In August 2015, two treasure hunters announced that they had discovered a train buried deep underground in the countryside outside Wałbrzych, in the Polish region of Lower Silesia. The legend of the Golden Train – filled with looted valuables that were supposedly hidden by the Nazis in a complex of tunnels dug using slave labour – had long circulated in the region. Here, it seemed, was proof. Before the treasure hunters’ account could be verified (they claimed to have used ground-penetrating radar to obtain images of the train), it was endorsed by Polish officials. A row ensued. The World Jewish Congress said that items stolen from Jews should be returned to their descendants. A Russian lawyer said that if it could be proved that the loot had been taken from the Soviet Union, it would rightfully belong to Russia. The Polish government said that, actually, it would be the one making decisions about any restitution claims. Only the deputy prime minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, struck a note of caution. Regardless of whether the gold existed, he said, thousands of slave labourers had died digging the tunnels. This was, as Menachem Kaiser writes in Plunder, ‘a site of death, not treasure’.
The Golden Train – which, unsurprisingly, turned out not to exist – provides the overarching metaphor for Kaiser’s own attempt to reclaim family property lost during the Second World War. There is real treasure at stake, in the form of an apartment block in Silesia that Kaiser’s late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who settled in Canada after the war, spent years trying unsuccessfully to reclaim. The building, in the town of Sosnowiec, is worth several hundred thousand dollars in today’s money. But Kaiser also hopes that recovering it will bring him closer to his grandfather, who died before he was born. He knows that his grandfather’s parents, siblings and extended family were all murdered by the Nazis – but beyond that the man is a blank. ‘To me he was the father my father had once had and that’s it.’
Poring over family stories to give meaning to our lives is something most of us do. For the descendants of people who have survived traumatic historical events, it takes on an added intensity – and, Kaiser suggests, complexity. ‘Every year hundreds or even thousands of Jews travel to the difficult-to-pronounce towns their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came from. They fly to Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, they schlep onto creaky trains and cramped buses, hire zany guides, knock on ancestral doors.’ These trips are ‘thrilling, fraught, emotional’, but also ‘kind of like a memory safari’. Writing about them, Kaiser admits, is a questionable enterprise: ‘I do not trust the genre I am writing in, that of the grandchild trekking back to the alte heim. Meaning is too quickly and too definitively established; there is no acknowledgment of the abyss, the void, the unknowable space between your story and your grandparents’ story.’
What distinguishes Plunder from other similar accounts is its questioning, satirical tone, which destabilises some of the moral certainties of the genre and sends up its clichés. (It’s hard not to see the comment about ‘zany guides’ as a dig at Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated.) Within the first few chapters, Kaiser’s ‘tiny but nonetheless significant act of Holocaust justice’ starts to look more ambiguous. When he tells friends what he’s doing, he’s surprised at their mixed reactions. People from similar backgrounds tend to be supportive: they share his initial belief that he’s ‘righting a wrong, taking up the cause of my survivor grandfather’. But others deem it ‘appropriation, or something like appropriation, or even if it wasn’t really appropriation it nonetheless smelled like appropriation, it had the same ugly goal and result’ – in effect, taking away people’s homes.
The reclamation process itself, which Kaiser hopes will be just a formality, runs into difficulty. He hires a Polish lawyer, nicknamed The Killer on account of her supposed effectiveness, who specialises in restitution. But the claim immediately gets stuck in the bureaucracy of lower-level Polish courts: there’s an absurd dispute over whether his grandfather’s murdered relatives – who would be pushing 130 if they were still alive – can be legally certified as dead. When a judge tells Kaiser he should submit the records of all the concentration camps in which his relatives’ names don’t appear, to prove he has searched exhaustively, he protests that this would require him to assemble a list of millions of names. ‘Understood,’ comes the reply. ‘Anything else?’
While Kaiser waits for updates from The Killer, a twist pushes Plunder into more explicitly political territory. A friend introduces him to a community of treasure hunters who are scouring the Silesian countryside for Second World War relics. The men he meets are ‘like a brash combination of amateur historian, extremely amateur archaeologist, spelunker and conspiracy theorist’. They dress in army surplus gear, drive jeeps, and hunt for rusty parts of old weapons, coins, ration cards and Nazi insignia. They’re particularly fascinated by the tunnels – mysterious excavations, carried out between 1943 and 1945 in an initiative known as Project Riese, beneath Lower Silesia’s Owl Mountains. One evening, listening to a conversation in Polish, Kaiser hears his own surname. A Polish friend explains that the men are talking about Abraham Kajzer, a Holocaust survivor who wrote a memoir of his experiences in the slave labour camps. Further research reveals that Abraham, whose memoir is ‘almost like a religious text’ for the treasure hunters, is a relative. He was a cousin of Menachem’s grandfather, someone Kaiser never knew existed. The treasure hunters decide that Menachem is his grandson and show him off to one another like a kind of trophy.
Kaiser feels a ‘bizarre kinship’ with the men: they explore the pockmarked landscape of Silesia as he sifts through the wreckage left by the Holocaust. The region has changed hands many times, between Austrian and Prussian empires, Germany and Poland. ‘There is a sense of rootlessness, strangeness, unfamiliarity that, once you know what to look for – once you know how to read the ruins – is everywhere,’ Kaiser writes. ‘All that destruction and dispossession and displacement created countless voids, of which the undergrounds are the most literal and most explorable example.’
