A good poet and a good historian, surprisingly, have a lot in common.
Both write with precision. Both have fiendish eyes for detail. Both reject generalizations as not useful, stereotypes as not accurate, and platitudes as a great big waste of words.
Rita Gabis, who will be speaking at the United Synagogue of Hoboken on Sunday, February 26, is a poet; by midway through her extensive research for her book, “A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet. My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth,” she qualified as a historian as well.
Ms. Gabis, who lives in Manhattan and teaches creative writing at Hunter College, said that the book is “a hybrid — a memoir, a family story, and also very heavily grounded in research.” She went to Eastern Europe — Poland, Ukraine, and particularly Lithuania, where most of her family story unspooled. “And it’s also a book about identity,” she said.
Ms. Gabis’s mother is a Lithuanian-born Catholic who immigrated to the United States from a DP camp in Germany when she was 5 years old. Her father, who died 11 years ago, was a second-generation American Jew.
Ms. Gabis’s identity always has been complicated. “My father’s mom was the amazing matriarch of the family,” she said. “Even though Judaism passes through the matrilineal line, my grandmother took me aside when I was about 12, and in defiance of rabbinical law, she said ‘You’re a Jew.’
“A few years earlier, my grandfather, my Lithuanian Catholic grandfather, for reasons that I did not understand then, took me aside and said ‘Don’t be like your father.’
“I was upset about that. I adored Dad. And then he clarified. ‘No Jews. No good.’
“My parents were married, and they remained married, although it was a complicated marriage. And the declaration of my Jewish grandmother really stuck with me, and it would have, I think, even if I hadn’t felt defiance toward my grandfather’s statement.
“That’s how I grew up.”
Ms. Gabis was born in Chicago, where her father earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy, but her family soon moved to Missouri. Every summer, “we’d trek to Martha’s Vineyard,” where her grandmother had scrabbled together enough money to buy a house.
She’d grown up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays; now, her identify is perhaps complicated, perhaps made more clear by the fact that her husband is Jewish. Her father had been secular until he got sick — he suffered from multiple myeloma — and as he weakened, Jewishness became increasingly important to him. She learned more about her father’s family — her grandmother had escaped from Ukraine to London decades before the Holocaust. Most of the relatives who stayed behind died.
Her father “kept trying to give me a paperback, ‘History of the Jews,’ filled with his scribbly handwriting. He kept saying, ‘Read it. Read it. Read it!’ He said, ‘These are your people. You have to know where you came from. I raised my eyebrow, and I said, ‘With my Lithuanian Catholic mother in the kitchen, making soup?’ and he said, ‘Nevertheless, take it.’
“And when it became clear that he was dying, I put it on my shelf. That’s where it is today. Full of his scribbly handwriting.”
As she grew older, Ms. Gabis realized more and more about her mother’s background. Her grandmother, her mother’s mother, “had been arrested by the secret police in early 1941 and shipped off in a cattle car to Lubyanka prison, where she was tortured,” she said. “The skin was pulled off her forearms. And then she was given a prison term in the gulag.”
Astonishingly, her grandmother survived, although no one in the family knew about it until much later. “At about 11, we all went to JFK airport, and she descended, in the middle of a blizzard,” Ms. Gabis said.
Meanwhile, she was beginning to realize that her grandfather, whom she continued to love, “had been a partisan in the war against Russia.” She knew about one heroic deed — he’d managed to get his children “in the back of a wagon, across mined fields, to safety,” but still she didn’t know what he had done in the war.
One day, after her father died, when she was sitting with her mother having coffee at a diner on the Upper West Side, “I asked her if her father had been a policeman, and she said yes. And I said ‘What do you mean? Under the Gestapo?’ And she said yes.”
Ms. Gabis knew bits of Polish, German, and particularly Lithuanian; she began to do research, starting at the Holocaust museum in Washington. (“I could speak Lithuanian as a child,” she said. “I remember once listening to my mother and a friend speak Lithuanian and realizing that I couldn’t understand them. I had lost it.”) Her linguistic skills developed, and soon she moved the focus of her work to eastern Europe.
