying to imagine a survivor’s inner state.”
Kaiser spoke to the Jewish Week from a friend’s house in the Berkshires. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I read your book with no expectations, which is unusual. I think you’re very aware in the book that the trip back to the old country to recover family property is a genre unto itself, but you found yourself writing a very different book than you set out to write.
I initially went to Poland in 2011 and saw the property, and certainly didn’t go in as a writer. Even later in 2015, when I approached the lawyer for the first time, I was pretty adamant about not writing this book, because I was so conscious of the genre, and also so wary of trying to find a way in. I didn’t think I could write honestly about my grandfather. And then about a year later I met the treasure hunters, and I fell down that rabbit hole and discovered Abraham Kaiser. That felt compelling and I thought, oh, this is a book.
We’ll get back to Abraham. You grew up in Toronto, in what you describe as – for a time, anyway – a deeply entwined Orthodox family. What brought you to Eastern Europe, in addition to family history?
I’m not an academic and I’m not a historian. I see myself as a writer who had a sort of “beat” in Eastern Europe over the years. My initial foray into Eastern Europe/World War II Holocaust history was when I went to Lithuania on a Fulbright in 2010. My focus was actually supposed to be about Yiddish, but for colorful reasons that didn’t work out. And I ended up researching the Vilna Ghetto.
I grew up as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors but didn’t grow up with a particularly nuanced understanding of history. Learning about the ghetto and how complicated and interesting the history was was really eye-opening. I got very interested in broader questions of memory, specifically around memorials and commemoration. These questions were just so rich and so vibrant, so I was constantly getting sucked in. And then, when this building thing happened, it was an interesting portal into these questions on a personal level.
The building is a property owned by your late grandfather in Sosnowiec, Poland but lost or looted during the Holocaust. The book toggles back and forth between your journey to reclaim the property and the treasure hunters you discover who were working in this vast underground Nazi complex in Silesia, where a lost train-load of gold is supposed to be hidden. What made you think those two stories belonged together?
Initially, nothing. I reached out to the treasure hunters on a whim. At the time I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan studying fiction writing. I was working on a novel. I heard about the gold train and thought it would be a good device for a novel.
But as I got further in, and started hanging out with treasure hunters, I saw ways in which the stories match — in terms of searching and exploring and discovering and keeping secrets hidden underground. This gave me an avenue to write honestly about my grandfather and my own search for the building. I don’t identify as a treasure hunter by any means, but it was a whole other subplot to explore the meanings and significance of this big quest.
What brings the two stories together is when you discover that the treasure hunters revered and fetishized a memoir by Abraham Kaiser, a survivor of Nazi slave labor in the underground complex and a long-lost cousin of your grandfather’s generation.
It was frustrating trying to get to my own grandfather but how easily I was able to get to this other guy who becomes my stand-in grandfather. The treasure hunters, no matter how many times I corrected them, insisted/believed that I was Abraham’s grandson. And at a certain point I just kind of let it slide.
How did that discovery impact your family back home? I mean suddenly there’s this new branch of the Kaiser family.
Avraham died in Israel in 1979. He didn’t have any children but he had two nieces who lived in Israel. One niece is still alive. And both of them have children. Abraham also had a brother who escaped to Argentina before the war and he had four children. We had trouble understanding why we hadn’t known about this family, although my father remembered a guy coming to Toronto when he was a kid and mentioning the crystal company he ran in Argentina. That was the brother. There isn’t really any doubt that my grandfather knew about Abraham, especially, but it seems they did not have a relationship.
In that sense, your book is about the power, and the mythology, of family stories. You even realize that the building you thought was your grandfather’s couldn’t have been.
When we don’t know that much we tend to fill in the gaps with familiar narratives. To me it’s much more interesting when a story becomes less familiar, and sort of becomes more personal and more true. And so, yeah, I got the address wrong thanks to a typo, and I invested quite a bit of time and emotional energy into the wrong building and its residents. That really scrambles your brain. What’s the sentimental meaning of a place to which you feel an honest connection and then it turns out to be not true? Is it less meaningful, is it less personal because my grandfather didn’t live there? Everyone has a story like this: As soon as we look into something that is basically family lore, it turns out not to be the case.
