Rita Gabis began to look into the history of her grandfather after wrestling with two disturbing dreams. “Dream one: I’m being hunted down...Dream two: I’m a murderer,” she writes in the prologue to A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet: My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, a Search for the Truth. The intuition that these dreams might have to do with her family’s history, particularly her grandfather’s during World War II when he worked under the Gestapo as the chief of security police in the small Lithuanian town of Švenčionys before emigrating to the U.S., started Gabis on a knotted path that took her to archives, uncomfortable family meals, and the apartments of WWII survivors from the Bronx to Lithuania.
For a while, Gabis had no idea what she was doing or where her research into her grandfather’s wartime life was going to take her. Normal, healthy for an open-minded writer, at the beginning stages of research. She had a few questions in mind: was her grandfather involved in killing Jewish and Polish residents living in and around Švenčionys during the war? And if so, was he involved indirectly, or directly? A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet closely chronicles Gabis’ difficult research journey. We witness the author’s seemingly dead-end requests for documentation about her grandfather to official Polish and Lithuanian archives, her trips to Jewish history archives in the U.S., her conversations with a survivor of a massacre that her grandfather may have been involved in who is now living in the Bronx, her trips to the sites of past massacres near Švenčionys. Well into the book, we sense that she isn’t making much progress in finding definitive answers about her grandfather’s participation in the mass murders she learns about, like the one that took place in a killing site called Poligon were 8,000 Jews died in 1941.
Three-quarters of the way through the book, Gabis describes the mass of archival material, survivor testimony, and the detailed sense of place that she picks up on by traveling to the one-time sites of mass violence in Lithuania, as “ghost knowledge.” She writes, “It was enough to haunt you, but not enough to flesh out one man’s actions in an area under his partial wartime jurisdiction.” As frustrating as this is to a thorough researcher like Gabis, these blocks helped her realize that the nature of her inquiry might require her to come to peace with not knowing. “I’m not a historian who is dealing in large swaths of time and the major movements of a war; I was really working in a micro-history and much of the material and reference from that time period has been destroyed,” she explains. “So ultimately the question becomes, what can be knowable?”
Gabis’ book reflects her uncertainty with the narrative that she wants to take shape out of her material, the inevitable confusion in any search for answers with high personal stakes, her sense of rarely having her bearings; it’s a morass. Memories from Gabis’ childhood, explanations of the health problems that plagued her during her research, numerous interviews with survivors in Lithuania and the United States, memorandums, letters, maps, photographs — Gabis leaves a lot up to the reader to discern how they relate to each other and what broader story they tell. Fifty-two chapters, each of which has a lovely, melancholy brief, often seem to hover around one another rather than building up to any conclusion. They are connected by a sense of mystery at their cores, which Gabis skillfully draws out. To describe Gabis’ book as loosely structured is not to critique it negatively. She is dealing with mass murder, wartime horror, and her grandfather’s collaboration, “the nature of the wild circus that wartime is in an area outside a city where there’s less oversight and control by the German authorities,” as she puts it. Her disorientation—her openness with her readers about it—reads as an honest response to her material.
And though ultimately Gabis did find out some fairly concrete elements about her grandfather’s Nazi collaboration—late in her research, she received a document from the Supreme Court of Poland that labeled her grandfather a war criminal and committer of genocide—she still hesitated to come to any definitive conclusions about his role in the violence of the time. She hopes that her book being out in the world will make more information about the massacres and her grandfather’s role in them surface. “How conclusive then I’ll feel about it all, I don’t know,” she says. “I think I went as far as I could.”
Gabis called on her experience as a poet to help her embrace the element of unknowingness in her story. “I always say to my poetry students that the best poem ends not with a ribbon tied into a bow but with a question mark for the reader,” Gabis explains. “I think that was the nature of the book and that was something I had to live with as a writer—that there would be some things that would be unsolvable.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.