From Shoah reparations to lost Nazi treasure: A writer’s journey on family trail

Menachem Kaiser set out to reclaim a building his grandfather’s family owned in Poland before the Holocaust; he could never have predicted how the story would go

Menachem Kaiser documents his journey in 'Plunder.' (Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Menachem Kaiser documents his journey in 'Plunder.' (Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

When Menachem Kaiser set out to reclaim a building his grandfather’s family owned before the Holocaust in Sosnowiec, Poland, he thought it would take him 18 months at most. His grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, had already meticulously gathered paperwork and the documentation necessary.

Instead, it’s been over six years since Kaiser began the journey — and he’s no closer to an ending.

Kaiser documents his journey in “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure,” out March 16, where his quest to reclaim his family’s building leads him to discover his grandfather’s first cousin, Abraham Kajzer, the closest relative to survive the Holocaust. Abraham, Kaiser learns, actually wrote a Holocaust memoir, “Za Drutami Śmierci,” that in part details his time spent in Riese, vast underground tunnels constructed by the Nazis where many suspect treasure looted during the Holocaust was hidden.

Abraham’s words, in modern-day Poland, have become a key text for the treasure-hunting community. They also became a central part of the story Kaiser ended up telling.

“Our stories are even richer and more complicated than we sometimes realize, especially stories that are the most familiar to us, the stories that have been passed down.” Kaiser explained in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I was really lucky to have the opportunity to push and probe, but I think a lot of people have these remarkable stories in their family. The sneakiest ones are the ones we think we know. They will just always have a trapdoor. That’s the takeaway: The journey inward into what you think is familiar territory turns out to be radically not.”

We spoke to Kaiser about his travels in Poland as a Jew, the frustrations of not having a neat ending and the ever-evolving nature of Holocaust memory and storytelling.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

JTA: Let’s start at the very end. You write that you were maybe going to write this story as a novel, but eventually, of course, you wrote the nonfiction book “Plunder” instead. The ending, then, is not the one you hoped for — in terms of reclaiming your grandfather’s building — but the one you have. Why do you feel like it was important to end “Plunder” as you ended it, with no definite conclusion to your saga?

Kaiser: I stumbled accidentally into what I consider a more interesting and more meaningful ending. Originally, when I set out to write the book, I had a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen: I was going to get the building back. It’s a very neat ending. And then, things kept getting delayed and delayed, and I got very nervous that the whole ship was sinking. My whole project felt undermined. I set the stakes, and now it’s like, ‘okay, I guess the stakes don’t matter.’ How do you end the book like that?

What it forced me to do was [reassess]: What does any of this actually mean? I could have got the building back, and it could have ended that really neatly, in a really familiar way, and I think that’s what everyone expects — including me. The fact that I didn’t, and that I felt that I had to finish the book anyways, forced me to struggle and articulate what it all means. What does it mean to try and reclaim a building that my grandfather once owned, but hadn’t lived in? Who am I, in this respect? What’s my role? How does this memory get passed down? It was very frustrating, and I was very nervous that the whole narrative structure was about to crumble. But at the end of the day, I feel very lucky that I was backed into a corner, which actually forced me to really figure out what it was I was actually doing.

In the alternate world where you did fictionalize your story as a novel, what would have been some key things you would have changed in that version?

That’s a good question. Had it been a novel, it would have been a much more familiar story. One of the central struggles in the book, and that I had while writing the book, was ‘how much does this mean to me? How do I articulate what it means to me?’ I never knew my grandfather, I didn’t grow up with a sense of return, or of trauma. There wasn’t an obvious narrative arc to what I was doing.

In a novel, I probably would have gone for that more familiar route. I don’t even have to be the protagonist — I could have imagined my grandfather. Or, I could have known him. I could have known the fictional version of my grandfather. In non-fiction, you’re left with this gap. You can’t make it up. You can gesture at something, but you can’t pretend.

You write about how Jews travel on these heritage trips to Eastern Europe, with a destination “as much mythological as it is geographical,” and trying to figure out their family’s story but maybe not finding much once they got there. Do you feel like, in your travels to Poland, you found a connection there? Did you uncover your family’s origin myths?

In terms of hard data, no. I didn’t learn anything about my grandfather. But in terms of banging my head against the wall, I think there’s something valuable there. There’s something valuable in failing to connect. And then I had this weird experience of finding this other guy, who wasn’t my grandfather, whose legacy was insanely rich, and, for lack of a better word, sexy. For a while, it got conflated in my head: Here’s my alternate grandfather, and here’s my real grandfather. But throughout the book, that starts to split. And he’s not a stand-in for my grandfather; rather, it’s putting into relief how inaccessible my grandfather is. Again, I didn’t learn anything about him, but I feel closer to… something. I tried!

That’s the book, right? It’s searching for something.

I feel definitely connected to the place, let’s say it like that. And then, this building, I do feel like I’m in conversation with my grandfather, even though I can’t tell you exactly what it means because I don’t have insight into what it meant to him.

