Selling the Holocaust

Three writers and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, including Plunder author Menachem Kaiser, discuss the conventions of the “3G memoir” and the commodification of Holocaust stories.

Arielle Angel, Maia Ipp, and Menachem Kaiser
July 28, 2021
Menachem Kaiser, author of Plunder, in Complex Sobon, one of seven underground Nazi structures that comprise Project Riese in Lower Silesia, Poland. Photo: Jason Francisco

A few years ago, I watched the writer Menachem Kaiser deliver a presentation on Holocaust writing as a genre at a retreat for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors—often called “3Gs”—planned by Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Maia Ipp. Kaiser, who had just begun working on a memoir about his attempt to reclaim a building in Poland that had belonged to his grandfather’s family before the war, led us in a discussion of the countless published witness testimonies—most of them purely utilitarian—as well as the mass-market “return narratives” of survivor descendants going back to the motherland to learn about themselves. To Kaiser, the weight of all of these books—their conventions repeated like holy rites—threatened to crush any attempt at honest storytelling about the Holocaust and its aftereffects. He fretted about market oversaturation: “Everyone needs to stop writing their Holocaust memoirs until I’ve finished mine,” I recall him saying in mock disgust.

This spring Kaiser threw his book, Plunder, onto the pile. It follows Kaiser’s absurdist interactions with the Polish justice system in pursuit of his family’s former building, with plenty of detours into the world of Silesian treasure hunters of Nazi plunder—a community, Kaiser finds, to which one of his familial forebears holds a special importance. Like other 3G narratives before it, the book has enjoyed near-universal acclaim, praised everywhere from The New Yorker to the decidedly more populist People Magazine. But there is something different about Kaiser’s text, which to me represents the beginning of a second wave of descendant literature. His is perhaps the first in the genre with any self-awareness about the genre itself, about the ways in which the desire for a dramatic and digestible narrative distorts that narrative, manufacturing meaning and continuity where there is mostly rupture and void, and grotesquely positioning the grandchild as “the protagonist in a story that isn’t [theirs],” as Kaiser writes. Kaiser resists the sentimentality and romance that often accompanies these accounts, and he follows his curiosity beyond the scope of the usual pilgrimage text, proving that you can confront the emptiness squarely, resist dubiously “satisfying” resolutions, and still deliver a compelling story. 

I recently spoke with Kaiser and Ipp, who have long been thought partners in questions of artmaking and inheritance around the Shoah, about contending with the conventions of the “3G memoir” and what happens when a topic commonly regarded as sancrosanct meets market considerations. 

Arielle Angel: First things first, I think we need to talk about “the third-generation Holocaust trip” as a genre, with its own set of clichés.

Menachem Kaiser: It’s true, it is a genre, uncomfortable as it might be to admit it. So many of us make these trips, these pilgrimages, to the homelands of our grandparents or great-grandparents. It’s very profound, very personal, very meaningful, I’m not taking any of that away. At the same time it’s also . . . ordinary.

Maia Ipp: You don’t want to become skeptical or cold-hearted, but you also have to be clear-eyed about the trope you’re fitting into. When I look at the writing I did after the first time I went to Eastern Europe, it feels embarrassing to me.

AA: Embarrassing, and also potentially dangerous if not processed deeply. I found three pages that I wrote on the March of the Living, which takes teenagers to Poland to see the camps, and it was horrifying. I was literally parroting propaganda. Like, “Thank God we have Israel to protect us.” I was having a very real experience; I didn’t grasp the ways it was manufactured. I think that’s at work narratively in all kinds of ways.

MI: One problem is that the material we’re working with here, survivor stories and everything around them, it’s bigger than fiction. It’s bigger than the most corny, ridiculous melodrama. With our Millennial sensibilities—aesthetic, cultural, whatever—it feels impossible to get our hands around this stuff, even when it’s what actually happened.

MK: I was initially very reluctant to write the book for that very reason. I couldn’t see a way to write this sort of story—about my survivor grandfather, about going back to Poland—that didn’t feel tired or cheesy. 

AA: Why do we feel embarrassed by this material? For myself, I’ll say there is something super uncomfortable about upper-class white American Jews having this very convenient, memoir-worthy event to draw on—and one that the market seems to want. 

I just had the experience of having a viral tweet about the Holocaust, one I didn’t know was going to go viral. You realize that everybody wants a piece of this story, everybody is projecting their own ideas onto it—be it Zionism, or liberalism, or whatever.

MK: Did you regret posting it?

AA: Kind of. I tweeted about the marginalization of Ladino-speaking Jews in the Holocaust narrative, which I think is important. But then there was all of this personal attention on me, as some kind of righteous bearer of my grandmother’s story. I was fielding all of these people’s feelings about the Holocaust. I’m sure that’s been happening to you tenfold, Menachem.

