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Contents

Title Page

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Part I: Małachowskiego 12

1

2

3

Part II: Riese

4

5

6

7

8

Part III: Małachowskiego 34

9

10

11

12

13

Part IV: Forever Book

14

15

16

17

18

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Notes

About the Author

Connect with HMH

Copyright © 2021 by Meir Menachem Kaiser

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to trade.permissions@hmhco.com or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

hmhbooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Kaiser, Menachem, 1985– author.

Title: Plunder : a memoir of family property and Nazi treasure / Menachem Kaiser.

Other titles: memoir of family property and Nazi treasure

Description: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

Identifiers: LCCN 2020033851 (print) | LCCN 2020033852 (ebook) | ISBN 9781328508034 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780358449836 | ISBN 9780358449904 | ISBN 9781328506467 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Poland—Sosnowiec (Województwo Śląskie)—Reparations. | Kaiser, Meir Menachem, 1921–1977—Family. | Inheritance and succession—Poland. | Jewish Property—Poland—Sosnowiec (Województwo Śląskie)—20th century. | World War, 1939–1945—Claims. | World War, 1939–1945—Destruction and Pillage—Poland. | Kaiser family. | Treasure troves—Poland. | Sosnowiec (Województwo Śląskie, Poland)—History—20th century.

Classification: LCC D819.P7 K35 2020 (print) | LCC D819.P7 (ebook) |DDC 940.53/18144—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020033851

LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020033852

Maps and diagrams by Mapping Specialists, Ltd. Images. Diagrams of Soboń and Osówka adapted from Creative Commons/Les7007.

Cover design by Jaya Miceli

Author photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

v2.0321

To Zaidy

Part I

Małachowskiego 12

1

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, StoCN italitzer, 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 button-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

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