Menachem Kaiser never knew the grandfather for whom he’s named, a Polish Holocaust survivor. His curiosity about his ancestor led him on the fascinating but often frustrating journey he describes in Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.
In 2010, Kaiser embarked on an effort he admits was “sentimental and unpragmatic”—to reclaim an apartment building owned by his family before World War II in the Polish city of Sosnowiec. Represented by a lawyer in her 80s nicknamed “the Killer,” he first needed to accomplish what should have been a simple task: proving that his grandfather and other relatives with ties to the building, all of whom either died in the Holocaust or were born well over 100 years ago, are dead.
But as Kaiser enters the maze of the Polish legal system, his story takes an unexpected turn. He discovers that his grandfather’s cousin, fellow Holocaust survivor Abraham Kajzer, was the author of a well-known memoir of his experiences in the Gross-Rosen network of concentration camps in Poland’s Silesia region. Those camps provided the forced labor for the Nazis’ Project Riese, a complex of underground sites that purportedly housed the legendary gold train, repository of a trove of looted gold and other treasure.
As Kaiser uses Kajzer’s book to explore the story of his newly found relative, he journeys deep into the shadowy realm of Nazi treasure hunters. Some of these enthusiasts are simple loot seekers, while others resemble Civil War reenactors. In this netherworld, conspiracy theories about German antigravity technology and flying saucers are common fare, a “particularly noxious form of revisionism” that trivializes the slaughter of 6 million Jews to serve a more compelling narrative, “usually one with a technological or occult arc.”
Kaiser is a sober, responsible narrator, concerned with the moral implications of his quest and the persistent challenges of separating fact from fiction. Though it only illuminates a small portion of the enormity that was the Nazi genocide, Plunder is an account that’s undeniably worthy of its subject.
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