Can We Repair the Past?

For the righting of historical wrongs, to simply transfer property continues to perpetuate violence. True reparations require far more work.

In late 2020, I, an American citizen, became an Austrian, through a new law granting citizenship to the descendants of victims of the Third Reich. (Germany has long had a similar law; Austria, far worse in their anti-Semitism, according to my late grandfather, was much slower on the uptake.) My family was exiled and imprisoned. Wealthy Austrian Jews had assimilated into metropolitan Viennese life; many were able to flee and thus avoid the camps and the gas chambers, opportunities not afforded most other Jews across Europe. They arrived in the US, Australia, Israel, England, and Brazil with copious amounts of documentation of the crimes against them. These materials not only allowed family members to claim money from a number of different funds set up to atone for the violent plunder and taking by the Nazis but also recently provided a path back to membership in the Austrian nation.

I keep coming back to the ideas of possession, place, and property when I consider my new status as an Austrian. I’ve never been to the country; my only attachment to it now is a red passport. But the nature of lineage and changing laws mean I have the right to claim.

Can the harm done to our ancestors be remedied through reparative acts in the present? Perhaps we can grant ownership of what was lost, but does that correct historical violence? Such questions frame Menachem Kaiser’s new memoir, Plunder. Indeed, I was drawn to the book in part because of my own recent forays into reparative justice for Nazi-era atrocities. Nominally centered on the author’s attempts to reclaim a Polish building his Jewish grandfather lost during World War II, Plunder takes its reader on an audacious journey through Polish property ledgers, Nazi treasure hunting, and the mundane urbanism of Eastern European cities remade after many rounds of occupation and Jewish extermination. At its heart, the book considers rights to property and ownership as central to historical legacies of memory and place.

Kaiser is keenly aware that his regaining ownership of the building will change the lives of its inhabitants, introducing uncertainty and even fear of the loss of their home. In the West, we are taught that property and its rights are natural and ordered, producing good citizens and harmonious communities. Yet property, and by extension possession, always relies on dispossession, a taking from one to give to another, at least at first. It is, in the crudest terms, a form of loot or plunder. His possessing the building will take something from its inhabitants. Not as violent as the Third Reich seizing heirlooms from Jewish ghettoes across its growing empire (what a friend recently referred to as the “shtetl belt”—we Jews love to joke about past horrors), but still a kind of theft. As Kaiser wades into the various laws regarding property, discovered objects and antiquities, and descent, he reveals how possession is tenuous and fraught, rife with conflict between individuals, nation-states, and competing historical narratives.

Like Kaiser, I have been somewhat bemused by this turn of events. My relationship with Austria is tenuous at best. I already have citizenship in the wealthiest country in the world, something millions long for (granted, options at this particular historical juncture are great to have, but wouldn’t the passport be better used by one of the millions, if not billions of people at risk of violence, political oppression and war, and the ravages of climate change?). But I am also unclear as to whether this is a means of righting a historical wrong or simply the logic of jus sanguinis, blood citizenship.

Kaiser writes poignantly about his family’s internal struggles over his quest for reclamation, interlacing them with his own confusion about the nature of his journey. Here he toys with language, searching for the precise terms to describe what he is doing. Is it reclamation? Or, as he alights on, assertion? What might be the difference? And what of the myriad other terms he does not use, such as recuperation, and of course most critical for our present conjuncture, reparation?

What if, like Kaiser’s, our attachment to the place of our ancestors’ suffering is fleeting, a historical filament? He admits that he has no real affective relationship with his grandfather’s Poland. Kaiser never met his grandfather, who died several years before he was born. Until his death, his grandfather, for whom he is named, sought to reclaim the multistory building that had been his family patrimony at the onset of war in the Polish city Sosnowiec.

The author decides to take up his ancestor’s reclamation project, in part as a way of connecting with a relative he never got to know. As he delves in, he encounters a lively cast of characters and makes a detour into rural Silesia. There treasure hunters—or are they explorers?—search for Nazi-era loot within a series of underground bunkers and tunnels Jewish slave laborers built at the apogee of the war. Rumors, myths, and historical fabulations abound in the lush forests and industrial ruins.

