VILNIUS, Lithuania – When her mother was dying, Silvia Foti made a promise. She vowed to continue her plans to write a book about her mother’s father, Foti’s grandfather, a Lithuanian hero named “General Storm”.
He was among the young soldiers who fought against the Soviet Union in their brief but brutal first occupation of Lithuania in 1940, and was later shot in a KGB prison. Like many of his comrades, he is considered a national hero.
But Foti, a high school English teacher from Chicago, said that after years of researching the man whose name was Jonas Noreika, she found that her grandfather worked with the Nazis by facilitating the extermination of thousands of Lithuanian Jews .
“He agreed with the Nazis on the elimination of the Jews,” she said.
Foti’s revelations sparked a firestorm in Lithuania when it surfaced two years ago. They were meticulously detailed in a book published last month and have contributed to an increasingly venomous public debate about Noreika’s legacy and the role Lithuanians played alongside Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
An estimated 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews, more than 200,000 people, were massacred during the conquest of the Third Reich – one of the highest proportions of all countries affected by the Holocaust.
However, the prevailing narrative in Lithuania has long been resistance to the Soviets and Nazis, a mark of national identity that state officials have worked to strengthen. In January, a lawmaker and longtime defender of Noreika’s legacy sparked outrage by suggesting that local Jewish leaders may even have had some responsibility for the Holocaust.
And on Thursday, the Lithuanian parliament voted to dismiss the head of the country’s genocide research center, as the centre’s work has become increasingly controversial.
It is a bitter argument that, more than 75 years after the end of World War II, shows the extent to which Lithuania still struggles to come to terms with its own history.
Foti claimed the official story was a “cover-up”.
Numerous streets in Lithuania are named after Noreika. So is a school in his hometown. In Vilnius, the capital, there is a plaque on the building he worked on, commemorating his life and work.
Many Lithuanians know what Foti called “fairy tales”: Noreika fought in front of the Soviet armed forces during the so-called June uprising in 1941 and was the organizer of the Lithuanian Activist Front, an underground militia group. He later fought against the Nazis before being sent to a concentration camp. After his release at the end of the war, he worked as a legal expert at the Academy of Sciences trying to unite scattered groups of fighters to resist the Soviets before being shot in a KGB prison in 1947 at the age of 36.
Foti’s family read their last letter from prison every Christmas Eve, a treasured heirloom.
The first Soviet occupation lasted little more than a year, but it plays a huge role in the history of Lithuania – thousands of people were killed or sent to gulags. The same power would rule the Baltic States with an iron fist from 1945 to 1991, killing thousands more and cementing the reputation of already idolized freedom fighters who spoke out against the Soviets in 1941.
The period of National Socialist rule over Lithuania from 1941 to the end of the war in 1945 also casts a long shadow. Jews had lived in what is now Lithuania since the 14th century and helped make it a thriving, diverse trade and religious center that thrives on Jewish culture.
But during the war, Lithuania’s Jewish population was all but wiped out. Records show that the Lithuanian leaders were at least somewhat involved in the massacre.
For example, a report by the local branch of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi paramilitary death squads, dated October 15, 1941, states that local Lithuanian fighters on June 25 and 26 “eliminated more than 1,500 Jews, set fire to several synagogues or destroyed them on others Wise and burned down an area that consisted of about 60 houses inhabited by Jews. “
The next night, “2,300 Jews were eliminated in the same way,” the report said.
However, the extent to which Lithuanians were involved in atrocities has been heavily contested. Noreika’s defense lawyers say it was in the interests of the Nazis to exaggerate Lithuania’s commitment. Many also argue that Noreika’s reputation was later tarnished by KGB propaganda.
The Lithuanian State Genocide and Resistance Research Center, considered the official guardian of the country’s collective memory, was one of Noreika’s main defenders. In 2015, a report was published which found that Noreika was not involved in the mass murder of Jews. And in 2019, citing newly available documents, the center said Noreika was responsible for rescuing Jews through a rescue network.
Professor Adas Jakubauskas, who spoke in an interview before Parliament dismissed him as chairman of the center on Thursday, said the center had “reliable data” showing that “Noreika is actively organizing resistance to the Nazis and saving Jews Has”.
He said the anti-Nazi activity was the reason Noreika was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, where he spent two years before it was liberated.
“At the time, neither the Lithuanian government nor Noreika could make decisions on German or Jewish issues,” he said.
Jakubauskas became embroiled in controversy after 17 historians working with the center wrote to the speaker of parliament known as Seimas complaining that the institution’s leadership made irresponsible statements, sparking the so-called wars of remembrance, and that its political control this was “destroying the quality of research.”
One of the historians, Mingailė Jurkutė, who separately criticized the center’s “ideological narrative” in an online article, has been fired from the center.
In particular, questions about Noreika’s legacy have multiplied in recent years. In 2018, Grant Gochin, an American Jew of Lithuanian descent, sued the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, claiming his ancestors were among the Jews killed during Noreika’s governorship in Šiauliai County. The Vilnius court ruled that there was no evidence that Noreika was involved in the killing of Jews.
However, tensions remain high. In 2019, the memorial plaque in Vilnius commemorating Noreika was smashed with a hammer. The plaque was restored but removed weeks later by the mayor of Vilnius, who agreed with claims that the state had whitewashed the darker side of Noreika’s history.
