A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure
Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure
By Menachem Kaiser (Mariner Books)
In Plunder, seasoned journalist Menachem Kaiser skillfully and humorously unfolds six years of painstaking research in his quest to prove ownership of a building that belonged to his family before the war in the Polish city of Sosnowiec.
At the same time, he raises questions about inheritance, family legacies and how we relate to the past.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor with decades of documents amassed in his attempt to reclaim the building, Kaiser picks up the long-abandoned legal battle. That leads him on a convoluted adventure, filled with unexpected and profound revelations.
On a visit to Poland, Kaiser decides to find the family’s apartment building. He only spends one day in Sosnowiec but, consumed by his late grandfather’s unfinished legal battle, he hires a local lawyer known as “The Killer” to pursue the case. She estimates the building’s worth in the mid-six figures but warns him not to “mess everything up” by going for a visit. In his surreal first encounter with the Polish legal system, Kaiser needs to prove that his great-grandparents—killed in the Holocaust and who would be 130 to 140 years old today—are actually dead. The search for documentation of their deaths stalls the case.
The family property was purchased in 1936 by the author’s great-grandfather Moshe Kajzer and Moshe’s brother, Shia. Both brothers and most of their children were murdered by the Nazis. By Polish law, the building should have passed to the brothers’ surviving heirs, in this case, Moshe’s son, Maier Menachem, who died eight years before Menachem Kaiser was born and for whom he was named. In Sosnowiec, Kaiser ignores his lawyer’s advice and sets out to interview tenants in the building. After one tenant, the daughter of a former city planner, shares official city maps dating back decades, Kaiser makes a startling discovery. His family had focused on the wrong building; the one that actually belonged to his family was a few feet away. And while studying his family records, Kaiser discovers something else. His grandfather’s first cousin was Abraham Kajzer, a well-known survivor of eight camps who published one of the earliest Holocaust memoirs.
Abraham had been a slave laborer on Germany’s Project Riese, a series of massive tunnels dug into Silesia, a province on the border between Germany and Poland. He secretly wrote a journal of his experiences in Yiddish and, after the war, published it in in Israel, where he was living, to little notice. When his diary, Behind the Wire of Death, was published in Polish, it became a guidebook for those who thought the tunnels hid everything from Nazi-looted gold to futuristic weapons and proof of aliens. A large section of Plunder is dedicated to Kaiser’s discovery of Abraham’s story and the group of quirky treasure hunters who befriend him in the present day. “I felt a bizarre kinship with these treasure hunters,” he writes. “I can’t really explain it. Our ambitions were obviously very different but on some level I think I felt they rhymed.”
The Silesian treasure hunters, weekend hobbyists who dress like commandos, use metal detectors and satellite imaging to search for hidden places where Nazis stored their loot. They take Kaiser through the tunnels and drink with him around campfires. Surprisingly, Kaiser writes, they are not overtly antisemitic—even as they excitedly show him scavenged Nazi memorabilia decorated with swastikas.
Abraham is a mythological figure to this group. Indeed, on a tour of the tunnels, Kaiser hears the guides call Abraham “one of the most important men who went through the war, Jew or Pole.” New legends about Abraham emerge, too. “Very quickly the story became that I was his grandson…because that is the better story,” Kaiser writes. He also discovers that he has more relatives alive today on that side of the family, namely Abraham’s nieces and nephews.
As for family ownership of the building in Sosnowiec, the Polish court has not issued a ruling in the case.
The book doesn’t have “the ending I’d hoped for,” Kaiser writes, but perhaps in its inconclusiveness, “it’s a truer, more appropriate ending.”
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.