Plun­der: A Mem­oir of Fam­i­ly Prop­er­ty and Nazi Treasure

  • Review
By – June 21, 2021

Noth­ing is straight­for­ward in Men­achem Kaiser’s Plun­der: A Mem­oir of Fam­i­ly Prop­er­ty and Nazi Trea­sure. Dur­ing a trip to Poland in 2010, Kaiser impul­sive­ly decides to vis­it Sos­nowiec, the home­town of the grand­fa­ther for whom he was named. At the time, Kaiser is unaware that he will soon take up his grandfather’s twen­ty-year fight to reclaim a build­ing stolen from his father by the Nazis. This quest forms the basis of his engag­ing book.

Kaiser’s grand­fa­ther Men­achem was the only per­son in his imme­di­ate fam­i­ly to sur­vive the Holo­caust. The author him­self is the only per­son in his imme­di­ate fam­i­ly inter­est­ed in res­ur­rect­ing this painful chap­ter of the past. The build­ing, maybe, was a means to access a his­to­ry, a per­son, that I’d always thought was inac­ces­si­ble, immutably closed,” Kaiser mus­es. Yet noth­ing goes as planned. Kaiser wastes time look­ing into the wrong build­ing, talk­ing to the wrong peo­ple. He finds lit­tle infor­ma­tion about his grand­fa­ther but unearths much about a dis­tant rel­a­tive, a folk hero of Nazi-trea­sure hunters. He hires a Pol­ish lawyer nick­named The Killer who doesn’t look the part: On the morn­ing of the tri­al … she wore a pink velour track­suit with the jack­et unzipped, reveal­ing a t‑shirt with an enor­mous lion’s head, and a pearl neck­lace that did not at all go with but absolute­ly com­plet­ed the out­fit.” Kaiser describes his effort­ful but gen­er­al­ly thwart­ed attempts to ful­fill his self-imposed mis­sion in a straight­for­ward, con­fes­sion­al style. He is sin­cere, self-aware, and often very funny.

Yet much of Plun­der is poignant and unset­tling. This is fit­ting, giv­en the unease that Jews in Sos­nowiec would have felt at the best of times — and those times gave way to much worse when Nazis arrived. The town’s non-Jews were hap­py to take what was left after their betrayed neigh­bors were sent to Auschwitz. But that sort of plun­der isn’t what prompt­ed the story’s title. Instead, it refers to Kaiser’s ambigu­ous feel­ings about his own endeav­or. I do not trust the genre I am writ­ing in, that of the grand­child trekking back to the alte heim on his fraught mem­o­ry-mis­sion — it’s too cer­tain, too sure-foot­ed … there is no acknowl­edg­ment of the abyss, the void, the unknow­able space between your sto­ry and your grand­par­ents’ sto­ry.” Ulti­mate­ly, he feels, We do not con­tin­ue their sto­ries; we act upon them. We con­se­crate, and we plunder.”

There is no neat con­clu­sion to Kaiser’s sto­ry. As he strug­gles to achieve res­o­lu­tion via The Killer and her trans­la­tor daugh­ter, he encoun­ters one hur­dle after anoth­er, and even­tu­al­ly his efforts peter out with­in the cir­cu­lar frus­tra­tions of the Pol­ish legal sys­tem. A nov­el could have wrapped things up more neat­ly, he decides. Still, while he writes that the book doesn’t have the end­ing I’d hoped for … maybe it’s a truer, more appro­pri­ate end­ing.” The truth of this res­onates. Kaiser has spent five years on his quest to under­stand and find jus­tice for his grand­fa­ther. On some lev­els he has failed, but he has also found deep insight, and a degree of peace. Read­ers ben­e­fit from the hap­py fact that Kaiser has cho­sen to tell his unre­solved tale rather than leave it to the anonymi­ty of time.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

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