Menachem Kaiser is visiting Northeastern University on December 1 as part of the Fall ’21 Open Classroom. He will be discussing Plunder, Reparations, and Restorative Justice with University Distinguished Professor Margaret Burnham, calling upon his experiences while writing his book Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure. Cayle White, a Northeastern parent, brought Kaiser to the attention of the Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Committee at Northeastern, which is co-sponsoring his visit. Below she shares some thoughts about the book.
By Cayle White.
Since I am subscribed to seemingly millions of different Jewish websites I don’t remember exactly where and when I learned about the book Plunder, but I know it impacted me sufficiently to contact the author Menachem Kaiser immediately to ask him if he would like to be the subject of an event featuring his book.
Menachem and I led parallel lives, growing up near each other in Toronto, Canada, although a few years apart. We are both grandchildren of Holocaust survivors whose families originate from the same area of Southwestern Poland, yet we had never met. This is not uncommon in Toronto which is a city of 165,000 Jews, many of whom have connections to the Holocaust.
Plunder is unique to the Holocaust genre because it is written by a 3G, a grandchild rather than a child of survivors, or a survivor themselves. I personally don’t know of too many 3G’s who are pursuing reparations or trying to recover their family’s property in Europe. Why exactly, I can’t say for certain. Maybe it was watching our grandparents endure the humiliation and disappointment of applying to foreign governments for reparations and their subsequent rejection amid impossible hurdles that left a bitter taste in our mouths. Or maybe it is simply that we are waiting for the time when we will have the bandwidth to properly investigate the issue. For whatever reason, Menachem does feel compelled to “go there” and credit goes to him for having the chutzpah and persistence to see it through.
Plunder begins as a story of one person’s journey to recover their family’s stolen property and develops into a mystery, a history lesson, a travelogue and a commentary on modern life in a former communist country. And above all, it’s funny. Stereotypes of Eastern Europeans in kitschy tracksuits with little self-awareness and zero filters are affirmed along with systemic corruption and bureaucratic quicksand. Typically, Holocaust material and hilarity don’t mix so well, but in this instance the humor is welcome, and I think my grandparents would have laughed along.
Once senses that Menachem gains a genuine awe and admiration for the treasure hunters who have amplified this legend into an industry and a raison d’etre. Eventually it dawns on him that the bizarre crossroads of historic enquiry and conspiracy theories can traced back to one motivation – anti-Semitism and the desire to erase the truths of the Holocaust.
This past summer, the appalling legal amendments in Poland effectively rendered impossible the ability of descendants of Holocaust survivors to file claims to recover their family’s confiscated property, at least for the time being.
It is for this reason, and many others, that I am pleased and excited that Northeastern University is producing this event for its students and the greater community. As grandchildren of Holocaust survivors we take seriously our role to remind and teach that the Holocaust was not only the worst genocide in human history, but also the greatest theft on record. We owe it to the memory of our grandparents and to the victims, to ensure that justice is served.