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.
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.
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
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.
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.