By placing his effort to reclaim family property against the unfolding dramedies of his new explorer friends, Kaiser makes us ruminate on the book’s title. As noted above, possession requires dispossession; the restoration of plunder might require plundering in turn.

At points, he seeks to justify his planned taking—plundering?—by rendering inheritance straightforward, a question of lineage. Moreover, he does not deploy the term reparations, seeing his claim for property as an assertion of inheritance and lineage. However, inheritance is never so simple, hence a canon of literature on its anxieties, from Howards End to Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest to a plot point in the recent Sex and the City reboot. Many of those works, too, concern property and its rightful (or proper) place. To whom does what belong? Is it a question of what is written in the property ledger or the cadastral map? Or is it about sentimental attachments and the affective relationships we develop to places?

Possession is not just of actual things but of narratives and power.

As Plunder makes evident, claims to the past and to property are both legal and moral. The author sometimes separates the two, yet it seems to me that they are in fact densely interwoven.

For example, Kaiser mentions squatters’ rights, dismissing them as mere legalese. In his telling, such legal doctrine does not get at the moral and ethical dimensions of the claims we have and make upon space and place. But critical scholars, activists, and everyday urbanites would argue differently. Squatters’ rights emerge not just out of lengthy inhabitation but also because of the relationship those doing the inhabiting have developed with their material environments. Our attachments to place carry their own moral valences and emerge in a number of different sites and on different scales, from separatist movements in Catalonia and Scotland to local antigentrification struggles within numerous cities.

Kaiser is concerned with property not only as real estate but also as possession and authority over narratives and historical memory. His exploration of these themes is intimate, interwoven with his discovery of a long-lost cousin who wrote a memoir of the camps.

That story, and the memoir itself, are astonishing: Abraham Kaiser wrote his experiences within numerous camps on whatever surfaces he could find, hiding little chits behind latrines and under bricks and soil. When the war ended, he biked from one abandoned camp to the next, reclaiming his prose. His eventual memoir is now celebrated by modern-day treasure hunters, who see his pages as tea leaves that might offer up the locations of Nazi-era loot. Menachem Kaiser laments the fact that the book has become celebrated not because of its tale of toil and survival but because of ephemeral references to material objects and potential treasure troves.

The “ignoble” (as present-day Kaiser puts it) afterlife of Abraham’s memoir is but one glimpse of struggles and ironies of narrating the past. The author briefly mentions Polish efforts to absolve the nation of complicity in the Holocaust. I wish he had dwelled more on current political battles over historical memory, as they are of a piece with broader currents of remembering and forgetting. We are witnessing numerous struggles to suppress uncomfortable and painful histories in the name of national unity and identity—just in the last year in the US, we have seen the right reframe the January 6 Capitol insurrection while denouncing the 1619 Project.

Plunder reveals that the ability to tell one’s history with authority is not universal. What happens in its absence, when claims of violence are under the gauze of state sanctioning, danced around but never spoken about openly?

Here we see that possession is not just of actual things but of narratives and power. This is no more evident than in Spain, where I have conducted much of my professional life. Since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the country has had an official pact of silence on the many atrocities of his authoritarian rule. In silence we might forget, or so the idea goes.

Yet fissures have emerged within this consensus, particularly as a younger generation attempts to understand intimate histories of loss. As a number of recent books make evident, mass unmarked graves have become key sites to unlock these histories.1 Here the reclamation is of bones and bodies, giving survivors and their offspring some kind of closure to the violence and plunder of many years of terror.

Indeed, even authoritative data on death can be hard to come by, a trope that also emerges in Plunder. In order to claim his family property, Kaiser must have his ancestors, many killed in the camps, declared officially dead. This sets in motion a poignant and at times hilarious odyssey through the Polish legal system. Here, too, the contemporaneous efforts at suppressing Nazi-era complicity frame legal wrangling, as the author suspects the judges see his lawsuit as about more than just a judgment on dead ancestors. It might also open the door for descendants to claim property, to reassert their presence and rights within modern Poland. Hence high standards to recognize historical harms through official data alone, an impossible task when what remains is a morass of spotty records and contradicting testimonies.

