Do not read this book if you want to remain undisturbed, if you want to rest in the knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust you have already accumulated, or if you want to see the world neatly divided into good and evil.
Otherwise, Rita Gabis’s memoir — the result of more than three years of tenacious and innovative historical and personal research based on newly discovered primary sources and interviews in Lithuania, Poland, Germany, the United States and Israel — is a mind-opening and heart-breaking account. The Lithuanian/Catholic-Belarusian/Jewish-American granddaughter of an immigrant named Pranas Puronas, Gabis searches to understand her grandfather’s involvement in the deportation and murder of Jews and Poles in eastern Lithuania as a Chief of Security Police under the German Gestapo during World War II.
Over the course of 400 pages, Rita Gabis (she believes her last name from her father’s Jewish side of the family may be a version of the Hebrew gabbai—an assistant in the synagogue) takes the reader into her painstaking, relentless attempt to piece together a coherent story of “the truth” about her mother’s Lithuanian-Catholic family, especially Pranas Puronas and the mass murders around the town of Švenčionys in which he may have directly participated.
In the process of poring over microfiches and newly released documents in Eastern European and American archives, Gabis uncovers many forgotten, purposefully hidden, and unknown facts — including evidence of occurrences that may implicate the multi-ethnic population of the area around Švenčionys between 1941 and 1945. Gabis’s research makes abundantly clear that survival was difficult for everybody as Lithuania was tossed between Germany, Poland, and Russia. She movingly describes the tremendous loss of life due to shifting alliances and collaborations with the newly powerful, and revenge against the newly powerless. Gabis’s detailed account includes the fate of Lithuanians — among them Gabis’s maternal grandmother, deported into Stalin’s Gulags.
Of all these horrors, the unimaginable horror perpetrated against the Jewish population of Lithuania — their almost complete annihilation — stands out. Gabis presents nightmarish details gleaned from official documents and riveting personal interviews; she documents names and places, connections, births and violent deaths, in order to honor the murdered and disappeared and give them the dignity of at least a memory — and to hold those responsible who betrayed, took advantage, abandoned, tortured, murdered, especially her grandfather. She finds circumstantial evidence for the likelihood of Puronas’s direct involvement in the murder of 8,000 Jews in the Poligon massacre as well as some possible evidence of him having saved several condemned Jews. Her Lithuanian family is of little help in uncovering the facts, and Gabis is left with “a little bit of hope” that her grandfather was not all evil.
As a member of the third generation, Gabis breaks her grandparents’ and parents’ silence about “then and there.” Read Gabis’s historically and emotionally accurate and convincing account of her journey into her family’s complicated, heart-wrenching past — and weep!
Reinhild Draeger-Muenke left her native Germany as a young adult and has lived in the United States for almost 40 years. She is a psychologist and family therapist in the Philadelphia area, helping people heal from intergenerationally transmitted trauma.