Plunder, by Menachem Kaiser

At one point during what the author calls his memory-quest, Menachem Kaiser is told by a Polish man during an informal interview that “one cannot replant old trees.” That phrase hit me hard as the most succinct and poignant way to talk about the central problem in Plunder. Kaiser is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. His grandfather never talked about those years much. All Kaiser and the rest of his family (all born after the war) knew was that their grandfather lost almost his entire family and that he had been trying for decades to recover an apartment building that had been lost or stolen during the war. This building, on Małachowskiego in Sosnowiec, provides the excuse for Kaiser to do what so many descendants of Holocaust survivors do: return to the alte heim (old country) to find out what traces their families and the war have left on the world.

Plunder is a meandering, often funny book. Kaiser has a great eye for the absurd and his commentary is frequently hilarious. Those moments of levity—especially among Polish treasure hunters seeking lost valuables from World War II—balance out Kaiser’s deeper thoughts about what it means to look for family history in the wake of the Holocaust, to try to reclaim lost property, and whether or not all of this can help him understand his grandfather better. During his memory-quest, Kaiser talks to an 80-year-old Polish lawyer called The Killer who specializes in helping the descendants of Holocaust survivors, other descendants looking for lost history, tangling with the Kafkaesque Polish judicial system, and a lot of people who are fascinated with secrets still hidden in Poland.

Kaiser’s musing fascinated me because, although Kaiser never says it, I have to wonder what (if anything) would be just reparations for the loss of the world of European Jews. When I read the dialogue about replanting an old tree, it struck me that the Holocaust split history. If it had never happened, the Kaiser family would never have had to leave Poland or change the spelling of their name from Kajzer. So many lives would’ve been able to continue and who knows what our world would be like now? But the Holocaust did happen, the spaces where so many people would’ve lived, others moved in and had their own lives for decades. If the Kaiser’s reclaim the building on Małachowskiego, it would be a hollow victory. It could uproot a lot of people and it wouldn’t bring anyone back.

Plunder is one of the best books I’ve read by a descendant of a Holocaust survivor because it tackles so many unanswerable questions about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I was left with an aching sense of how much is still known. Most of what Kaiser has to work with are things that were remembered (and occasionally misremembered) by his family members. What documents he’s able to find are in Polish or Yiddish, which require translation. Almost everyone he talked to has to be translated, too. Even when Kaiser learns definitive facts about his family, he knows that it doesn’t fill in much of the mystery. Yet, this immense absence doesn’t seem to depress Kaiser that much. In the end, Kaiser argues that his seeking—and the searching of other descendants and the treasure hunters—keep the names and memories of the dead from being lost forever.

Postcard of Sosnowiec from between 1925 and 1936. (Image via Wikicommons)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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