Lithuania’s family secret
Silvia Foti grew up listening to her grandfather’s praises. Jonas Noreika – affectionately known as “General Storm” – is still hailed in Lithuania as a war hero and anti-Soviet supporter who fought for Lithuania’s independence at the height of World War II. Streets and schools can be found named after him, and songs of his bravery are still sung in Foti’s childhood neighborhood in Marquette Park, Illinois, which at one time was nicknamed “Little Lithuania” due to its large immigrant population. “My grandfather, even though I had never met him, I was raised to love him,” says Foti. “I’ve only heard wonderful things about him.”
This would explain Foti’s shock, as she was writing a biography on Noreika’s life, when she discovered that her grandfather was neither a hero nor a liberator, but rather a Nazi collaborator responsible for Noreika’s death. thousands of Jews.
The Lithuanian community of Marquette Park initially assigned the responsibility of telling Noreika’s story to Foti’s mother. Unfortunately, she falls ill at the beginning of her research and, before her death, entrusts her daughter with the task of completing the biography. Since Foti grew up speaking Lithuanian as her first language, attending a Lithuanian-Catholic school on Saturdays, and getting involved in Lithuanian organizations on the weekends, she is committed to telling the story of a such a nationally renowned personality at the request of his community. It wasn’t until her grandmother died several months later that she began to suspect things weren’t what they seemed.
“She told me not to write the book,” says Foti. “She told me to let the story lie, that there was no point in digging. I was stunned…I didn’t know why she was saying that. hospital and just stared at the wall.
Despite his grandmother’s farewell wishes, Foti wrote the book after twenty years of “psychological challenges”. Foti recalls that during the first 10 years of her research, she was still in “a state of denial”. Yet, ultimately, what was meant to be a sparkling portrait of a man who opposed foreign invasion and totalitarianism instead became “The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Found My Grandmother -father was a war criminal”, a documentation of the supervision of deportation and deportation by Jonas Noreika. the extermination of up to 15,000 Lithuanian Jews.
Foti told his family’s story in Vilnius last month during a seminar entitled “Learning from the past, acting for the future – Teaching about the Holocaust and human rights”, organized by the Olga Institute Lengyel for Holocaust and Human Rights Studies (TOLI). The event, TOLI notes, came on the heels of a new national judgment in Lithuania over its Nazi collaboration past. It also matched the conviction of Lithuania’s oldest concentration camp guard at the age of 101.
Noreika was a “very ambitious” man from the start. “Everyone always said he was a wonderful speaker, that he could inspire crowds with his words,” says Foti. As a child, she learned that her grandfather, at the age of 30, had been instrumental in the liberation of Western Lithuania from the Soviets in 1941. But that was also the start of the German occupation, the consequences of which were never taught in school. “We heard about the Siberian camps and we learned about the evils of communism, but we were never told about the Holocaust in Lithuania. I didn’t even know there was a Holocaust in Lithuania. We were never told about the Jews, except that Lithuania was very welcoming towards the Jews. When I started writing this book, imagine my embarrassment.
Eighty percent of Lithuania’s Jews, more than 200,000, were killed in the six months from June to December 1941. The killings were carried out mainly by the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units of the SS, but also by Lithuanian collaborators. At the time, Noreika was governor of the Siauliai region, appointed to this position by the German high command. During his tenure, the Jews of Plunge, Telsiai and Siauliai were all murdered and their communities were destroyed. Even though the whole region was under German occupation, Noreika was still “the top office” – executing orders and making decisions for his country. “It took a genocidal machine to kill all these Jews,” Foti points out. “There were steps to take to destroy them: identify the Jews, transfer the Jews, lead them to mass graves, translate documents for the Nazis. Of course, the Lithuanians helped with this.
Eighty percent of the Jews of Lithuania, more than two hundred thousand, were killed in the space of six months, from June to December 1941.
She continues: “At the time, the propaganda was so strong that it became known in Lithuania that every Jew was a communist. And eventually it morphed into the belief that Jews as young as children were communists. This gave Germans and Lithuanians, but especially Lithuanians, license to kill them in revenge. All this was hidden from me.
