by Emily Shwake
Rita Gabis comes from two identities: Eastern European Jews and Lithuanian Catholics. For much of Gabis’s life, these two families stayed separate. It wasn’t until after her maternal grandfather died that she learned what part of his past created that barrier. In A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet: My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth, Gabis tells of her pursuit of the truth of how her Lithuanian grandfather participated in the destruction of the people of her Jewish grandmother.
“I have had these dreams since childhood that—in one dream I was hunted down and in another dream, I was a murderer,” Gabis says in an interview with Moment. For years, the dreams haunted Gabis—not because of their terrifying content, but because of their persistence and their mystery. She knew where the first dream came from. Her mother had told her of the Russian invasion of Lithuania and her family’s suffering under their paranoid command. The second remained a mystery that pulled her to fill in the blanks of her family past. “And what did he do when the Germans came into power?” Gabis asked her mother about her grandfather, Pranas Puronas. “She paused. ‘He was a police chief,’ she said. ‘Under the SS?’ She paused again before saying, ‘Yes.’”
A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet is a story of familial guilt that will never be extinguished. “I don’t think that anybody who does this kind of work ever finds closure with a capital C,” says Gabis. She writes her memoir through the lens of her own discovery. Her experience as a poet contributes to a lyrical narrative of how she came to learn of her grandfather’s role in the Holocaust and how her research culminated. Gabis uses her poetic drive to unravel the complexities of her situation. She writes, “Looking at my scan later, I’ll think of the paradox of nationalism—how it slices away, eviscerates the richness of identity, of place, including Švenčionys, where my grandfather would soon be working.”
Throughout, she threads in memories of her family. These add depth and color to strict fact, but they also create an unnerving sympathy that the reader will struggle to rationalize. Pranas Puronas was not just an ex-SS police chief; he was a grandfather who spoiled Gabis with pastries. Gabis also provides a fascinating profile of her paternal grandmother. While Gabis grew up in a secular family, her grandmother, Rachel Treegoob, always maintained her Jewish roots. Treegoob stepped away from the orthodoxy of her parents early on. “Although she rejected some of the tenets of the religion that she felt were in opposition to what freedom might mean for women, she was fiercely Jewish in her identity,” she writes. “Did she ever go to Mikvah again? No, she didn’t. But she was a new brand of a Jewish woman. She was a trailblazer.” Gabis explains in her book how vital her grandmother was in her identity struggle. Treegoob instilled in Gabis the importance of the Israeli state and, when Gabis was 12, she pronounced her Jewish. Gabis never forgot that, and married a Jewish man.
In the wake of the publication of Gabis’s book, many have come forward to share the stories of their own family histories. Those stories, Gabis said, have made her even more connected to her Judaism: “Almost every day I get an e-mail from someone who says, ‘I am holding your book in my hands and I am thinking about my family from Lithuania and this is their story.’ I am collecting these mini-narratives along the way. At some point in the writing process I thought: This book really is about a country about the size of New Jersey. No one really knows much about it. Is there going to be a larger audience for it? There is, and it is connecting with people in ways I could not have anticipated at all.”
Instead of shunning the part of her that is Lithuanian, Gabis has come to terms with the fact that she would not be here today if it were not for her grandfather, whom she refers to as Senelis (“grandfather” in Lithuanian). “I feel that he walked away from a bloodbath. He lied on his naturalization forms and entered the country. But hence, I was born. So it is a very strange position to be in. Had he not come to this country with his children, my mom included, I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be writing his story.” There were many times that Gabis hated her Senelis. For much of the six years she spent writing the book, she fought with the anger she felt toward a man whom she loved until he died. Gabis writes about the imagined confrontations she would have with her Senelis if he were alive. Through her writing, however, she has come to terms with him and her Lithuanian blood: “I feel like I have embraced my blended identity more, because I feel that I owe it to the victims of my grandfather.”
Readers receive a complex view of the Holocaust that reveals a pattern that is not just good vs. evil. Readers must consider a more sympathetic perspective. Gabis gives color to characters responsible for unimaginable suffering. It is not out of love or bias for her grandfather that she comes to these conclusions; she says that it took her six years to ensure that her research was airtight and “beyond supposition and proximity.”
The stories of her maternal grandfather and her paternal grandfather are not dichotomous; they do not fight for a place in her heart. After much internal struggle, she has embraced her very complicated history. She makes clear that every tragedy is different. Gabis explains, “My family experienced both the brunt of Stalin’s purges and Jewish discrimination. I had these two family backgrounds and I was able to talk about both of those experiences without comparing them.”
The pain Gabis’s mother experienced throughout the research and writing almost stopped Gabis from divulging such a private burden. Gabis’s mother loved her father, and saw him as the man who saved her and her siblings from the fate of so many other Lithuanian families. She went several years without speaking to Gabis. “During the time that I knew that the work I was doing was really hurting my mom, it was difficult to continue. On the other hand, 8,000 Jews were slaughtered at the massacre of Polygon and their faces and what they might have felt while standing at the pit before being shot stayed with me and stays with me still. It is pure projection but my feeling was, if it had been me, the thing I would have been thinking was, I hope someone knows this, I hope someone knows this happened to me. And that kept me going.”