We live with the idea that the Nazis were not only evil — an indisputable truth — but also that they were methodical. That they kept lists of everything, their neat unblotted words describing death, terror, and unimaginable cruelty as if it were a shopping list.
We also expect that most of the Holocaust memoirs we read follow a predictable narrative arc; that survivors somehow overcome their nightmares and lack of living relatives and physical and emotional scars to live a better life in the New World, that their children attain let’s-show-Hitler levels of success, and that their grandchildren can go back to Europe to find their grandparents’ childhood homes and shuls and family graveyards, and somehow make sense of the past.
Life, needless to say, rarely is that simple. Nor is memory. “We consecrate, and we plunder,” as Menachem Kaiser tells us in his new book. (He’ll talk about it for Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck and the Riverdale Minyan in the Bronx on April 11. See below.)
That beautifully, skillfully written book, “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure,” doesn’t fit easily into the template of grandchildren’s Holocaust works, as he points out. It’s a travelogue, a mystery, a meditation, and a surprise.
It starts with his grandfather, after whom Menachem was named, so by definition, or at least by traditional Jewish practice, Menachem did not know Maier Menachem Kaiser, his father’s father, who died in 1977, eight years before his grandson was born.
Menachem (or to name him fully, Meir Menachem; his grandfather’s first name was Anglicized) Kaiser grew up in an Orthodox family in Toronto. We learn some of his family dynamics, including parts of the story that he agonizes in print over sharing, but really we learn surprisingly little about the narrator of this first-person memoir (which isn’t really exactly a memoir anyway, its subtitle notwithstanding). We learn a bit about some of his adventures in Poland, about some of this thought processes, and about some of his insecurities, doubts, and questions.
In general, as he makes clear, we learn that behind the Germans’ neat annotations were not only cruelty and death but also confusion, chaos really. Nothing except pain and death were exactly as they seem, but there also are real mysteries to pursue.
What, for example, was the intention behind the giant tunnels in Silesia?
We’ll get there, because Menachem did.
“I initially was very reluctant to write about ‘going home to Poland,’” Mr. Kaiser said.
To start at the beginning — something he does not do, in any kind of strictly linear way, in the book — Mr. Kaiser’s father, Michael, lived in Washington Heights until he was 11, surrounded by other Holocaust survivors and their children. In Toronto, they continued to be part of a community of survivors. “The way my father puts it is ‘no one had grandparents,’” Mr. Kaiser said. “He was completely unfamiliar with the basic notion of grandparents.” He was part of a close-knit family that unraveled — a story he tells — and of a community that had not been relieved of its faith, or at least its traditional practice, by the war.
When it was time for college, Menachem moved south, to Manhattan, to go to Columbia. Then he got an MFA degree in fiction at the University of Michigan — he wrote a “novel about interwar Yiddish poets in New York City, kind of a bizarre book with Yiddish in it,” he said. And he got a Fulbright scholarship that got him to Lithuania in 2010; he’d already spent time in Poland when the idea that was the germ of this book came to him.
Mr. Kaiser knew that his grandfather had owned a building in Sosnowiec, a city in Poland, and he learned that he’d tried to file a claim for it. That was the rabbit hole through which Mr. Kaiser first began his story. Part of his book is his objectively ridiculous trip through the Polish legal system — as it turns out, it is very hard to prove the death of people who would have been well into their second century without the necessary paperwork. It’s also about how Mr. Kaiser learned that what seemed to be solid — at least he knew the building where his grandfather lived — could be built on sand. It’s about how he was able to walk into the building — with translators, of course — and talk to the people who lived there, and filter that conversation through the guilty knowledge that eventually he’d be displacing them, only to realize, a bit at a time, that it wasn’t even the right building.
Part of the story is very specific to Poland, and part of it channels the frustration of anybody dealing with a bureaucracy anywhere.
Another part of his book is about the mystery of the vast network of tunnels in Silesia, a liminal province on the border between Germany and Poland, filled, according to the book, with drifters and seekers. The Germans built those tunnels toward the end of the war. “There is no primary documentation for it,” Mr. Kaiser said, although we’ve all come to believe that the Germans documented everything. Therefore, “it attracts a lot of interest and intrigue. From a sober historical perspective, we have a pretty good idea what it must have been. The Germans built some extensive underground bunkers and weapons depots. This one was so extensive that it could have been intended to be a factory or an underground headquarters.”
Mr. Kaiser found himself drawn to those tunnels because most of the very little that was written about it was in the Holocaust memoir of Abraham Kajzer, a survivor who he gradually came to realize was his great-uncle. Abraham Kajzer’s memoir — really a journal — is a very early one, a detailed, pain-filled, suffering-drenched but entirely straightforward, even affectless account of what happened to him, what he saw and did, as he was taken from labor camp to labor camp.
Menachem includes some paragraphs from Abraham’s book in his own. They are hard to read; the pain in them is unmediated with art.
It exists in one version in Polish and another in Hebrew; the differences between the two versions give Menachem a lot to think and write about. But the Polish version of the journal, it turns out, has become a kind of sacred map for the adventurers who are looking for the holy grail, the treasure that they are sure must be hidden somewhere in the tunnels.
Part of Mr. Kaiser’s book is a description of the tunnels and the people who explore them; those chapters read almost like a Polish western, complete with the oddballs and schemers and misfits and charismatic losers who give up the rest of their lives for the hunt.
It’s not what you expect in a Holocaust grandson’s memoir, but it’s a fascinating read.
Those two stories — the hunt for his grandfather’s home and the attempt to get restitution for its theft, and the hunt for buried treasure — linked by the two Kaiser/Kajzer cousins, Meier and Abraham, make up the heart of the book.
And then the book ends on a genuine cliffhanger. Another American seeker of his family’s treasure, abetted by Mr. Kaiser, may or may not have found what he was looking for. It’s a perfectly specific but ambivalent close to a specific but ambivalent book.
Mr. Kaiser was able to write his book with the aid of both the Fulbright scholarship and a Wexner fellowship. “I was able to work on the book full time for a solid year — which takes me up to the pandemic,” he said. That meant that he had to figure out the next looming task. How does a first-time author of a serious book market it? “I had been really looking forward to speaking about it in person, because this is the kind of book that people really care about,” he said. He lives in Brooklyn now, and he’s talking about his book from home, on Zoom. “Zoom’s fine,” he said flatly. “But it’s harder to make jokes. The first joke is okay, but the second one is just too uncomfortable.” But he’s managing — the book’s gotten great reviews in such hard-to-get-reviewed-in venues as the New York Times.
He’s also continuing to write, and he said that he knows by now, in his early 30s, that his work will be Jewish. “It’s something I resisted earlier, but it’s too deeply coded in me,” he said. “I have access to the language — not just the words, but the spiritual vocabulary. If I were to deny that part of me, as a writer, as a person, I would be so much less interesting.
“It’s just there in me.”
Who: Menachem Kaiser
What: Will talk about his book, “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure”
When: On Sunday, April 11 at 8 p.m.
For whom: Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck and the Riverdale Minyan in the Bronx
Who’s invited: Everyone
How much is it? It’s free
For link: Go to www.Rinat.org.