You had some incredibly frustrating encounters with the Polish bureaucracy, who wouldn’t even acknowledge that your relatives who died in the Holocaust actually died in the Holocaust. You go back and forth between thinking, well this is just bureaucracy and Poland is a bureaucratic state, and thinking that there’s real residual anti-Semitism and Poles don’t really want to reckon with the Holocaust. Did you come down on one side or the other?
That’s a very good question. You know, I will say in every personal interaction I’ve had with the country as a whole, I only encountered support. It was only when I encountered the legal system did I ask, what’s going on? The new government in Poland is a right-wing nationalist government that put on a full-out assault on the judicial system. And once that happened, you just don’t know anymore. The judges are saying these things and have a technical judicial reason for saying them, but there’s also a distinct lack of generosity. My lawyer and I made mistakes, like filing the wrong things. But what we encountered was a system that’s just very difficult, even though no player in the system is necessarily out to get you.
You find a subculture of conspiracy theorists who believe the Nazis were working on a secret antigravity device, or time travel, and other such fantasies. Were you conscious during the writing about how far-right conspiracy theories, like QAnon, were taking hold in the West?
When all this started, it was a different world. Nazis weren’t in the news and conspiracy theories weren’t being debated all over the place. My minor contribution to this is that even ridiculous conspiracy theories can be very dangerous. When I started looking into this conspiracy theory of Nazi UFOs and whatnot, it was just shocking how developed it was. In the early 2000s, a military aviation journalist wrote a book with a major publisher about the Nazis’ supposed antigravity device.
So many Holocaust deniers have started their career as conspiracy theorists, and the objectives merge. Ascribing to the Nazis secret technology and capabilities allows the conspiracy theorists to say, “Oh, the real story of the war was antigravity, or a time machine, or aliens.” The true history gets suppressed, in order to promote this completely revisionist mode of thinking of the world in general, and so that the Jews leave the story. And the most important thing about the Nazis becomes the UFOs and antigravity and secret weapons as opposed to a master race.
It just becomes like a really sneaky kind of revisionism.
I was always waiting for the treasure hunters you hung with and drank with to reveal themselves as anti-Semites, but there was surprisingly little of that, and probably more philo-Semitism when it comes to Abraham Kaiser.
They were respectful of Abraham Kaiser and respectful of history. They do tend to be very nationalist. The worst stuff I heard were off color jokes. My default attitude is to be generous and not go out of my way to see malice. Nationalist sentiment sort of bends towards revisionism of the war. I heard things like, “There are good Jews and there were bad Jews, just like there were good Poles and there were bad Poles.” The sad part is that that’s quickly becoming dogma in this government: There were good Poles and bad Poles but there’s no culpability and you can’t blame the country for anything.
What’s the sentimental meaning of a place to which you feel an honest connection and then it turns out to be not true?
You liken yourself to the treasure hunters, and at the end of the book find another searcher like you who is quite literally looking for his Jewish family’s hidden treasure.
Many people have stories of how their grandfather or their great uncle had literal treasure. My father tells me that there was cash and valuables hidden in the wall of my grandfather’s house, and that he went back after the war to try and find them. Once in a while you actually hear a story of someone finding something, but that’s more rare.
It’s just so rife with symbolism. I don’t think it’s about greed, I think it’s about, “maybe out of this tragedy something is recovered somehow.”
I agree with you. I didn’t grow up in a particularly sentimental family and I don’t consider myself to be a sentimental person regarding objects. But then you’re like, “What is this thing, this object or property that gets imbued with historical and familial meaning?” And then I’m just completely in. I just want to hear everything about it.
At one point, you wonder about the treasure hunters, “What are you really after?” That’s a question that hangs over the whole book, and something you’re asking yourself. Did you arrive at a satisfactory answer?
I don’t know. I don’t feel closer to my grandfather; I learned very little new information about him. Maybe the takeaway is that the frustration is valuable in and of itself, or at least meaningful, and the fact I wasn’t able to get to a neat resolution is my prize.