MK: Yeah. The book has garnered much more attention than I was expecting, and one consequence of that is I’ve been cast as a spokesperson of sorts for grandchildren of survivors. It’s a role I’m uncomfortable with. The truth is I don’t relate to a lot of grandchildren of survivors. I never knew my grandfather, never knew all that much about him, never knew what he went through in the war. My Holocaust legacy felt very distant, very untextured, I didn’t have any sense of trauma, it had never motivated me or frightened me or—at least as far as I was aware—formed me. This is another reason I was so hesitant to write a book like this—I was worried I would, not entirely consciously, sentimentalize my relationship with my grandfather. That I’d end up writing the sort of story that people have come to expect.

MI: I’ve heard you say that the treasure hunters [people in the Lower Silesia region of Poland who search for Nazi relics from the war], who end up becoming a big part of the book, were a gift in that regard.

MK: Yeah. My experience with the treasure hunters ended up being very freeing: it put the blankness I felt toward my grandfather’s story into relief, and allowed me to be honest about my ambivalence. And the story got so weird that I felt I had no choice but to try and write it. 

MI: Yeah. In a way you were in a good position starting out in that you didn’t feel super attached to the trauma in the story.

MK: Zero attachment.

AA: Whereas I feel like I’m so far from being able to write about this because I’m so attached.

MK: That’s funny. Our professed inability to write comes from opposite sides. You feel too much trauma and I feel too little.

MI: Yeah, and I’m hoping to get it just right. [All laugh.] 

I mean, learning about intergenerational trauma was transformative in my life. But I feel like I keep gaining levels of consciousness, so anytime I try to capture my feelings about any of this, they change almost immediately. The more you immerse yourself in taking a meta approach to memory, the more your basic understanding of reality seems to shift. 

MK: I get that. It also gets more interesting, I’d argue. These past few years, a lot of people have asked to come with me on these treasure-hunting trips. At first I said yes, why not, but too often it’d go awry, and I realized I had to set a precondition: “This can’t be your first trip to Poland.” It is, for many Jews, an overwhelming experience, and understandably so, to stand on these sites of mass death, to confront the history up close. But the really interesting questions are, so to speak, behind the trauma. You don’t pretend it’s not there, you’re not insensitive, but your scope widens. A lot of these 3G books are, I feel, stuck on that first stage of horror and grief. I’m more interested in what comes next, which demands a certain level of self-awareness, and also awareness of, as we’ve said, the genre. 

AA: Because of the treasure hunting aspects, you’re also contending with the conventions of the caper and the mystery. I don’t think any of us would say, “Dispose of all of those conventions.” As writers, we all believe in narrative; we believe that these conventions are important because they help us see and experience a story. But here there’s this one area of narrative conventions, around the ways Holocaust stories get told, where we’re just like, “No.”

MK: Yeah. I think the suspicion comes from the fact that Holocaust stories are very much in demand, which means, for writers or filmmakers or whoever, it’s also an opportunity.  

AA: It’s true, despite all of our resistance, none of us have said, “I’m not going to touch this material.” Why would we leave that on the table? Why would anyone?

MK: I’ve been warned not to say this, but I didn’t go into this without careerist ambition. I was spending all this time in Poland, promising myself I wasn’t going to write about it, and then the treasure hunters came along and made the story compelling enough to sell to a big publisher. Would I have written this book without a book contract? I doubt it. But you’re not really allowed to say that you wrote a book in order to sell it.

AA: Well, certainly not if this is the content.

MK: The book I wrote turned out to be very different than the book I sold; it was more introspective, more questioning, less story-dependent, which allowed me—or you might say even forced me—to interrogate my own motivations, and I felt I had no choice but to admit that at least to some extent writing this was about money and career, or at least not not about money and career. 

But this is dangerous meta-territory. My editor read that first draft and said, “This is super interesting and honest, but you’re telling everyone that the thing they care about doesn’t matter. You’re pulling out the stakes that a lot of people are actually invested in.” So we took it out. Which I don’t regret, even if it was, I think, the most interesting part of the book.

AA: I understand how it messes with the traditional stakes in the book. But the stakes are also very high for people like us figuring out where we stand in relation to our grandparents’ stories, and what constitutes exploitation in all this. Where do we allow our egos to become enmeshed more than they already are with an event that did not happen to us? 

MK: At some point I came to terms with the fact that I’m not writing for me, even though it’s my story. 

MI: Writing for other people is an interesting part of the equation in this kind of work. And talking about the market feels really important, even as it’s what we’re resisting. Menachem was saying how he didn’t want to be that writer. And yet we know we have this great privilege, which is that there is a huge established market for these books.

MK: And once you enter the publishing space, the marketing question becomes very unnuanced. Publishers really rely on genre to understand, categorize, compare, and acquire books. So what genre is my book? We’d have these meetings early in the process where they’d ask me what I want on the cover. My only stipulation was that it cannot be “Holocaust-y”—do not use a black and white photograph, no barbed wire, etc. They understood, but had I not made that request my guess is that that would have been their natural choice, to market this as a Holocaust book with a built-in audience. 

