Memoir checks for skeletons in grandpa’s closet

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The book

"A Guest at the Shooter's Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, a Search for the Truth" by Rita Gabis (Bloomsbury, 437 pages, $28)

Rita Gabis loved her grandfather. Years after he died she began to have some questions and doubts about him. Gabis investigated his past. Her memoir “A Guest at the Shooter’s Banquet: My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, a Search for the Truth” is the product of her diligent studies.

She called him Senelis, the Lithuanian word for “grandfather.” He was her mother’s father. Senelis and his family had come to America from Lithuania in the years after World War II ended. Senelis was a Catholic. His daughter, the author’s mother, married a man who was Jewish.

The author remembered times when her grandfather had made disparaging remarks about Jewish people. As she began looking into his history his comments began to acquire more weight.

She spoke to her mother and asked his other daughters, her aunts, about Senelis, a man who was portrayed in family lore as heroic: He fought the Soviets as the war ended and the USSR occupied Lithuania. He then got his family safely away to America.

Gabis asked her relatives what grandfather did during the war? They reluctantly admitted that Senelis had been in charge of the Security Police in Svencionys, an area of Lithuania that was then under German control. This police force was known as Saugumas, and they worked in close cooperation with German SS death squads.

The author embarked on a prolonged exploration to try to discover who her grandfather really was and what things he was involved in during the war. She conducted research in various archives in her quest to find out whether Senelis was really a hero or in reality, a secret monster.

Senelis operated in a jurisdiction where two mass murders had happened. In the first instance thousands of Jewish residents of Svencionys had been taken out into the forest and executed. In the second instance Polish partisans had assassinated the local German commander. The Germans demanded that their Lithuanian collaborators carry out reprisals. A thousand Polish civilians in the area were massacred.

Those killings were carried out by Lithuanian police. Her grandfather was in charge. She wondered, was he there, was he a participant in the slaughter? She interviewed survivors and asked them if they saw him there?

The shooter’s banquet of the title refers to a gathering that was held after the first mass shooting. The participants had been drinking heavily for days. When it was over they celebrated with a banquet. Some musicians they hired refused to speak with them in Lithuanian. The killers took them outside and shot them.

She writes: “Saugumas members were in attendance at the shooter’s banquet after the killing. Since my grandfather was their chief, it is hard to imagine that he wasn’t there … .” The author wondered if her kind, loving grandfather had participated in these atrocities? Near the end of the book she recalls that they used to go fishing with Senelis and he would be mellow and kind and then suddenly exhibit flashes of unspeakable cruelty toward some innocent fish.

We never know what is really inside someone’s heart.

About the Author