Menachem Kaiser’s Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure is the record of his attempt to claim his family’s apartment building in Poland. Along the way he learns surprising facts about his family from treasure-hunters of Nazi artifacts. Liba Vaynberg spoke to Kaiser about his process and his complicated inheritance as a Jewish artist.
LV: Why did you write this? And how?
MK: Interestingly enough, I was very adamant to not write a Holocaust book. I had been spending a lot of time in Eastern Europe and then Poland, and I started reclaiming my grandfather’s building in 2015. I was refusing to write a book like this. I had no interest in entering the genre. I thought my story was interesting and meaningful, but I didn’t think it extended beyond me in a way that was new.
And then a couple years into it, I ended up meeting these treasure hunters, totally accidentally. They took us to the Riese Complex [the Nazi underground structures in Lower Silesia, now Poland], and I found out I had a relative I didn’t know about. And this relative I didn’t know about, Abraham Kaiser, turned out to be my grandfather’s closest surviving relative. And he was quasi-mythological figure among the treasure hunters on account of a secret diary he had written while working as a slave laborer on secret Nazi underground complexes. And once that happened, I said I think this is a book.
Why did you have hesitations writing about the Shoah?
Besides that it’s a difficult topic to write into in a way that’s honest because you’re dealing with a long and weighty history. I found the Holocaust to be extraordinarily heavy, sort of like a black hole of sentiment.
What do you think about the way the Shoah is handled by American Jewry?
Obviously it’s very important. In terms of media, literature, films, plays, there’s a demand, and I’m not saying that in a cynical way, there’s something people are searching for, in terms of what they’re trying to understand, make sense of, and have articulated to them.
Having said that, a huge amount of the material that’s produced is uninformed. I’ve been traveling to Eastern Europe for ten years now, and people have often wanted to come with me. Especially with treasure-hunting. And my rule was, having learned from experience, [no treasure-hunting] on your first trip. You have to go and deal with your traumatic response first. It’s something that’s immense and moving and profound. But the questions I find most interesting are beyond that. How are things memorialized? How are they spoken about? How do they contrast with the local narrative? How have different artists through the years wrestled with it? Where are the interesting questions of memory?
It wasn’t until I moved to Eastern Europe that you sort of get much closer to the history and the narratives, and start to go, this is also incredibly interesting and complicated. Especially in the arts.
With Jewish art, there’s a lot of circling the question of God, rejecting the question of God. Do you think about God or godlessness in your work? Is that something that is foundational or relevant?
I grew up frum. We don’t say Orthodox—we say frum. [God] was a big part of my vocabulary. It figured very prominently. It wasn’t a metaphor. It was an entity that whether you like it or not you’re going to have some kind of relationship with.
I think that at a certain point you reimagine that vocabulary you grew up with. You re-create the meaning. God and godlessness to me is the same thing if you’re writing it into your work. I don’t avoid it. The language is rich. And I can’t help it. It would be an act of repression, on my part, to pretend like it’s not there. Even putting aside my religious beliefs and practices, it’s foundational to the way I conceive. You can pretend and succeed for a short amount of time, but it’s the most honest way I can express myself.
I get why we write these stories this way, why we frame our memory-descents as missions—it’s what’s expected, it’s what works, it’s what’s most suspenseful and most accessible and most marketable, and also when you’re in it, it does feel like a mission; there are places to go, obstacles to surmount, clues to discover—but it’s a lie, or at least not the truest truth, because “mission” suggests the possibility of completion, redemption, catharsis, but there can be no completion, redemption, catharsis, because our stories are not extensions of our grandparents’ stories, are not sequels. We do not continue their stories; we act upon them. We consecrate, and we plunder.