Like so many Americans, writer Rita Gabis has mixed ancestry. Her late father was Jewish and her mother is a Lithuanian Catholic, whose family emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. Gabis knew her maternal grandfather—“Senelis” in Lithuanian—as a fond elderly man who bought her treats and took her fishing. But she had one disturbing memory: the time he told her, “No be like your father . . . Jews no good.”
It wasn’t until Senelis was long dead that her mother mentioned that he had worked for the Germans during the war—that is, the Nazis occupying Lithuania. He was a police chief. In other words, there was a good chance her dear grandpa had persecuted Jews.
A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet is Gabis’ gripping, psychologically acute account of her search for the truth about him, a wrenching personal journey. Was Pranas Puronis a Lithuanian patriot who helped the Nazis’ victims? Or was he one of the killers? Trapped or complicit? Gabis talks with relatives and Holocaust survivors, digs through records, travels to Lithuania and environs. Most moving are her interviews with elderly Jews who escaped the bloodlands where their families and friends died—remarkable people of brains, courage and wisdom.
Their country had been a stew of competing ethnicities. Many Lithuanians hated the Soviet Russians who were the first occupiers and welcomed the Germans as liberators. While some Lithuanians helped Jews, it is clear that others massacred thousands of Jews and Poles, under the direction of Germans. It was less clear to Gabis for a long time what role her grandfather played in that horror. Everyone seemed to have a different story.
Ultimately, an obscure Polish court file provides answers. But it’s Gabis’ resolute hunt and expressive prose that really illuminate these years of anguish.