Lithuanians pedestalize Noreika using the justification that “he himself never pulled the trigger against the Jews. They think only the one who shot a Jew is guilty,” says Foti. Also, because when the Nazis started losing the war, many Lithuanian leaders and intellectuals, including Noreika, were thrown into German concentration camps. It would seem that revenge against the Soviets and victimization under the Nazis is a perfect summary for a beloved national hero.
Six weeks after his imprisonment in Germany, however, Noreika and his rank were granted the position of “honorary prisoners” by Heinrich Himmler and were subsequently treated far better than other political captives. “They have their own barracks with only thirty-six men in each. They got their own beds, sheets, blankets, pillows and new uniforms. They could write and receive letters and parcels. They didn’t have to work but could if they wanted to stave off boredom. Foti speaks with humor in her voice, amused by the absurdity of Lithuanians confusing her grandfather’s experience with that of Jews in Auschwitz. “By concentration camp standards,” she says, “he lived like an aristocrat.”
In January 1945, Noreika was released, only to be recaptured by the Russians and executed in a KGB prison in 1947.
Hearing Noreika’s story in its entirety is uncomfortable, but fascinating. “The Nazi’s Granddaughter,” rather than a simple historical narrative, contains explicit themes of betrayal and guilt that weigh heavily on a “proud Lithuanian and Lithuanian nationalist conscience,” as Foti describes herself. I ask Foti how the Lithuanian community abroad and at home has reacted to his work. “Not well,” she replies without too much hesitation. “They are very angry with me. They called me a traitor. They haven’t read the book, they don’t want to read the book, they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Even members of Foti’s own family will not read his book. “It’s a bit traumatic for this community to admit what has been done,” she adds remorsefully. Surprisingly, Lithuanians in Lithuania reacted more positively than Lithuanians in Chicago. “The response is better there than here. Here, Lithuanians feel the need to prove their patriotism, as part of a kind of remote nationalism,” Foti assumes. “Whereas in Lithuania people feel less need to prove something to their country.”
Despite interest in a shameful past, press for Foti’s book in the motherland has been limited, perhaps a warning that Eastern Europe’s propensity to deny involvement in Nazi atrocities, from Hungary to Poland, is far from being defeated. The Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center (LGRRTC) has officially denied claims that Noreika participated in the Holocaust, arguing instead that Noreika misunderstood the purpose of Jewish ghettos in Lithuania and in fact helped save Jews. But Foti fights back. Despite a lawsuit against LGRRTC based on Holocaust denial dropped by Lithuanian courts, it focuses on public education. “My grandfather could be the gateway to having a more honest conversation about Lithuania’s past,” she explains. “No one asked my permission to put up the plaques that honor him or the schools that bear his name. They should be removed and renamed, to honor someone who saved Jews, perhaps someone recognized by Yad Vashem.
Towards the end of our call, Foti and I discussed my own family, originally from Lithuania, specifically from the village of Tryškiai, located in the very region Noreika supervised during World War II. Although my family fled to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and fortunately did not witness firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust, it was nonetheless chilling to speak with the descendant of a man who helped wipe out the civilization from which I trace my lineage.
Hearing from the Jewish community of Lithuania and Lithuanian Jews in the Diaspora like myself completely changed Foti and his sense of identity. “I didn’t expect the Jewish community to welcome me as much as they did, but I’m so overwhelmed by their positive intentions,” she says. “There is something about the Jewish nation that holds Jewish life so sacred, and I think my book serves as a memory of Jewish life. That’s why I feel like I was made so welcome, even as the granddaughter of an abuser. She continues, “The hand of God is behind us in this work. And we all have the same God.
“The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Found Out My Grandfather Was a War Criminal” is the story of a family’s secrecy and a country’s shame. It is an important piece of literature in teaching the Holocaust because it offers the perspective of a descendant, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator. Learning more about these descendants and working with them to bring about change is an inspiring way forward.
Blake Flayton is new media director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.