The daughter of a Lithuanian Catholic mother and Russian Jewish father, Gabis (The Wild Field, 1994) brings her sensibility as a poet and indefatigable energy as a historian to this engrossing memoir.
As she notes, the author’s family spoke little about their past. Gabis knew that her maternal grandparents had come to America after World War II; that her grandfather had fought bravely against Russian invaders; that her grandmother had been arrested and sent to labor camps. However, several years ago, she found out more: her grandfather had been a Nazi security chief in a town where at least two mass slaughters had occurred. Shocked, Gabis suddenly recalled anti-Semitic remarks he made as she was growing up. For the next several years, she became obsessed with one question: was the man she had loved a murderer? The author’s research involved repeated trips to Israel, Poland, and Lithuania, where she still has relatives. In each place, she interviewed Holocaust survivors whose persecution she recounts in moving detail; in Lithuania, she talked with witnesses to Russian and German occupations. Lithuania, she discovered, “as a country…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, those who shrugged and walked away.” The author also interviewed her aunts, whose stories were contradictory. Gabis petitioned for information from Lithuanian archives, discovered documents at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and eventually amassed some 400 pages of archival material. Her journey was frequently interrupted by obstacles: emergency heart surgery that delayed a research trip; a destructive flood in her apartment that damaged documents; food poisoning; her husband’s illness. But the greatest obstacle proved to be the blurred, slippery past, which continually frustrated her. “If I didn’t unravel” her grandfather’s mystery, she thinks, “it would unravel me.”
An eloquent testimony to the war’s enduring, violent impact.