Do you think your relationship to your Jewishness evolved over the course of your travels in Poland and your struggles in the Polish bureaucracy?

I grew up Orthodox, and everyone I knew was Orthodox. Almost everyone I knew growing up, their grandparents were [Holocaust] survivors, and most of them from Poland. All of which is to say, there were very familiar narratives and received wisdoms that you inherit. That’s everything to do with how Polish people are, or what kind of country it is, and what to expect. Even though I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe before all this began, those were pretty deeply ingrained. To sort of tweak your question a little bit, I think that definitely evolved over the course of the book. Struggling, and at times resisting, and at times resisting my resisting, the received wisdoms of my community vis-à-vis Eastern Europe.

You write about how for some members of your community, and your family, the hatred of Poles almost outweighed the hatred of the Nazis, writing, “The Poles who saved Jews were the exception but your average Pole was — at best — perfectly content to see Jewish neighbors carted off to the ovens.”

That’s something my father told me that my grandparents would say. One of the things I tried to do is acknowledge the gap between someone like me, who grew up in comfort, to trying to understand the position of a Holocaust survivor. To the extent I can: Maybe it felt more like a betrayal. Maybe it felt like these were your country people, or maybe your neighbors. I don’t have any anecdotes, or personal data, to back that up or support it. But to me, that’s how I would imagine that sentiment.

When you were in Poland, what surprised you most about how the Holocaust is discussed and acted upon? Both in your experience of the bureaucracy that you encounter in the legal system, but also the broader society. 

One of the things that I wish I could have included in the book was my time in Poland. But it didn’t really fit into the narrative. The truth of the matter is I’ve been going since 2011, and my time there has been so overwhelmingly positive. Obviously, my story goes on these detours and does spend time on my frustrations. In terms of my day-to-day interactions, especially in large cities like Krakow and Warsaw, I was overwhelmed by how supportive and interested everyone was. And how at a grassroots level, there’s so many artists and activists and institutional support [for Jews].  The Poland I was interacting with in the cities, there was like a tremendous grappling [with the past]. When you go to Krakow in the summer, it’s a wild meeting place of Jewish people and ideas, and a lot of that is fueled by non-Jewish Poles.

This whole journey started when I moved to Lithuania on a Fulbright, and that got started when I studied Yiddish in college. My Yiddish teacher was a native Cracovian, a Polish person who decided to take Yiddish.

A view of Krakow, Poland (CC-BY SA Andrzej Otrębski/Wikimedia Commons)

Knowing what you know now about the Polish legal system and bureaucracy, would you still file claims about the building and your relatives?

That’s a good question. It’s tricky. I started this whole thing not as a writer; I was not interested in writing this book about my grandfather’s building. [I thought,] I’ll go, I’ll do this thing that seems interesting and meaningful. At a certain point, though, I did become a writer. And so, you have to be honest about how you take in experiences. On one hand — I’m nervous to say this, because it sounds a little cheeky — the frustrations are real. They’re really frustrating. On the other hand, they are pretty good material. I don’t love pointing to the meta structure of the book. But would I do it again, in a vacuum? Probably not. No book, just me trying to reclaim it, if I understood… I really thought it would be done in 18 months. I was like, great, we have these documents! Everything’s so easy! But I didn’t realize. It’s going on six years now.

I was really struck by your discussion of the Polish courts and their inability to declare your relatives, who were murdered in the Holocaust, dead. That was honestly one of the most shocking parts of the books to me. These people are clearly no longer with us!

I go back and forth in terms of “how patient and generous are you?” On one hand, [I’m] like, “This is absurd, they’re out to get me.” On the other, it is a bureaucracy. It’s a bureaucracy trying to grapple with a huge rupture. Things are going to be tricky. It’s hard.

Abraham Kajzer’s memoir is a key part of your own — how did you feel when you discovered it for the first time? And that he had been a writer, and written one of these really early Holocaust memoirs?

When I first discovered it, I couldn’t read it, because it was in Polish. My relationship with Abraham Kajzer’s book [at first] was very much defined by the treasure hunters’ relationship to it as an artifact. I paid to have it translated into English, but that took a while. So it wasn’t until I read it for myself that I was like, ‘whoa, this is quite a moving [story].’ It’s a Holocaust memoir. It’s very stark, and tragic. [After I had it translated,] I re-acquainted myself with it, and I was able to re-approach Abraham — not as this myth, but as a person. The fact that I was related to him made it more poignant; I found the Holocaust legacy in my family, whereas I never had one before. The more time I spent with it, the more I was able to see him as a person — rather than this mythological feature.

That also brings up when you write about the difference between the Polish version, “Za Drutami Śmierci,” and the Hebrew one, “Bein Hamitzarim.” The Polish version is a treasure map, with a hero, whereas the Hebrew version is bearing witness and giving testimony. How do you see the impact of the lack of bearing witness in the Polish version in the treasure hunter community?