Still, there’s something about the treasure hunters’ enthusiasm that Kaiser finds unsettling – in particular, their conspiracy theories about Project Riese. Nobody knows why the Nazis spent so much money digging the tunnels (the equivalent of more than $1 billion today, without factoring in slave labour); one plausible explanation is that the network was intended to house fortified bunkers and weapons factories. But the treasure hunters are convinced that it was the site of secret experiments with nuclear weapons, anti-gravity machines, time travel and telekinesis. Kaiser initially ‘grouped the conspiracy theory stuff in with the rest of the weird: the actual history was strange; the people were strange; the quote-unquote alternative history was also strange.’ But conspiracy theories are more complex – and potentially more dangerous – than isolated delusions. Kaiser can see why someone might be tempted to believe conspiracy theories about the Nazis, in order to avoid confronting the horror of what they did. ‘The Second World War is psychically a lot easier when it’s about anti-gravity and time travel than when it’s about gas chambers and stacks of corpses.’ Taken to their logical conclusion, however, the conspiracy theories become a form of denial. ‘Beneath the outlandish assertions lurks an insidious claim – that your understanding of the war is wrong. That you missed the point. Yes yes, fine, the Germans did some murdering and the Jews did some dying but let me tell you the real story … The genocide is made incidental.’
Kaiser doesn’t suggest that there’s a moral equivalence between the conspiracy theories and his own efforts to reclaim his grandfather’s property. But by juxtaposing these two strands of the book he draws attention to the way our attachments to the past shape how we relate to one another in the present. If the denial of historic crimes causes its own sort of damage, a narrow focus on the experiences of one’s family, or community, can lead to other forms of erasure. Visiting the building, Kaiser meets Bartek, a middle-aged man who looks like ‘a pudgier, kinder Lenin’. Kaiser is disturbed when Bartek, who has lived in his flat since he was two, describes it as ‘my family’s house’; he hadn’t previously thought of the building in that way. Later, after he’s revealed his true intentions, Bartek sends him an email: ‘Regardless of how this turns out, keep in mind that for many of us, this building is our whole life … 42 years in one place is a long time. I would say this is a kind of status quo – one cannot replant old trees.’
Kaiser is forced to acknowledge that his version of history might not be the only valid one. He was raised in a family with a long memory of antisemitism in Eastern Europe, which taught him to see Poles, in some ill-defined way, as ‘our enemies’. Now, he realises, his stories and those of the people living in the apartment block are ‘entangled, and it would amount to a kind of emotional fraud to pretend otherwise’. Polish fears that someone may turn up one day and say your home is no longer yours may be exaggerated, but they aren’t baseless. Aside from claims from the descendants of Jews dispossessed by the Nazis, a wave of ‘wild reprivatisations’ since 1989 – in which land nationalised during the communist period has changed hands through corrupt means – has affected about 55,000 people, according to the NGO Miasto Jest Nasze. Last year, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice government, which has stoked concerns that Poles have been unfairly blamed for Nazi crimes, passed a law severely limiting property restitution claims, including those by Holocaust survivors.
Plunder culminates not with the resolution of the property claim (it’s still stuck in the courts) but with Kaiser reading Abraham Kajzer’s memoir, which chronicles the eight months, from August 1944 to April 1945, that he spent in Nazi concentration camps. He was sent first to Auschwitz, where his wife and child were murdered, then to the Gross-Rosen complex in Lower Silesia, which the Nazis used as a source of labour for Project Riese. At the Gross-Rosen camps he wrote a diary on scraps of cement packaging, and kept it beneath the latrines. He escaped just before the end of the war, hiding in a local woman’s basement; a few weeks after liberation he borrowed a bike and cycled back to retrieve his notes. He spent the rest of his life in Israel, where his memoir was published in 1952; it was translated into Polish a decade later.
Kaiser is struck by Abraham’s force of will, but also by how closely the book resembles other Holocaust memoirs. The ‘litany of inhumanity’ that Abraham describes – ‘an endless series of beatings at the hands of the Germans, Ukrainians and kapos; laments of hunger; obsessive descriptions of pathetically meagre rations; machinations of survival; ravages of lice, frostbite, infections; the body falling apart; the mind falling apart’ – is both shocking and familiar. In fact, Kaiser realises, it’s precisely that sense of familiarity, and the knowledge that there are thousands of similar memoirs, that hints at the scale of the crime.
Through his encounter with Abraham, Kaiser restores a link to a family he thought was gone, but it only highlights the wider loss. He draws a contrast between the Jewish concepts of halacha, the formal rules of observance, and minhag, the particular customs that families pass down between generations. It’s the latter that the war destroyed, probably never to be recovered. ‘The more I think about it,’ Kaiser writes, ‘the more I think that in the most morally honest version of this story the reclamation would be perpetual … my children and their children should inherit not the building but the struggle to reclaim it, the struggle to understand what it is they’re trying to reclaim.’
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