What drives people to want to know more about relatives long gone — grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles — who exist in nothing more than name, and sometimes not even that? And what does it mean to try to reclaim something that was theirs, even if that elusive thing meant little to its original owner, who might not even have approved of your quest?
Author Menachem Kaiser has thought about all of it because in 2010, he started on a long, circuitous, Kafkaesque, sometimes absurd, usually frustrating, and occasionally poignant quest to reclaim a building in Poland owned by his grandfather — among the only members of an extended family killed in the Holocaust.
Kaiser joins host Robin Young to talk about the twists and turns in his story, which he writes about in his new memoir, "Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure."
Book Excerpt: 'Plunder'
By Menachem Kaiser
My father’s father, Maier Menachem Kaiser, died in April 1977.
This was eight years before I was born— I didn’t know him, we had had no grandfather-grandson moments, I’d never given him a hug, he’d never given me gifts my parents weren’t thrilled about, he’d never scolded me for running into the street or told me he loved me. To me he was the father my father had once had and that’s it. I knew astonishingly little about him, much less than could be attributed to our lives’ lack of overlap. What did I know? I knew the pit stops in the obituary. I knew he was born in Poland (but not which city); I knew that he survived the war (but not a single detail beyond that); and I knew that after the war he moved to Germany, where in 1946 he married Bertha Ramras and had one child, my uncle; then to New York, where my father and my aunt were born; then to Toronto, where he died, at fifty-six, of heart failure.
Whatever slim conception I had of my grandfather came from what my father told me, usually on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, the yahrtzeit. On that day my father and I had a routine, same every year, fixed, ritualized. Just before sunrise my father wakes me up and we go to shul, where he leads the services and says the Kaddish. Afterwards he brings out a couple of bottles of schnapps, a bag of pastries, a bag of crackers. The dozen or so men gather around, have a shot, have some pastry, and say to my father, May his neshama have an aliyah. They say this in the manner one offers holiday greetings— formally, perfunctorily, but not unkindly. My father replies amein, thank you.
After shul he and I drive to the cemetery. It is exceptionally well maintained, laid out according to synagogue affiliation, and neighborhood-like, with soft demarcations and ordered avenues: Beth Emeth, Minsker, Stopnitzer, Anshei Minsk. Modest even in the afterlife, the men and the women are buried separately.
We park and walk to my grandfather’s grave, where we read Psalms. There are Psalms for every occasion. At a gravesite you say chapters 33, 16, 17, 72, 91, 104, and 130; and then in chapter 119, which is composed of twenty-two paragraphs, one for each of the Hebrew letters, you read the paragraphs corresponding to the spelling of the name of the departed. I read the Psalms very quickly, for me this was yet another spiritual chore, I am practiced at chewing through the Hebrew. But once I am done I have nothing to do, nowhere to go, so I stand in front of my grandfather’s grave, bored but not restless, and watch my father. He’s a very good-looking man, square jaw, full head of black hair, trim. He’s wearing what he’s always wearing: Dockers, sensible shoes, white or blue but- ton-down shirt, dark windbreaker, and dark baseball cap (he is entirely indifferent regarding the logo: it could be SWAT or FUBU). He reads the Psalms much slower than I do, slower even than his usual prayer-speed. My father is a man of habit — he extracts a deep comfort, even a kind of strength, from rules and routine — and his intensity reveals itself in the prescribed methods. I don’t know what my father feels and thinks about his father. But whatever those thoughts and feelings are, they are displayed, if not quite articulated, when he prays quietly but not silently at his father’s grave. He shuts his eyes tight enough that his temple creases. Here and there his voice, caught on a Hebrew word, rises and breaks. My father is crushing the Psalmist’s words in his mouth. Most years he does not cry, but sometimes he does — sobless, stoic tears — and I peek out at him, uncomfortable, uncertain as to what, if anything, I am supposed to do. It occurs to me now that these are the only instances I’ve ever seen my father cry.
On the tombstone is my grandfather’s full Hebrew name, which is my full legal name: Meir Menachem Kaiser. (My parents updated the English spelling of “Maier.”) It is strange to see your name engraved on a tombstone. I wouldn’t say it’s unsettling or disturbing— I’m still young, I don’t have many thoughts, profound or otherwise, regarding death — it’s just weird. The rest of the tombstone is taken up by a short Hebrew poem, a play on his name— “Meir” is derived from the Hebrew word that means light, “Menachem” from the word that means comfort: The light [meir] of our eyes has been taken from us / We have no comfort [menachem].
As a poem it’s not much, but it is sincere, upfront, unpretentious. I am sure that the poem affected, and continues to affect, those who knew my grandfather.
I never met my grandfather; I am not deeply affected. I am not numb— at a gravesite you feel something: you feel the shape of sadness, you feel an empathetic stab that others feel the loss so viscerally — but my grandfather is nearly as abstract to me as is his grandfather, whose name not even my father knows. My grandfather’s absence is a dry and un- tragic fact. That I bear his name is a circumstance of timing: had either of my two elder sisters been male, he would have been named Meir Menachem, which had been hanging there for eight years, waiting for a boy to fall onto.
When my father finally finishes the Psalms, he and I each take a rock from the ground and put it on top of the tombstone, a custom whose origins I don’t know but which I take to mean: I was here, I remember. As we drive through and then out of the cemetery, my father— feeling raw, or plaintive, or perhaps lonely — talks about his father. But he doesn’t say much, and his descriptions almost never go beyond frustratingly loose generalities; there are almost never any anecdotes, quotes, conflicts, setbacks, victories, habits, quirks, nothing that could give shape or form to the dead man we just visited. One year my father told me that my grandfather was a health fanatic. “He did yoga,” my father said, “way be- fore it was trendy. He stood on his head every day.” One year he told me that my grandfather suffered from ulcers and drank Milk of Magnesia. Another year he told me that my grandfather and I were very similar. I asked my father to elaborate — how exactly am I like Zaidy? My father shook his head and said, “I don’t know, I just can see it.”
There are photographs of my grandfather, but not many, and most of them are rigidly composed and uncandid. He is handsome, bald, and he looks good in a suit. He has a wide, clean-shaven face and cheeks that ball up when he smiles.
We knew that my grandfather was the only one in his family to have survived the war, that his parents and his siblings had been murdered, as was nearly all of his large extended family. But as knowledge this was dark matter. We knew nothing about his prewar or intrawar life. We didn’t know which concentration camps he had been in or what his father had done for a living. We knew nothing about his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins; my father and his two siblings— let alone my generation — would be hard-pressed to tell you the names of my grandfather’s siblings; they wouldn’t even be entirely sure of the number. We knew they had died, but we had no idea who they were. We did not know where they died, or how they died. And so when my grandfather died, they died another sort of death.
Excerpt from Plunder: Family Property and Nazi Treasure by Menachem Kaiser. Copyright © 2021 by Menachem Kaiser. Available now from HMH Books & Media. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
This segment aired on May 19, 2021.