Attempt to Reclaim Polish Building Leads to Gigantic Underground Nazi Factory

American writer Menachem Kaiser never thought his journey would lead him into one of the most impressive engineering enterprises launched during the war by the Nazi regime - and introduce him to a special relative

Inside one of the underground structures under Poland’s Owl Mountains. A huge engineering project with kilometers of canals, large halls, dozens of conference rooms and residential facilities.
Inside one of the underground structures under Poland’s Owl Mountains. Credit: Jason Francisco
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

For 20 years Meir Menachem Kaiser tried to reclaim ownership of a building on 12 Małachowskiego Street in Sosnowiec, a small city in the province of Silesia in southwestern Poland, home to about 30,000 Jews until World War II. Few of them survived the war but Kaiser was among them, one of the last of a large family that was almost totally exterminated.

“We know that he was transferred among several concentration camps,” says his grandson, Menachem Kaiser, author of the new book “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.” After the Holcaust the grandfather moved to Munich, got married, and in 1949 he and his wife emigrated to New York. In the 1960s he moved again, to Toronto, Canada, where he started working in real estate.

All that time, as befits a man who devoted his life to the purchase and sale of buildings, Meir Menachem didn’t forget the apartment building in Poland that was left behind. He asked a lawyer to find out details about it, his grandson writes in the book, contacted a local Polish friend, wrote letters to the rabbi of the Jewish community, tried his luck with the manager of the building and even managed to lay his hands on the building's original mortgage agreement.

The building on 12 Małachowskiego Street in Sosnowiec, Poland, owned by author Menachem Kaiser's grandfather. “When I stood next to it I had a sense of a severance from the past."Credit: Menachem Kaiser

When all that didn’t help, the grandfather filed an official lawsuit with the wartime property restitution authority established by the U.S. government. For years he waited for a reply, until the American lawyer he hired explained that he had forgotten to include an important document among the materials he submitted. He once again prepared a file with dozens of documents and testimonies translated into German – apparently in order to file a lawsuit in a German court. But in 1977 Meir Menachem died at the age of 56, and the issue remained unresolved.

The huge project included seven huge underground structures with kilometers of canals, large halls, dozens of conference rooms and residential facilities

Menachem Kaiser, the grandson-author, was born eight years later in Toronto; he now lives in Brooklyn. He had heard a lot about his grandfather, but knew nothing about the building: “All the documents that Grandfather collected were left with Grandmother, and at a certain point she brought the file to my father, who in 2000 translated them into English. But people he consulted explained to him that it was a hopeless battle.”

Although Kaiser's own father was also involved in real estate throughout his life, the son himself had no intention of getting into the field: He studied philosophy and economics at Columbia University in New York City, won a prestigious research scholarship from the U.S. State Department, and at the same time published short stories in several highly regarded newspapers and magazines in the United States, including The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and others. It is ironic that the new book by someone who didn’t want anything to do with real estate is devoted mainly to a building in Poland.

Menachem Kaiser, author of “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.” His cousin's diary is required reading for Polish treasure hunters in search of booty hidden by Nazi plunderers.Credit: BEOWULF SHEEHAN

Kaiser arrived at the site in 2010 entirely by chance. “It was an innocent visit, not related to the family history,” he writes in "Plunder." At the time he was spending several months in Lithuania in the context of a research project on the Vilna Ghetto. The apartment building, owned by the author's relatives until the outbreak of the war, was abandoned and looted, once by the Nazis and afterward by local Polish authorities. Kaiser says it is now owned by the Sosnowiec municipality, which charges the tenants rent.

The first encounter with the building didn’t arouse any feeling of a historical connection: “When I stood next to it I had a sense of a lack of continuity, of a severance from the past,” he writes. “It makes no difference how lyrical or metaphorical you want to be, it wasn’t my house. No longing or nostalgia was transferred to us. My grandparents did whatever they could to erase this history.”

Since its discovery the complex has become a source of endless conspiracy theories, and a pilgrimage site for local treasure hunters

Sounds like a classic story of the second generation of the Holocaust and the refusal to talk about what happened in the war.

Kaiser: “My father grew up in a family where they never spoke about the Holocaust and the war. Grandfather and Grandmother never wanted us to return to Poland either. I think that if my grandmother were alive, I wouldn’t tell her that I visited there, I would invent some lie. For them it was a locked history. The Holocaust was always in the background, something that everyone was aware of but that nobody in the house every spoke about.”

An underground passage in Poland that was part of the Nazis' Project Riese, described in “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure,” by Menachem Kaiser. His cousin was a laborer there.Credit: Jason Francisco

A 'cough' in the throat

Kaiser describes Sosnowiec as a gloomy, gray city. One that gets stuck in your throat, or as he describes it in his book – “a cough.”

“I spent a lot of time in Poland, and the truth is that some of the cities are very pretty, with amazing historic buildings. But that’s not the case of Sosnowiec,” he tells Haaretz. “It’s a city that was almost entirely rebuilt after the war and its style is very Soviet, with dry, gray buildings, with lots of concrete.” The building on Małachowskiego Street was no different. “Monotonous, with five stories, with two rows of white balconies that stuck out like ribs,” he writes in the memoir.

So what caused you despite that to try to reclaim family ownership of the building?

“In Poland I was able to meet people and to create a local community for myself, including lawyers who filed property lawsuits on behalf of Holocaust survivors. At a certain point my father encouraged me to take advantage of these new connections in order to see what was in the documents my grandfather had left behind.”

