by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – When Canadian-born author Menachem Kaiser spoke at the Calgary Public Library on March 14, it was a rare literary treat.
His book Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure was a New York Times Critics Top Non-fiction Book in 2021 and earned the Canadian Jewish Literary Award (biography) in 2021 and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2022.
Kaiser’s genre of choice is ordinarily fiction, and he did not initially intend to write about his attempt to reclaim an apartment building in Sosnowiec, Poland owned by his grandfather’s family prior to World War II. Good thing he did.
Kaiser’s adventures in Poland (which have outlived the publication of Plunder) did not yield much information about his grandfather; but the “conversation” he engaged in with his Zaidy, Maier Menachem – for whom he is named – led to a page-turner that is suspenseful, introspective, quirky, and jaw-dropping. It is a tale of lost property, found relatives, star-crossed lovers and a bizarre cast of real-life characters, including an aging Polish lawyer dubbed “The Killer” and treasure hunters more focused on Nazi plunder purportedly hidden in the tunnels of Silesia than the tragic fates of Jewish slave labourers worked to death while building the massive subterranean structures.
Kaiser spoke at the third program of an annual Holocaust education series organized by the Holocaust and Human Rights department of Calgary Jewish Federation in partnership with the Calgary Public Library and the Edmonton Public Library. The event attracted an audience of 300, with nearly half attending in person and the balance via Zoom.
The series is generously supported by the Isadore and Florence Burstyn Memorial Fund, KSW Holocaust Education Fund, Viewpoint Foundation and donors to the Holocaust and Human Rights Fund at the Calgary Public Library Foundation.
Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin – co-chairs of the Holocaust and Human Rights Remembrance and Education department at the Calgary Jewish Federation – engaged Kaiser in a wide-ranging discussion about his reclamation efforts and his memoir.
“The origin story is kind of actually an anti-origin story,” Kaiser said. “I was adamantly opposed to writing a book about anything to do with Eastern Europe or particularly with Poland. My grandparents are both Polish Holocaust survivors…. I didn’t identify as Polish. And I didn’t really have much of a curiosity, to be totally honest, about their story.”
While living in Lithuania on a Fulbright Fellowship, Kaiser met a Brooklynite who was the road manager for a German band, The Scorpions, and the son of the Chief Rabbi of Galicia. The family invited Kaiser to Poland for Rosh Hashanah.
Kaiser’s father prodded him to take an interest in previous efforts by his own father to reclaim the building that had belonged to his family in Sosnowiec, Poland prior to the Holocaust. Kaiser’s grandfather had passed away in 1977, some eight years before he was born. Referring to his father as “a wonderful man and a sub-par storyteller,” Kaiser said he “didn’t really have a sense of who [my grandfather] really was.”
“There was a kinship but I didn’t really have a handle on it,” Kaiser said. “There were some documents about applications for medical assistance from the German government after the war and a few hints about which camps he was in, but for all intents and purposes we didn’t know anything.”
In 2015, when Kaiser’s father faxed him information about the building in Sosnowiec, Kaiser began to relate to his grandfather’s prior attempts to recover the property. “You know, failure is an interesting thing to project onto someone because you can…relate to frustration, probably easier than triumph.”
It became a “perch for my imagination” and “a way for me and my grandfather to start a conversation,” Kaiser said.
He engaged legal counsel on the advice of a local Chasid who recommended The Killer. “Sounds like the kind of lawyer you want,” deadpanned Kaiser who launched into hilarious descriptions of the woman he figured was “. . . somewhere between 80 and 120 years old.”
When Kaiser walked through the doors, one of two daughters who worked in their mother’s practice was absorbed in a video about wrestling pandas. The entire office was festooned with images of cats. “I’m in . . . let’s go,” was Kaiser’s reaction.
He imagined his application to the courts would be swift and successful. He was wrong. A year after initiating the process, Kaiser had to go to court to prove that his great-grandfather and great-grandmother – both murdered during the Holocaust – were dead. He possessed no proof, so the court came back with “we’re not sure.”
When Kaiser had first visited the building where he believed his grandfather had grown up, it was more a matter of “etiquette” than a “memory mission,” he said. He recalled a “semi-forced emotional moment” when he thought, “Wow, this is where my grandfather grew up.”
“It’s really interesting when you are in those spaces,” said Kaiser, who wondered whether the experience was “a real moment” versus an expectation that he was “supposed to have a moment.”
Friends called him out on what they viewed as an act of “appropriation.” Initially taken aback by that point of view, Kaiser came to appreciate that he was “missing a narrative….The fact is that people lived in that building and I wasn’t taking them into account.”
Kaiser took it upon himself to go back to the building and meet the people living there. “To me it would be an act of intense moral cowardice to not,” he added.
“Those initial meetings were so intense and wild and rich,” said Kaiser, who formed relationships with tenants and learned the unique history of the building when, under communist rule, it became a residence for people connected with the local theatre.
