A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet
A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet: My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth by Rita Gabis. (Bloomsbury USA, 464 pp. $28)
In her memoir A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet, Rita Gabis tells of discovering new facts about her once-beloved grandfather. He was chief of police from 1941 to 1943 under the Gestapo in the Lithuanian town of Svencionys, near the killing field of Poligon, where 8,000 Jews were executed over three days in the fall of 1941. The following year, the local Polish population in the Lithuanian town was also hunted down and murdered.
Gabis, an award-winning poet, comes from a family of East European Jews and Lithuanian Catholics. As a child, she was close to her Catholic grandfather and knew one version of the family’s past: her grandparents had immigrated to the United States after World War II; her grandfather had fought bravely against the Russians, whose brutal occupation destroyed thousands of lives before Hitler’s army swept in; and her grandmother had been arrested and sent to labor camps.
Her family had spoken little about their past, but Gabis wanted to know the full story. Little by little she began to wheedle details out of her mother, who usually answered in monosyllables about the war. Gabis recalled anti-Semitic remarks her grandfather made when she was a child. Was the man she loved responsible for mass murder? Obsessed with the question, Gabis traveled repeatedly to Israel, Poland and Lithuania, where she still has relatives, and questioned elderly aunts in the United States whose stories were contradictory. She sought information from Lithuanian archives, discovered documents at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and amassed 400 pages of archival material. She also interviewed Holocaust survivors and witnesses to the Russian and German occupations.
“Lithuania as a country,” she discovered, “is indistinguishable from the invaders, collaborators, ghosts, heroines, thieves, defenders, and healers it contains. It’s those who know nothing about what went on behind closed doors and those who stood by and watched….”
Her five-year quest had to overcome a number of personal obstacles, but the greatest one was the elusive record of the past, which proved frustrating. “If I didn’t unravel the truth about grandfather,” she wrote, “it would unravel me.”
Only in recent times, after prompting by her brother, did the author recall an instance from their childhood that proved telling. On fishing excursions, when her grandfather pulled up an inedible sea robin, “he never threw it back,” her brother said. “He unhooked it and let it flop on the dock and then started stomping on it, blood and guts everywhere, stomping until the fish was dead. It embarrassed me. People would be looking at us. I asked him why he didn’t just let the fish go. He said it was dirty. He said it had no right to live.”
Gabis utilizes her literary gifts to recount the disturbing truths she uncovers and to carry the narrative along. American readers might have a difficult time keeping track of the place names, for example, which, because of constantly changing borders, have variant spellings in Lithuanian, Polish and Yiddish. The use of accent marks is more confusing than helpful. These are quibbles.
At the heart of this confounding tale are the awful moral questions that bedevil the author. What were her grandfather’s inner thoughts? What were his feelings regarding the small and not-so-small decisions he made in Lithuania? What did her grandmother and other relatives know? Metaphorically, we all have skeletons in our closets. In Lithuania, the skeletons are real.