I was familiar with the Jewish Holocaust market, but there’s also a non-Jewish Holocaust market. There’s a Holocaust section in libraries and bookstores. It plays such a prominent role in American historiography, and we’ve centered a lot of moral education around it. But I don’t know if the demand is because a lot of people want to read these books, or if it’s just an established genre and the market rewards things that have sold in the past. If someone pitched Everything Is Illuminated, Part Two—“Even More Illuminated”— it would be snatched up. Things get reified and repeated.

My book is much less boundary-pushing than what I would have wanted to write. It was something I was conscious about. I wanted to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It would be interesting to write a book that would alienate everyone except maybe you two. 

AA: There just needs to be a new wave in thinking about what these narratives look like. Your book is an important first step, but it would have to happen anyway, because after our generation, I think it will be very weird to try to write the Holocaust memoir.

MK: Hard to imagine what it will look like. Also hard to imagine it disappearing, though. It could be that for the next 30 years, we’ll just have memoirs of people who go to Poland, who don’t even know their grandparents or their great-grandparents.

AA: I guess I wonder if we are the ideal writers for these stories or not. Does it have to be us? In the book, you are in a position to reclaim this property, so on a straightforward level, you are the vehicle for this story. But on a more philosophical level, as you deal with directly in the book, we are not continuing our grandparents’ stories. This is not the sequel, as you say. If these stories aren’t “ours” in that way, doesn’t that mean that someone else could potentially write them? Or am I missing something basic and is this really, on a straightforward, materialist level, our job?

MI: Honestly, I would rather have another job. 

MK: I think these questions you’re asking, Arielle, are or at least should be part of the story. To me, at this point, three or four generations down, the story is figuring out what the story is.

AA: You could be very engaged in that conversation and not have a personal connection to it.

MK: That’s true. I do wonder if people are less patient and less receptive if you don’t have a familial connection.

AA: Something that you both do that I find really interesting is you both engage with non-Jewish Europeans doing memory work. I wonder what it would mean for some of the stories we’re talking about to be their stories. What would it mean, Menachem, for the story to be written by the person living in the building you’re trying to reclaim, for instance?

MI: That really does exist—in Poland, in Germany, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere. The fellowship I had when I was living in Poland was writing about those kinds of projects by non-Jews. Sadly, I don’t know if there’s an audience for them. They don’t tend to get any attention here, which is interesting and problematic. American Jews might care in some abstract way, they might be momentarily moved, like: “Oh, there are these random Polish people who are literally dedicating their lives to taking care of the Jewish cemeteries and building cultural centers and trying to do education around this history.”

But one gets the sense both there and here that actually, Jews don’t want to give up control of that memory work. I understand the suspicion around it. And of course, when you have the current Polish administration doing the kind of legislation they’re doing, which is anti-queer and anti-democratic and anti-critical-scholarship, it raises all of our hackles. But it makes it harder for the people over there who are actually trying to do that work, who recognize that the Jewish loss is also Polish loss, that Jewish history is Polish history.

MK: Yeah. A lot of that work is incredible. But I am not sure if Jews I know here in the US have the bandwidth for these hyperlocal histories. They tend to want very personal stories with big, universal themes. They want to hear about someone who went somewhere and had a series of epiphanies. Often what gets neglected is geography. I literally didn’t know where Lithuania was before I moved there at age 25. There is a relationship with the history, but if it’s not anchored in the place, it gets very diffuse. We end up defaulting to these narratives of pain, trauma, and tiny bouts of redemption we can feel good about. The deep, local stories never seem to gain traction here.

AA: It sounds like what you’re really saying is they’re a lot harder to sell.

MI: Yeah, that question is complicated. And of course the way American Jews receive these narratives is totally different than how they interact with the situation in Europe. In my experiences in Lithuania and Poland and to some extent Germany, there’s still such a deep fight just for Jewish history to be acknowledged. The thing that you’ll hear time and again is that they need the personal stories, because otherwise it’s just numbers that don’t mean anything.

MK: That’s true. We take for granted that our World War II narratives are very stable. In those countries, it often isn’t. It’s an ongoing, charged, often political question, how that history is told. The role of the storyteller there is going to be received very differently.

MI: People over there who are doing this work are in such a different place. But there’s something refreshing and sincere and honest about it. Menachem and I have had this happen to us a million times where we’re sharing a personal story with a room full of people, and even though neither of us is ever excited to give the “Holocaust grandparents” talk, we see the way that people who otherwise maybe have a distant connection to this history really respond to it. You can see people’s eyes opening, and they’ll tell you they never thought about it that way before. So maybe there is something about an individual or specific story that can cut through the banality, or the weariness.

But that said, it still feels like to do these stories justice, they have to include those layers of critical consciousness. We’re in a unique position because we have distance and proximity to the lived material.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents.

Maia Ipp was one of the four editors who relaunched Jewish Currents in 2018. She is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism and the artistic director of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship. In 202021 she was a creative writing teaching fellow at Columbia University, where she also held a De Alba fiction fellowship.

Menachem Kaiser is the author of Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.