Books about efforts to retrieve family treasure stolen during the Holocaust follow a familiar arc. A descendant embarks on a long and frustrating journey to regain the heirloom and eventually, against long odds, succeeds. “The Lady in Gold” by Anne-Marie O’Connor – the story of Maria Altmann’s efforts to recover Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her ancestor, Adele Bloch-Bauer – is a perfect example.
But as Menachem Kaiser reminds us in “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure,” these stories do not always have neat or happy conclusions.
Growing up in Toronto, Kaiser never met his Polish-born grandfather, the only member of his father’s family to survive the Holocaust. He understood that his grandfather had owned an apartment building, which he had been unable to reclaim after the war ended. Because Kaiser’s father shared very little family history, and the faded photos that were left didn’t tell much of a story, the grandson knew little about the man he was named for.
While visiting Poland, he learns that his grandfather lived in the small town of Sosnowiec in Silesia. He decides to visit and find his grandfather’s apartment building. He only spends one day in Sosnowiec, but as time passes, the unfinished business of the past gnaws at him. Inexorably, Kaiser is drawn into an effort to learn more about his ancestor and to reclaim the property.
It’s a long journey with plenty of twists and turns. Kaiser discovers that more of his family survived the Holocaust than he was first told. He learns that a Polish lawyer he hires, known as “The Killer,” is not very good with legal paperwork. The building he originally attempts to reclaim is actually the wrong one. He’s unable to have his long-dead great-grandparents officially declared deceased, and he finds out that one of his relatives who survived the concentration camps is a minor historic hero.
Kaiser also discovers that a small army of wonderfully quirky Nazi-treasure hunters wants to befriend him. Many of the treasure seekers are weekend hobbyists, armed with nothing more than metal detectors, but others are equipped with ground-penetrating radar, advanced mapping software, and satellite imaging. Kaiser believes they’re largely delusional, but he writes about them with respect and even affection. The editor-in-chief of a magazine for treasure hunters says they are “like historians ... except more active and more curious and more brave and also much crazier.”
In Silesia, reminders of World War II are everywhere. In 2015, Polish explorers announced that they had located a train, filled with Nazi plunder, that was buried in a mountain. Dubbed the “Gold Train” by the press, it eventually proved to be a fabrication. But it seemed believable at the time because the region is full of Nazi tunnels and caverns (all of which were built by forced laborers like Kaiser’s grandfather). Their official purpose remains unknown, and bizarre conspiracy theories abound to explain their existence. For example, the treasure hunters maintain that the Nazis used the tunnels to build an operational flying saucer, to construct an anti-gravity machine, and to engage in time travel. Another ludicrous theory holds that Auschwitz was a uranium enrichment plant and the crematoria was part of an elaborate occult ritual.
Because Polish law now makes it illegal to suggest or imply that Poles may have aided or abetted the Holocaust, Kaiser concludes that these weird theories are actually a distraction: a way of shifting attention away from the elaborate and amoral killing machine that slaughtered millions, and onto less horrifying topics.
“Plunder” is not an easy book to categorize because it shuttles seamlessly between history, travelogue, and commentary. Ultimately, this is a personal narrative – a gifted writer’s effort to understand his grandfather’s life – that turned out to be far richer and more varied than the author ever envisioned when he undertook this journey. And it makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
Kaiser hopes that his quest to reclaim the apartment building (once he identifies the right one) will give him some understanding of his grandfather. And he does learn a great deal, but the more he discovers, the fuzzier and less precise the image of his grandfather becomes.
He concludes that it might have been better to write the story as a novel because, by fictionalizing his grandfather, he might have made him more real and complete. “If this were a novel,” he writes, “I could have dumped everything into a narrative that could roam, stretch, fabulate, that could assert meaning with impunity.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is usually credited, perhaps apocryphally, with saying, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
It’s an epigraph that aptly describes Kaiser’s journey. He has not yet recovered the building – it’s best to read the book to find out why – so his story lacks a resolution. But he is much wiser by the end. He understands himself, his family, and the way in which exploring history often leaves one wanting to learn even more.
In the end, Kaiser got less – and yet far more – out of his quest than he could have imagined.