“I knew where my grandfather had been stationed, and I learned that he had been a regional chief of security police. The security police were the deadliest collaboration force in Lithuania, where 95 percent of the Jewish population was annihilated,” she said.
Building on shreds of information, Ms. Gabis searched through records; the Germans had kept meticulous files, the Soviet Union took them over, and later gave them back to Lithuania. “I was going through microfiche for hours, looking for names, it’s all horrific, and then I am thinking to myself ‘What am I doing here?’ And I give myself another half hour, and then another ten mninutes, and I was turning the dial — this was the days of microfiches, with dials — and all of a sudden there is my grandfather’s signature on a report. He had dictated it to a secretary, and it had been translated in German. And then there was another report. And another report. And another report. And another and another and another. It was the beginning of the paper trail.”
For Ms. Gabis as a granddaughter, that was a moment of pure pain; for her as a historian, she had been parched and it was mannah.
Soon, she went to Warsaw, where “I tracked down the last living survivors of the ghetto” in Svencyionas, the town her grandfather had policed. She also found the last surviving eyewitnesses to the massacres there. “There were two major massacres,” she said. In the fall of 1941, eight thousand Jews were rounded up and taken to a long pit, about seven kilometers from where my grandfather’s office was based, and the street where he lived with my mom and her siblings. The Jews were interned, and then they were taken and shot.” The second massacre saw the murder of about one thousand noncombatant Poles, mainly women and children.
“I discovered documentation that placed my grandfather at the meeting with other chiefs of police, where they discussed how to organize the mass killings of Jews and the creation of the ghetto. And then, in the prison yard, I went to what had been his office in the old jail, reading the list of the names of the Poles who had been marched to the Jewish cemetery and shot in the back of the head.”
From her talks with witnesses and survivors, it became very important to Ms. Gabis “to weave into my book these incredible stories of folks who I came to know quite well, who survived against the odds,” she said. “Anyone who does this work realizes that time is very short. I felt very driven to report this deeply.
“I also felt driven to really give a sense of the region prior to the Soviet occupation, because if you don’t know what a place was, you don’t know what was lost.”
Ms. Gabis has been thinking a great deal about collaboration lately, she said. Current events compel her to it. “Each story of collaboration has its own complexity, and it became more and more important to me to understand my grandfather not only because he was my grandfather, but because he was someone who found himself in a postion to gain from chaos.
“Even though he hated the Germans, he really was anti-Semite, and he was given a position with a certain amount of power. That became a really important part of the story — the choices people make.
“So many people — including many of the Jews in my life — said, ‘I don’t know what I would have done if someone put a gun to my head.’ And I said to them, “Actually there wasn’t a gun to his head.’ And in the end he was able to immigrate to this country.”
Her grandfather benefitted from the American postwar obsession with Communists, she said. He had been an anti-Communist, so what’s a little war crime or two?
Her grandfather, oddly enough, was a guest at Richard Nixon’s inauguration. He was one of the founders of the Lithuanian-American Society, and a staunch Republican.
Her own emotions, from which she frequently disconnected as she researched, were complicated. “Researching the book was like a series of shocks,” she said. The first discovery was a profound shock, but each following one was less severe.
“That early exchange I had with my grandfather about my father, before I understood the extent of his anti-Semitism, haunted me,” she said. “The more I worked on the book, the more it haunted me.” She learned that her grandfather had ranted against Jews during her childhood, although never in mixed company, or when she and her father were there. “My grandfather was very pragmatic,” she said. “He saw that my father would earn a good living.”
His brutal, Jew-killing past never got in the way of her grandfather’s continuing to love her, Ms. Gabis said, but “there is a question mark. In different historical circumstances I don’t know how far that love would have gone.
“I just don’t know.”
Who: Rita Gabis
What: Will talk about her book, “A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet. My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth,” at brunch
When: On Sunday, February 26, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: At the United Synagogue of Hoboken, 115 Park Ave.
For more information: Call (201) 659-4000 or go to www.hobokensynagogue.org.