The cover of Menachem Kaiser's new bookCredit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

After five years, in 2015, Kaiser decided to assume responsibility for the case and to hire a local lawyer, “The Killer” as she is dubbed in his book – a woman in her 80s, with a stern face, who doesn’t speak a word of English and specializes in representing Nazi victims in lawsuits involving restitution of lost property. Meanwhile, after an additional six years and as the legal battle continues over a structure with an estimated value of between $430,000 and $630,000 in today's terms, a book has emerged – one that tells a fascinating family story.

Do you already understand what it is about the legal battle that drew you into it? Were you fighting for real estate rights? Historical justice? The family memory?

“There’s a bit of everything there. It started as an attempt to understand how we remember the story of the war. At the same time there was a genuine interest in modern Poland. During the process I started to feel an emotional tie to my family history and my grandfather. On the other hand, had I known that it would take so long, there’s no chance that I would have gotten into all that, although now the entire process has developed its own momentum."

The desire to discover the face of modern Poland led Kaiser – against the strict advice of his lawyer – to visit the building, where he met one of the tenants, a friendly guy named Bartek, in his 40s. Bartek invited him to his apartment and told him that for years the building served as a residence for actors from the local theater, who used to hold wild parties there with the participation of the tenants. "On Fridays and Saturday, after premieres in the theater, the entire building was a party and all the tenants were one big family,” writes Kaiser.

And then Bartek tells you innocently that he’s lived in the building all his life and stresses that it’s his family’s home. How did you feel?

“It made the issue far more complex. He was such a nice man, so polite, and the issue became more problematic from an ethical point of view. It’s one thing to think when you’re back home that you want to reclaim ownership of the building – and another to meet the tenants who live in it, to understand their story, including that same Bartek, who invited us to his apartment after we invented some stupid lie about the fact that we were conducting a historical study about the building. Something like that.”

Inside one of the underground structures under Poland’s Owl Mountains. A huge engineering project with kilometers of canals, large halls, dozens of conference rooms and residential facilities.Credit: Jason Francisco

Some people criticized you, as you write in "Plunder," because they interpreted your attempt to reclaim ownership of the property as robbing the present tenants of their rights. Do you understand the claim?

“There were Poles whom I met who didn’t understand why I’m doing it. I don’t think that it stemmed from antisemitic motives; they simply didn’t understand the complexity of the story. How a person like me, who doesn’t speak the language, who doesn’t live in the country, is trying to gain control of a building and to evict its residents.

“There were also quite a few friends in the United States who didn’t understand why I’m doing it. I understand their sensitivity, and today I know that I have an obligation to preserve the tenants’ right to continue to live in the building. On the other hand, I don’t think that my family’s moral right to ownership of the building should be in doubt. After all, had they not been murdered in the Holocaust, nobody would have doubts about their right. And still, I definitely don’t want to harm the tenants.”

Into the darkness

What began with the story of that building led the author to one of the most impressive engineering enterprises launched during the war by the Nazi regime: The huge project, [code named] Project Riese (German for 'giant') as it is called, which included seven huge underground structures that were hewn in Poland’s Owl Mountains, is a huge engineering project with kilometers of canals, large halls, dozens of conference rooms and residential facilities – which were presumably meant to serve as a refuge for the top echelon of the Nazi leadership. Since its discovery the complex has become a source of endless conspiracy theories, and a pilgrimage site for local treasure hunters.

It is estimated that about 20,000 Jewish slave laborers participated in the project's construction. One of them – Menachem Kaiser was amazed to discover during his visit to Poland – was Abraham Kaiser, a cousin of his Grandfather Meir and someone who, contrary to what the family knew, not only survived the Holocaust but even kept a personal diary describing the forced labor at this site and others. The diary, Kaiser discovered, has virtually become required reading for Polish treasure hunters in search of booty hidden by Nazi plunderers, and they have enthusiastically embraced the Jewish grandson of that same local Indiana Jones.

Throughout "Plunder," Kaiser describes his encounters with those same treasure hunters, the casual conversations, the vodka that was poured like water – and the forays with them into narrow underground passages. He tells of how one of those subterranean Nazi sites, Wroclaw, has become a pilgrimage destination for enthusiastic tourists, including families with young children who are as excited by the huge project as though it were the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem. They take pictures, buy gifts in the local souvenir shop and enjoy a good meal and an ice cream.

An underground passage in Poland that was part of the Nazis' Project Riese. The part of it in Wroclaw has become a pilgrimage destination for enthusiastic tourists.Credit: Jason Francisco

“For the tourists here, the victims are invisible and the enemy is long gone. They come to be amazed, what they are shown is a huge engineering project,” the author writes.

How did you feel when you saw that the place built by tens of thousands of Jewish slave laborers, including Abraham Kaiser, has become an enjoyable tourist site?

"When I went to the first site, Sobon, which isn’t visited by tourists, it was depressing. But at the second site, Wroclaw, it’s more complicated. There you feel as though you're in a museum. I think that the visitors there don’t really understand the significance of the place. You enter a huge canal, with a 20-meter (65-foot) ceiling – it’s really an engineering marvel. And on the other hand, it’s also the site of the mass death of thousands of Jews. But you don’t feel that when you visit there.

“I think that it’s no different from other Holocaust sites in Poland that are open to visitors. After all, in Auschwitz there’s also a souvenir shop. At this site nobody is certain about its purpose – as opposed, let’s say, to that of an extermination camp. There it’s much clearer.”