Reclaiming Holocaust victim's property, one man makes a discovery

Publication Date15 Mar 2021
AuthorEmily Burack
Instead it's been over six years since Kaiser began the journey — and he's no closer to an ending.

Kaiser documents his journey in "Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure," out March 16, where his quest to reclaim his family's building leads him to discover his grandfather's first cousin, Abraham Kajzer, the closest relative to survive the Holocaust. Abraham, Kaiser learns, actually wrote a Holocaust memoir, "Za Drutami Śmierci," that in part details his time spent in Riese, vast underground tunnels constructed by the Nazis where many suspect treasure looted during the Holocaust was hidden.

Abraham's words, in modern-day Poland, have become a key text for the treasure-hunting community. They also became a central part of the story Kaiser ended up telling.

"Our stories are even richer and more complicated than we sometimes realize, especially stories that are the most familiar to us, the stories that have been passed down." Kaiser explained in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "I was really lucky to have the opportunity to push and probe, but I think a lot of people have these remarkable stories in their family. The sneakiest ones are the ones we think we know. They will just always have a trapdoor. That's the takeaway: The journey inward into what you think is familiar territory turns out to be radically not."

We spoke to Kaiser about his travels in Poland as a Jew, the frustrations of not having a neat ending and the ever-evolving nature of Holocaust memory and storytelling.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

JTA: Let's start at the very end. You write that you were maybe going to write this story as a novel, but eventually, of course, you wrote the nonfiction book "Plunder" instead. The ending, then, is not the one you hoped for — in terms of reclaiming your grandfather's building — but the one you have. Why do you feel like it was important to end "Plunder" as you ended it, with no definite conclusion to your saga?

Kaiser: I stumbled accidentally into what I consider a more interesting and more meaningful ending.

Originally, when I set out to write the book, I had a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen: I was going to get the building back. It's a very neat ending. And then, things kept getting delayed and delayed, and I got very nervous that the whole ship was sinking. My whole project felt undermined. I set the stakes, and now it's like, 'okay, I guess the stakes don't matter.' How do you end the book like that?

What it forced me to do was [reassess]: What does any of this actually mean? I could have got the building back, and it could have ended that really neatly, in a really familiar way, and I think that's what everyone expects — including me. The fact that I didn't, and that I felt that I had to finish the book anyways, forced me to struggle and articulate what it all means. What does it mean to try and reclaim a building that my grandfather once owned, but hadn't lived in? Who am I, in this respect? What's my role? How does this memory get passed down? It was very frustrating, and I was very nervous that the whole narrative structure was about to crumble. But at the end of the day, I feel very lucky that I was backed into a corner, which actually forced me to really figure out what it was I was actually doing.

In the alternate world where you did fictionalize your story as a novel, what would have been some key things you would have changed in that version?

That's a good question. Had it been a novel, it would have been a much more familiar story. One of the central struggles in the book, and...

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