Menachem Kaiser was raised in a close-knit Orthodox Jewish American-Canadian family. His grandfather, a holocaust survivor from Poland died before he was born. Kaiser is named for him. When, in the course of a routine visit to Poland, he has occasion to visit Sosnowiec, his grandfather’s hometown, he secures an address from his father of his grandfather’s apartment building. Kaiser reasons this will let him imagine his ancestors at a concrete location, their home. He learns his grandfather spent many post-war years trying to establish his family’s ownership of this building, with no success. This book is ostensibly about Kaiser’s decision to pursue his family’s claim to the property. The legal proceedings to establish this is commenced by the “Killer” an attorney in her eighties. It proceeds in a desultory and seemingly absurd manner over a number of years. In the meantime, Kaiser becomes interested in learning about “Project Riese,” a massive Nazi effort to tunnel into and hollow out sections of the Owl Mountains for an uncertain purpose. It was built through the forced labor of Jews and others who were interned in nearby camps at various locations. The seven underground complexes were in various stages of construction when they were blown up by the Nazis near the end of the war. The ruins attract explorers, some seeking a reputed treasure load in a “golden train,” some proof of the Nazi’s successes with time travel, and some just seeking to find what is there, weapons, buttons, gold teeth… And in the course of touring the area with a well-regarded explorer, Kaiser overhears his last name mentioned by nearby Polish speakers who do not know his name. He learns that a man named Abraham Kaiser kept a diary, on paper from cement bags, at each of the eight forced labor camps where he was interned after an initial stay at Auschwitz. It was published in Poland in 1962. Abraham’s diary gives the explorers as much information as is available about where some of the internment camps were located, thus guiding them to the areas where the work was conducted. Kaiser pursues Abraham’s story, again seeking to make this man real to him. It seems he ultimately makes himself more real. This lyrical memoir was a pleasure to read. It is touched with humor, as there are so many missteps that arise when one is seeking concrete information about a family and community that was erased. The explorers and other people who contribute to his quest, both living and dead are wonderfully drawn: Their generosity, their faults, their points of view, heroism, conspiracy theories, and an unexpected love make for a wonderful story. Kaiser reminds us that, if we are willing to process our experiences, our deepest understanding of the past can yield and reshape itself and that this journey is as important as the facts we uncover.
Published by Emily Leader
I have been an avid reader since Dick and Jane met Sally. At age 7, I read my parents' first edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird." I am a retired lawyer and so read almost only fiction for pleasure. I'm adding in nonfiction these days, largely on social justice matters but also history, biography, and weird topics that catch my imagination. I used to read only serially, one book at a time. Presently, I read paperbacks, hardcovers, listen to audible, listen to CDs and read online through Net Galley. Covid-19 has caused me to read a lot so I have re-upped my Goodreads challenge for 2021 and am starting to review at least my favorite finds annd, perhaps, some stinkers. View all posts by Emily Leader