APRIL 25, 2021
I SPENT MONTHS manically planning a trip to Germany, not letting myself think about why I was going. My mom described it as “an itch you need to scratch,” but I still couldn’t explain how or when this itch developed. Sitting at my stopover gate in Reykjavik, I came upon an article about people who obsess over dying species and spend their lives trying to rediscover a last living animal they could save from extinction. At that moment, it briefly made sense that I was alone on a plane about to spend four days trekking through multiple German hamlets to try and save German Jewish history from extinction. The question was whether there was anything left to save or if this was a fantasy of a visit that would be more consumed by tragedy theater than a genuine engagement with the past.
These reflections resurfaced while reading Menachem Kaiser’s new book, Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure. Kaiser too is very conscious of the fact that the Jewish heritage pilgrimage is a strange ritual. Yet, while there is no shortage of Jewish descendants traveling back to the alte heim [old home] to stubbornly dig and pull at their buried roots, Plunder is unique in its form, if not in its author’s insistence that his is not one of those memoirs.
And he is not wrong. Kaiser manages to disrupt the genre because he is less obsessed with uncovering his roots and more intrigued by chasing a good story. He notes that “truths unravel, and fictions fit snugly,” making the goal of his memoir to ask more questions rather than turn away when a story’s fabric begins to fray. As he sees it,
Family stories are poor preservers of history: they’re fragmented, badly documented, warped by hearsay, conjecture, legend — of course errors are going to creep in. This seems somehow wrong, even blasphemous, at odds with the private sacredness we impute to our origin stories. But most stories in most families aren’t meant or relied on as preservation of hard information, they’re meant and relied on as preservation of soft information, of sentiment, narrative, identity, of who someone was and, subsequently, who you are.
Treasure is ostensibly at the core of this soul-searching memoir: both Kaiser’s quest for the treasure that is his grandfather’s property in Poland and the Nazi loot the Silesian treasure hunters spend their lives dedicated to chasing, serendipitously using a memoir by Kaiser’s cousin as a map. And yet, mostly it feels like readers need to keep digging as they read because Kaiser points out that the true spoils of the memoir are the story itself and how it might help shape him and us. Reading each section of this book is akin to unwrapping a new layer of a Russian nesting doll: as soon as you think you have reached the core of the narrative, you discover that there is another layer to break open.
Even the author seems to wonder at times whether he has hit the heart of the mystery. He comes to look for his ancestral home, then decides the Silesian treasure hunters are more interesting. When he learns that his grandfather’s first cousin, Abraham Kajzer, was an intriguing ancestor, he follows that story and loses his grandfather’s narrative. We are then given digressions on the history of conspiracy theories and details of family dramas that formed the backdrop of Kaiser’s upbringing. Each digression is not the story and yet is the story.
When individuals write narratives about going back to their roots, they are themselves motivated by a personal form of treasure hunting, and these digressions are part of the loot. As the author puts it, “I felt a bizarre kinship with these treasure hunters. I can’t really explain it. Our ambitions were obviously very different but on some level I think I felt they rhymed.” Story hunting and treasure hunting are different sides of the same buried coin. When I flew to Germany two summers ago, I too wanted to visit the towns of Fürth and Bad Kissingen to pay tribute to the lives my maternal grandparents lived before the war. My grandfather had died, my grandmother had just turned 95, and I was petrified that if I didn’t make the trip, there would be questions unanswered, pieces of history lost. I lugged my wheely backpack and American neck pillow on and off Bavarian trains, piecing together segments of the past. Before I left the States, my parents had been worried, warning me that I “might not find anything,” and making me wonder if “finding” was the point. When reading Kaiser’s story, you notice yourself searching for the gems at the heart of the tale, but as the book develops, you come to realize that we don’t parse such stories in order to plunder but to bear witness.
