To celebrate Memoir March, we spoke to the authors of this spring’s most exciting memoirs about their research processes, writing roadblocks and biggest fears as they put their personal stories out into the world. Menachem Kaiser shares some of the joys and difficulties behind his book, Plunder, about his journey deep into the shadowy realm of Nazi treasure hunters.
What do you love most about your book?
How it embraces uncertainty. The story I recount in Plunder—namely, my quest to reclaim my grandfather's building and falling in with modern-day treasure hunters along the way—is not a straight-line story. Nothing went as planned. There were so many mishaps, misunderstandings, errors, and the book doesn't gloss these over, doesn’t smooth out the bumps.
What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book?
Anyone who's confronted or wanted to confront their family story, especially with respect to World War II. So many of us don't know what our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents went through in the war, or know only fragments, bits and pieces. And I think sometimes we’re a little complacent, incurious, satisfied with undetailed family lore, because it’s always been there. It is so hugely rewarding to investigate, to step into your story. It is so much stranger, more complicated, more beautiful, more tragic than you thought.
What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
The way I first learned about my relative, Abraham Kajzer, the man so revered by the treasure hunters, does admittedly sound like a very unlikely story. I had initially sought out the treasure hunters only because I was curious. I had never heard of Abraham—in fact, I had no idea that my grandfather had any relatives who had survived the war. So here's what happened: I was sitting with the treasure hunters, having a beer, talking about Project Riese—the underground Nazi complex they had showed me that afternoon—and I overheard them saying, in Polish, my last name. I don’t speak Polish, I just caught my name, and I knew they weren’t talking about me. So I asked what was going on, who was this Kaiser? They explained they were talking about Abraham Kajzer, a Jewish enslaved laborer who, on account of the diary he had kept while working on Project Riese, has become an almost mythological figure among their community.
My first thought was that it was a funny coincidence. But later that night, after pulling up some documents and translating the preface to Kajzer's diary, I was able to trace the family tree, and I realized that this was my grandfather's first cousin and his closest relative to have survived the war.
What resistance did you face while writing this book?
It’s a touchy subject, reclamation. I encountered resistance on all sides. Some people, including many of my relatives, were disappointed and upset that I was being at all sympathetic to the Poles living in my grandfather’s old building, who were benefiting—even if unknowingly—from the murder of my grandfather’s family. And some people, particularly in Poland, accused me of being something like an evil landlord, trying to displace helpless tenants. I understand both sets of objections, even if I disagree.
Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
So, so many people, upon hearing about my book, would tell me their own story of lost family property in Eastern Europe and beyond: in Egypt, the Ivory Coast, South Africa. It wasn’t the dispossession that was so surprising—that part is horrifyingly ubiquitous—but how, even generations later, the descendants of those who were dispossessed still cling to a place they often have never even been to.
Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
One of the chapters details the relationship between Abraham and the German woman who hid him in the final weeks of the war, saving his life. They became lovers; after the war, Abraham stayed with her and her children. (Her husband, a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was killed on the front.) It’s a beautiful but challenging story—not exactly taboo but still not the sort of Jewish-German wartime narrative people are used to.
"The constraints of memoir can be frustrating but also allow you to turn inward, to be introspective, to not have answers, to question your own motivations."
How do you feel now that you’ve put this story to the page?
Really just grateful and kind of amazed that the book exists.
What's one way that your book is better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel?
I actually address this question directly in the book: I wonder aloud if I should have written it as a novel, because then the narrative could be neat, clean, linear, not plagued by false starts and misunderstandings. But that would have been the wrong move. Ultimately memoir was absolutely the appropriate genre for this story. The constraints—it has to be true, whether or not it makes sense, whether it helps or hinders the narrative—can be frustrating but also allow you to turn inward, to be introspective, to not have answers, to question your own motivations.
Many people think writing memoir means you just write from memory and don’t have to do research, but obviously that’s not true. What is the most interesting thing you had to research in order to write this book?
There are some very out-there conspiracy theories rampant among the treasure hunters, particularly with respect to Nazi technology that’s been lost or covered up. I spent months researching Nazi UFOs, Nazi antigravity, Nazi time travel, Nazi space stations and on and on. Fascinating if occasionally horrifying stuff.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.
Author photo credit: Beowolf Sheehan