Selling the Holocaust?Breaking News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, Heritage Tourism
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.
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