Debut author Menachem Kaiser’s PLUNDER: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) is an incisive and engaging “3G” story of a young man returning to his family’s former home on the Polish-German border in search of a connection with a grandfather he never met — and the relatives he never knew he had.
Taking up his late grandfather’s efforts to reclaim the family’s apartment building in Sosnowiec, Menachem Kaiser finds himself in a Kafkaesque legal battle within Poland’s mercurial courts and changing government. Between trial appearances and consultations with his attorney — an octogenarian nicknamed “The Killer” with a penchant for cat posters and pink velour tracksuits — Menachem gets to know the residents of the building and ambles around Silesia, searching for hints of his family’s life before the Holocaust. Exploring the local World War II landmarks with a team of recreational treasure hunters, Menachem discovers a surprising connection to Project Riese, a mysterious, unfinished Nazi tunnel complex system dug by Jewish slave laborers in the Owl Mountains, detailed in the memoirs of a survivor who shares Menachem’s last name.
Menachem Kaiser’s insightful memoir is a testament to the complexities of honoring those who survived alongside those who perished, negotiating between family legacy and historical truths, and coming to terms with a world that wants to move on when we remain tied to the past. It’s a spellbinding, stranger-than-fiction tale filled with intrigue and ambiguity, told by a writer capable of suspending fantasy for the reality of what’s before him. As Kaiser reflects in the final chapter:
I do not trust the genre I am writing in, that of the grandchild trekking back to the alte heim on his fraught memory-mission — it’s too certain, too sure-footed, meaning is too quickly and too definitively established; there is no acknowledgement of the abyss, the void, the unknowable space between your story and your grandparents’ story[…] 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.
Brace yourselves for a satisfyingly unsatisfying ending to Kaiser’s story — and a spectacular epilogue. PLUNDER: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure hits the shelves March 16, 2021. Order a copy from your local bookstore or purchase the book through IndieBound or Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers. Trust me, people are going to be talking about this one.
Would you like to read more book reviews from Kletsker? Tell us what you’re most interested in by taking a brief reader survey to help Kletsker deliver the publishing insights, writing resources, and research tips you’re looking for.