Kaiser consciously wants readers to be on the hunt with him, making them feel as if they too are pilgrims on a quest, witnesses to the history behind the story. He often speaks of a collective “we” or addresses an unseen audience, hyperaware of the act of storytelling. Before he gives us background about his uncle, he prefaces it by saying, “Let me go on about Hershel for one more paragraph, because I want to give you some sense of a very complicated man, because the story is about to turn.” This is one of many instances when the author puts his arm around the reader’s shoulder and pulls in close, similar to the way some of the great Yiddish storytellers broke the fourth wall and talked directly to their readers. This style may be connected with the discomfort the author feels in undertaking his journey; perhaps if we are on it with him, it will seem grander, more necessary. But the technique also forces the reader to be an accomplice in what we are constantly reminded may not be a completely straightforward affair.
The journey is made particularly enjoyable by Kaiser’s wry, sarcastic tone. I almost spit out my tea when Kaiser, in an advance copy of the book, described his father and siblings sitting shiva for his grandmother, noting that “[t]hey sat side by side on Bubby’s green velvet sofa, minus the plastic cover (if Bubby weren’t dead she’d die).” I laughed because this couch is my own bubbe’s couch, but also because the safe-keeping and thrifty attitude that encouraged his grandmother to treasure her sofa says so much about the anxiety of the generation at the heart of this tale. Kaiser has no qualms about using humor when talking about the Holocaust and the dead. He even jokes while addressing one of the book’s larger questions, concerning the delineation between Nazis and antisemites, Holocaust deniers and those who use a different lens to look at the Holocaust. In a scene in which a treasure hunter invites Kaiser to his personal Disneyland of Nazi memorabilia, where he excitedly brandishes swastika-laden knives and Nazi badges, Kaiser tries to make sense of it all, concluding that “Andrzej was not a skinhead, even if the skinhead and Andrzej might have similar ideas regarding interior design.” This passing comment, while evoking some sort of Pottery Barn for Nazis, makes one think: what is the value of drawing demarcations between these groups of individuals who are morally gray in the best of circumstances and the bleakest of historical villains in the worst? Once again, the laughter forces you to pause and reflect.
The answer to this question, and many others raised in the text, seems to lie in intent. How much are good intentions worth? Kaiser ponders this issue while knocking on the doors of people who believe he is just researching the history of the building and not looking to take ownership of it. He thinks about intentions when he makes what he eventually deems a poor decision by only mentioning his father and sister in the inheritance of the property, leaving out his uncle as a means of avoiding a family feud. Intentions are important when he considers that, though the treasure hunters may not mean to glorify the murderers of six million Jews, “Nazi treasure and Nazi brutality are hardly unrelated.” He wonders about “[o]ur cultural obsession with the Nazis — which can function, regardless of our intentions, as a kind of valorization. […] What are we emphasizing? Deemphasizing?” And, most importantly, he ponders this question when it comes to tracking down his grandfather’s property and writing a memoir about it: what are his intentions?
As a means of keeping intent pure, Kaiser is obsessed with staying “factual” in a story with few clear facts. He gives us transcripts of conversations, court cases, and family trees to ground a tale involving Nazis creating time machines and possibly hidden trains full of gold. He gives us treasure troves of facts only to prove in the end that most of the important truths remain buried. Possibly this is because his memoir is not on a search for the truth but rather for the true intentions behind why humans have almost a natural instinct to dig up their family stories.
As someone who has trod a similar path, going back to the homes of my grandparents, I too have plundered. Because I had sifted through the ruins in a hunt for treasures that would help me toward a better understanding of who my grandparents were and are, where I come from and what was lost, Kaiser made me think in new ways about what it means to hold on to the Holocaust — what it means for any marginalized person or group to carry and bear witness to the collective trauma of their history, to save it from extinction. There are the traditional cautions “never again” and “never forget,” but is there a price we pay for holding on so tightly to a threadbare history? While he does not definitively answer this question, Kaiser does learn to let go of the “facts.” As he puts it, “Let us let our stories leak, become diffuse and imprecise.” Maybe in letting our history become story, we remove its plastic covering and save historical narrative from the burden of always needing to bear meaning; maybe, like Bubby’s green velvet sofa, it is enough that it will simply bear our weight.
Na’amit Sturm Nagel teaches English at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and is the associate director of The Shalhevet Institute, a center for Jewish ideas and learning in Los Angeles. In addition to her work at Shalhevet, Na’amit organizes essay writing workshops for high school students, interviews authors, and facilitates evening book clubs.