Ironically, after all that, Kaiser learned he had been in the wrong building. It had been built after the war, necessitating address changes along the block. It turned out that another building had belonged to the Kajzers; it was an investment property in which Kaiser’s grandfather had never lived.
“All my interactions with Poles were wonderful,” Kaiser said. “By and large I was met with overwhelming curiosity, support, interest of people who went over and beyond to help me…. I had a really good time in Poland.”
Kaiser said there was a political shift in 2015 when a nationalist and revisionist government came to power, “initiating an assault on the judiciary.” It was a “really scary moment” for friends who had grown up in a free Poland, Kaiser said.
Then testifying about his grandfather’s property, Kaiser said he could not assume that the judge hearing his case was acting independently.
Meanwhile, a bizarre news story was unfolding that eventually intersected with his. In 2015, two treasure hunters captured worldwide attention. Media including the New York Times and CNN reported claims that they had discovered an alleged “Golden Train” containing gold looted by the Nazis and subsequently buried in Silesia.
“For whatever reason, most of the world believed it,” Kaiser said.
At the time, he was working on a novel set in Poland and thought it would make “a great set piece.” He wrote to Joanna Lamparska, a local historian and journalist well connected with the treasure hunting community. She introduced Kaiser to some of the hunters and to Project Riese, seven underground tunnels of epic scale.
“Curiously, there is virtually no documentation as to what the Nazis intended to do with these tunnels,” Kaiser said, adding that this stoked a culture of mystery and conspiracy.
A friend and fellow writer who was along for the ride asked one of the treasure hunters how the deaths of the thousands of Jews that dug those tunnels fit into his narrative. The treasure hunter, Andrzej, began to answer in Polish, which Kaiser does not speak. During the exchange, Kaiser became aware that his own surname was repeated a number of times.
“He didn’t know my last name, so he wasn’t speaking about me…. I stopped him and asked what he was saying,” Kaiser said. Andrzej was speaking about Abraham Kajzer, whom he called “One of the greatest people to come out of the war, Jew or Pole.”
“That is not a sentiment you hear often from a rural Pole,” Kaiser noted.
One of the slave labourers forced to build the tunnels, Kajzer daringly documented his experiences and observations on scraps of paper he stole from cement bags. He hid the notes under the latrines of nearby labour camps, later writing a book that has become a bible for the treasure hunters, Kaiser said.
“After the war, he was saved by a German woman who hid him. He borrowed a bicycle from her and rode from camp to camp and collected these scraps of cement packaging, and he later turned it into a book,” said Kaiser.
Using Google Translate, Kaiser cross-referenced biographical information in the book with research done by The Killer and discovered that Abraham Kajzer was his grandfather’s first cousin. “All of a sudden the family went from extinct to non-extinct,” Kaiser said.
“I became a major celebrity among the treasure hunter community,” Kaiser quipped, adding that they quickly mythologized the relationship, identifying him – despite his own objections – as Abraham Kajzer’s grandson.
In Plunder, Kaiser’s narrative alternates between his quest to reclaim the apartment building and his “descent, pun fully intended, into the tunnels.”
The Nazis were very secretive about the tunnels, noted Kaiser, who spoke of the resulting conspiracy theories, including Nazi research in anti-gravity technology and time travel; communing with ancient occult civilizations; and efforts to establish bases on the moon and Antarctica. Kaiser’s personal favourite is that it was all for nothing . . . just a giant money-laundering project by Nazi officials who knew the war was lost and needed a way to get their money out of Berlin.
Albert Speer, Nazi Germany’s chief architect, wrote an endnote about the tunnels in which he said that “more concrete was planned for these tunnels than for the entirety of occupied Germany,” Kaiser said. “More sober and responsible theories,” according to Kaiser, are “underground factories or a base of some sort.”
Kaiser said his sudden celebrity among treasure hunters motivated him to write Plunder. He recalled saying to himself, “Okay, this story has gotten so weird that I have to at least try.” On the most personal level, it was a gift, really, to my father,’ Kaiser said. “Here’s our family’s story. I don’t have answers, but at least it can be told.”
Kaiser said his most emotional moments were “the errors and missteps,” those moments when, after taking something for granted, “the rug gets pulled from under you and you really have to redo your assumptions.”
He had assumed that the process of reclaiming his grandfather’s building would be easy, that his book would neatly conclude with the desired result. “Ten months later I’m, like, in a lot of trouble. There’s no way I’m getting this building back in time.”
“It really forced me to interrogate what I was doing and why,” noted Kaiser. “What is my relationship with my grandfather? I had to untangle this on the page in a way that would make sense to another human or even to myself.”
In the end, Kaiser said, “The prize becomes the story.”
To those who hope to engage in similar missions, he said, “I promise you will have an enriching and strange time….I promise you your story is more complicated than you think.”
Kaiser said he became “a reluctant spokesperson” for descendants of survivors following the publication of Plunder. While reticent to play that role, he emphasizes that “stories properly told and honestly told are important” and that descendants are part of those stories.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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