Can the Past be Repaired?Roundup
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, historical memory, reparations
Sophie Gonick is an assistant professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is the author of Dispossession and Dissent: Immigrants and the Struggle for Housing in Madrid (Stanford University Press, 2021). Her work has been featured in leading planning and critical-geography journals, including Antipode and IJURR: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
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?