Spain’s recent forays into remembering and forgetting illustrate the politicized nature of recognizing harm. The country has avoided grappling with the Franco era. This has meant enduring celebration of Franco’s legacy throughout much of right-wing Spanish society, particularly in elite circles that emerged under his aegis.

At the same time, Spain enacted a law in 2015 extending citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled during the reconquest and subsequent Inquisition. This “law of return” has not been without controversies: Why Jews and not Arabs, for example? But also, why atone for the Inquisition while not admitting the similar practices of the Franco era?

One reason, I would postulate, is that Franco’s crimes and their aftereffects are ongoing. Much of the architecture for the country’s right wing emerged directly out of his government.

Can the harm done our ancestors be remedied through reparative acts in the present? Perhaps we can grant ownership of what was lost, but does that correct historical violence?

Contemplating reparations for Black Americans, I would argue, is similarly fraught because we cannot draw a boundary between the past and its atrocities and our contemporary moment. Chattel slavery gave way to Jim Crow and segregation, redlining and housing discrimination, subprime lending, and policing and mass incarceration. How to repair harm that is ongoing, insidious? Reparations are much easier for those events that happened in the long-ago past, at a distinct remove from the present day, or, like the Holocaust, can be reduced neatly to a discrete period of time. To account for current trauma is another beast entirely.

These debates over recognition, memory, and reclamation are shaped by other dynamics. Clearly, as in the case of Black reparations or the extermination of Jews, race is a central organizing principle. But class power also shapes which trauma and what kinds of violence gain attention, sympathy, and moral outrage.

In Spain, some speculated that this push to right a historical wrong was motivated by financial need as the country remained mired in economic crisis. Jews, the (vaguely anti-Semitic) thinking went, were generally wealthier than average citizens and might feed national coffers; the “golden” visa, whereby large investment accrues residency or citizenship, certainly falls under this rubric. The wealth of the Ashkenazi population factors into their ability to make claims and demand reparations.

In Kaiser’s case, his grandfather moved to North America and, with his children, created a real estate entity that bought several apartment buildings in Toronto. The author, educated at elite schools, clearly has the resources to embark on his quest to reclaim the Polish property. Traveling to Eastern Europe, hiring lawyers and translators, etc., all takes money. In my family, there was money but also that greatest of luxuries—time in which to pursue claims and settlements.

My own path to Austrian nationality was aided by my job as a college professor. In August 2020, the gloaming of my pandemic summer vacation, I had a stretch of free days in which to collect family documents, request birth certificates and background checks, go through the complicated process of securing apostilles, and communicate with my lovely and enthusiastic handler at the Austrian consulate in New York. Indeed, one of the few people I know who has successfully gotten Spanish citizenship through the law of return is not Sephardic at all, but rather a well-to-do Venezuelan Ashkenazi who got a Caracas rabbi to attest to Spanish roots and then paid a lawyer to handle his case.

This is a central irony. Those of us with power and privilege are also the ones with the ability to make our suffering known, recognized, redressed.

Reparations through either the standard apparatuses of the state or private initiative therefore seem to me inadequate. They fail to account for ongoing harm toward the most vulnerable and marginalized. They also rely on the very structures that meted out the harm in the first place: statecraft and policy, the seemingly neutral spaces of the court, and the bureaucracy of paperwork.

Property and material possession as central vehicles for the righting of historical wrongs also continue to perpetuate violence. At its most basic, what was the creation of Israel but the wholesale (and violent) transfer of land from one population to another, even if it was done under the cloak of preserving community in the wake of mass tragedy?

More important, and also more difficult to change, are the narratives we tell about history, memory, and violence. Or, perhaps to get to the point of material reparations, of money or citizenship or land, we need to transform collective consensus and rewrite our shared stories. icon

  1. See, for example: Zahira Aragüete-Toribio, Producing History in Spanish Civil War Exhumations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Francisco Ferrándiz, El pasado bajo tierra: Exhumaciones contemporáneas de la Guerra Civil (Anthropos, 2014); Layla Renshaw, Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War (Routledge, 2016); Richard Ashby Wilson, “Foreword,” in Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights, edited by Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius C. G. M. Robben (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
Featured image: Design sketch for historic renovation of 1900's building (detail). Image by Nancy McClure / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)