Wednesday, September 30, 2015

7 Questions With Rita Gabis, Author of A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet

Rita Gabis is the author of two books of poetry, co-author of a book on the craft of writing, and currently at work on "A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet" — a memoir due out from Bloomsbury US in the fall of 2015. Her awards include residencies at Yaddo and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as grants from the Connecticut State Arts foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Her publication list includes Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, Poetry, and most recently Salamander and the anthology "Lit from Inside: Forty Years of Poetry from Alice James Books." She lives in New York City where she teaches Creative Writing at Hunter College.  Her latest book is A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth, in which she investigates her grandfather’s hidden past during the Holocaust.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I became "hooked" on history at a very young age.  I was always a voracious reader and some of my favorite books as a young girl were biographies of historical figures.  Harriet Tubman, Abigail Adams, and George Washington Carver are just a handful of many I read eagerly.  I loved the feeling of being given access to a different life, time, and place and vividly recall sitting on the carpeted floor of the library near the history and biography shelves with a huge stack of books beside me.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
The role of history in my personal life is immense.  I am the child of first and second generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jewish on my father's side, Catholic on my mother's.  As a teen, I discovered the writing of James Baldwin and his quote "know whence you came and there is no limit to where you can go" became a favorite.  To me both then and now, the quote means, know the personal history of those who brought you into this world, and know as much as you can of the world they and those who came before them were born into. Without that, self-knowledge is hard to come by. In addition, my mother was a great traveler and in preparation for each journey she schooled herself deeply in the history of places as varied as Egypt, China, and Turkey. Today, she is no longer able to travel, but the places she explored and their distinct histories are among her most valued treasures.  Through her I learned that history is a door to a deeper experience of the life we live in the moment.  

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
In my professional life as both a writer and a teacher of writing, history is vital.  I have just finished writing a family memoir after five years of sifting through historical documents in several different languages and conducting interviews with elderly people about their experiences before, during, and after WWII.  Beyond that, when I teach creative writing I my students read many different kinds of writers.  If the writers I assign are not contemporary, I always ask my students to learn about the time period in which the writer lived and wrote.  That historical context is not always necessary to fall in love with a poem or a novel or a short story, but sometimes it can give the reader/aspiring writer wonderful insight into both the author and the work of art.  It also helps the writer understand how she or he is influenced by their own time.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
Studying history is essential!  First of all, it makes your world larger and when your world view is deeper and richer, your ideas and your sense of self and possibility become deeper and richer as well.  History forces us to ask what kind of people we want to be in the world in our own time.  When we read about lives lived before us or events that took place before our time we become more aware of the fact that people impact the world(s)--both large and small--they live in.  What do we want our impact to be?  How do we want the world to change?  What part of history do we wish we could have taken part in?  What historical period or event do we hope never happens again?  Often these questions help to shape the choices we make about what we want to study in college or make our life's work about.  The history of a crucial vaccine might make you want to become a medical researcher/scientist.  A knowledge of the history of slavery might compel you to become a civil rights lawyer!

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
My "favorite" period in history…well "favorite" is perhaps the wrong word.  My latest book is about the Holocaust, the German occupation of Eastern Europe during WWII, and local collaboration in the massacres of both Jews and non-combatant Poles during that same war.  As I said earlier, for five years I immersed myself in this horrific time period.  In order to write my book, I had to learn everything I could about the terrible atrocities that occurred in a particular region of Lithuania, an Eastern European country roughly the size of New Jersey.  In addition, I had to learn about the broader history of the country to understand the lasting impact of earlier wars and occupations.  Much of what I researched was heartbreaking, I also learned about acts of great courage and compassion.  We live in a world where genocide continues everyday, so I feel that the work I did for my book which is about the past, helps me to understand the present.

6.       Tell us about your book A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth?
As I mentioned earlier, I come from a blended family.  My Lithuanian Catholic mother emigrated from Lithuania to the United States with her father and her siblings several years after the war.  My Jewish father's parents came to the United States from Eastern Europe via London around 1910 after a wave of pogroms or mass killings of Jews in the Ukraine and Belorussia in particular convinced them that it was too dangerous to stay in Eastern Europe.  I had always been told that my Lithuanian Catholic grandfather fought against the Russians who invaded Lithuania before the Germans and who arrested thousands (including my Lithuanian grandmother) and sent them to prison or labor camps in what was known as the Siberian gulag.  But after my Jewish father died, I found myself wanting to learn more about his history and the history of the Lithuanian side of my family.  I began doing research and eventually asked my mother what exactly her father did during the war.  This is how I learned that he worked under the Gestapo as a Chief of Security police.  The security police in Lithuania were responsible for finding Communists, runaway Jews, and anyone involved in sabotaging the German occupation force and the German war effort.  Many members of the security police were part of shooting squads active particularly at the beginning of the war.  These squads murdered 95% of the Jewish population of Lithuania by shooting them at sites all over the country where pits had been dug and then covered up with dirt and lime when the killing was done.  

7.      What prompted you to undertake project and how did it change you?
Researching and writing "A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather and the SS, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth" changed my life in many ways.  It forced me to confront a multifaceted, horrific reality about a family member I had known and loved.  It challenged me to do my research carefully, to not jump to easy conclusions, to travel to the country where my mother and her father were born many times and learn as much as I could about the country's history both during my grandfather's early life and many decades before.  I had to ask myself what being "half-Jewish" and "half-Lithuanian" meant to me.  I had to write about my grandfather's actions during the war as his granddaughter but also as a researcher.  I had to let as much of the "truth" as I could discover be more important than the bonds of family and the silences within my family.  I set out with a simple question:  did my grandfather hurt anyone during the war?  I interviewed people who told me of the most difficult events in their lives.  I had to honor the trust they placed in me and at the same time, continue to check their stories against other stories, documents, the work of many other historians.  Memory is a wild card.  But memory is also who we were, what we lived through, who we have become.  I was determined that the war stories people were courageous enough to tell me would not be lost and that my grandfather's actions be presented within the framework of his history--his childhood, his young adulthood, who he hoped to be, who he became.

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