They’re not reading it for that [testimony], but I think a lot of it gets in anyways. When I finally had it translated, and then also was able to read the Hebrew [version], I was like, ‘there’s so little [detail] in here.’ Yet, I would meet people who had read it 40 times. There’s no information!

On some level, and again, it’s hard for me to speak to because I am removed by language and by demographics, I do think Abraham’s book takes on a higher order. It becomes the memoir that they all read, and they do care. They do care about the victims, but that’s not their primary narrative of these sites. The memoir takes on a textual memorial; it’s something they really care about, to an astonishing sense. They really cherish this book. It keeps getting reprinted. It’s sold at the gift shops; there’s no other Holocaust memoir sold at those gift shops. It’s valuable to them, and they’re protective of it.

A tunnel that is part of the mysterious underground Nazi city Riese, where Abraham Kajzer was forced to work during World War II. (Adam Guz/Getty Images Poland/via JTA)

You write, “Which is preferable? The celebrated myth, which is at least partly false? Or the uncelebrated person, the memory of whom so quickly disappears?” How did you feel meeting all these treasure hunters who knew Abraham — but knew this not-real version of him. Was it meaningful?

The contrast was very much between Abraham in the treasure hunter world in Poland, and Israel. I would go to Israel — I visited his gravesite, I spent time with his family — and the myth, the special status of the “treasure hunter manual,” doesn’t attach to him in Israel. It’s not the narrative there.

The mechanisms we have to memorialize people can be very strong, but sometimes they’re not that accurate. So if someone gets sort of stuck in a story, the longer you go, the story will start warping, and less and less resemble the original person it had described. But is that better than the person, or event, being forgotten? To me, this was a really sharp contrast of a single person being remembered so differently. And one being barely remembered; it took me two years to find a copy of the Hebrew [edition], as opposed to the Polish one. The Polish [readers], they’re a few more degrees removed from the person. They don’t have a relationship with him, they have a relationship with this idea of him. He’s a symbol.

That actually made me think of how Holocaust memory plays such a role in American Jewish narratives. Well, I know you’re Canadian, so perhaps Jewish narratives in America & Canada. How do you see Holocaust memory in 2021? How do we tell those stories, and what stories are we focusing on?

I’m this interesting case study because I grew up with survivor grandparents, but growing up, I did not feel like it was a central part of my identity. I actually had quite a hard time relating to some of my peers who did. As I got older, people started speaking about their trauma, and of their parents who were second generation I had a hard time relating.

But when I fell into this story, it was examining my own relationship, and my own consciousness of [Holocaust memory]. I feel very lucky that I was able to tell this story. And for me, I don’t think I’m able to speak about the Holocaust without talking about how the Holocaust is told. That’s had a lot of influence on how I think about the history of the Holocaust. I do feel degrees removed, and it’s important for me to acknowledge and interrogate how I’m removed from that. Even though it’s obviously hugely important to an American Jewish identity.

As we’re nearing a point where Holocaust survivors will no longer be with us, it’s that question of memory, as you’re saying, is really fascinating. How do we tell those stories? And what types of stories are we telling?

Yeah, it’s just a hard thing to grasp because the trauma is so great and so overwhelming. And yet we’ve all grown up with so many of these stories and so part of your brain sort of understands them too well, in a crazy way.

Almost becomes numb to them, in a sense.

You’re like, ‘I’ve heard this story a million times!’ Then you take a step back, you’re like, ‘Wow. I’ve heard this story a million times.’ That’s almost a terrifying thing to behold.

I’ve been very privileged, I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe and get a firsthand experience of the vastness. If you grow up in the US, or Canada, within the Jewish communities, you hear about the vastness all the time. But then, you just go to these tiny villages, and there’s two concentration camps in this tiny village. When you sort of get to touch, a little bit, the vastness of the inhumanity, it’s really humbling. It’s really something. 

Has your family read “Plunder” yet? How did they feel?

My parents have read it. They’re schepping nachas. Some parts were hard for them, but they’ve been super supportive. They saw some of an earlier draft, and they had notes, some of which I was able to address and some of which I wasn’t. Overall, it’s not a tell-all, I’m not mining them.

It’s really been an interesting journey for my father, because it all of a sudden put a new member in his family. He was flabbergasted that there was this person he had never heard of. So he had to come to terms with that.

Your grandfather died before you were born. If by some magic you could talk to him and ask him something, what would you want to know?

To imagine actually meeting my grandfather would be a really remarkable thing. I would want to know what he went through. There’s still a throbbing ignorance thereof, what happened? What were his parents like? What were his siblings like? What was his life like? Honestly, what was he like? These unknowns, which, it’s funny, you take for granted your whole life thing.

I never really thought about it. I never thought about how I didn’t know him, I just had never known him. And then you sort of face that ignorance, and it’s darker and deeper than you had thought. To sit and talk with him, it would be a special thing. It’s hard to answer that question in a neat way.

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