A Guest at the Shoot­ers’ Ban­quet: My Grand­fa­ther’s SS Past, My Jew­ish Fam­i­ly, a Search for the Truth

  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

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!

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Discussion Questions