In response, a nationalist group installed another, larger plaque in its place, on which supporters sang patriotic songs.
Now Foti’s book has added a new fold to the debate.
“Nobody talked about it”
It is safe to say that Foti’s book is not what her mother or many other Lithuanians would have expected.
“The Nazi’s Granddaughter” describes how Foti traveled to Lithuania and looked through piles of documents for evidence that Noreika ordered the murder of thousands of Jews when he was governor of Šiauliai County during the German occupation.
Nationalists like Noreika welcomed the Germans as liberators in 1941 and hoped they would help create a free Lithuanian state, as Germany did in 1918.
But Foti said Noreika was not just a spectator of the Holocaust. He was a Nazi collaborator who was okay with their cause. She pointed to a nationalist pamphlet that Noreika wrote in 1933 when he was 22 years old: “Hold your head up, Lithuanians !!!” calling for an economic boycott of the Jews in the coastal city of Klaipėda.
“In the country of Klaipėda, the Germans overthrow the Lithuanians, and in the greater Lithuania area the Jews are buying up all the farms at auctions,” he wrote. “Once and for all: We will not buy products from Jews!”
Foti said her grandfather “must have approved the murder of 2,000 Jews in Plungė in July 1941 as the leader of the uprising in the northwest of the country.”
The episode is contested not only by Noreika defenders, but also by leading Lithuanian historians, who say Foti’s account of what happened in Plungė is based on unreliable sources.
Foti has compiled additional evidence, however. In her book, she quotes a huge report by Karl Jäger, a Nazi commander who led many of the mass murders during the Holocaust in Lithuania, which meticulously lists more than 130,000 Jewish deaths and where they occurred.
According to the report, Jäger’s unit, SD Einsatzkommando 3, took control of the area on August 9, 1941 – by that time 4,000 people had already been killed. They were “Jews who were liquidated by pogroms and executions (including partisans),” the report says. “Partisans” refers to local nationalist fighters.
Foti argues that as the leader of the Lithuanian partisans at the time, her grandfather undoubtedly played a key role in carrying out the atrocities.
Her research also shows that Noreika later, as governor of Šiauliai County, signed about 100 documents related to the Holocaust – including orders that led to the establishment of a Jewish ghetto and the expropriation of Jewish property.
Noreika’s defense lawyers argue that he may have sent Jews to ghettos but didn’t know what the result would be. But Foti said it was time for Lithuania to fully acknowledge its contribution to the genocide. She is among those calling for Noreika’s posthumous military honors to be revoked and for all schools bearing his name to be renamed.
“I didn’t even know that the Holocaust in Lithuania grew up here in Chicago. Nobody talked about it,” she said.
“It will take a lot of education. Lithuania has to follow in Germany’s footsteps,” she said, referring to Germany’s own historical accounts.
“A bloody, bloody past”
According to the 2011 census, the Jewish community in Lithuania is now small, just over 3,000 people. Given the limited visibility, it is not surprising that Lithuanians would be shocked to learn of their country’s involvement in the Holocaust, said Faina Kukliansky, leader of the Lithuanian Jewish community affiliated with the World Jewish Congress.
“How are the locals supposed to find out what happened in Lithuania during World War II?” She asked. “The memory of the Holocaust is being preserved by this small surviving Jewish community as there is still a lack of large-scale government initiatives to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. We have neither a national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust nor a memorial to the rescuers. “
She noted that there is no museum dedicated to the history of Jews in Lithuania and that the artifacts related to Jewish history are scattered among various museums and other institutions.
Kukliansky is a member of a working group in the Ministry of Justice that is evaluating a law that bans the rejection of mass crimes. Under Section 170 of the Lithuanian Criminal Code, anyone who “publicly condones the crimes of genocide or other crimes against humanity”, including the actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, could face a substantial fine or two years’ imprisonment if convicted.
The law exists, but it doesn’t work well, said Kukliansky, because people still don’t fully understand what happened. In some countries, rejection of what really happened is becoming a “dominant position,” she said.
And while the law makes it illegal to condone “the aggression of the USSR or Nazi Germany against the Republic of Lithuania”, it makes no mention of crimes allegedly committed by Lithuanians against Jews and other minorities.
This ambivalent position was reinforced on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when a right-wing lawmaker, Valdas Rakutis, declared in a statement posted on the public broadcaster’s website that “there is no shortage of Holocaust perpetrators among the Jews themselves consists”.
The statements were condemned at home and abroad. The US Ambassador to Lithuania, Robert Gilchrist, said it was shocking that a lawmaker should “advocate distortions regarding Holocaust collaborators in Lithuania and shamefully try to accuse Jews as perpetrators”.
Rakutis, a history professor and former advisor to the country’s armed forces who was elected to parliament last year, resigned as chairman of the parliamentary commission on the state’s historical memory and apologized to “anyone who was offended”.
But Rakutis is also a member of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, and his views are closer to the mainstream than many in Lithuania would like to admit.
In the course of his remarks, however, the demands on Lithuania to re-examine its history have increased further.
“It’s a bloody, bloody past. I know the Lithuanians have suffered. I understand. I totally do,” said Foti. “I didn’t look into this, and if it wasn’t for my grandfather, I wouldn’t have looked into it.”
Gil Skorwid reported from Vilnius; Patrick Smith reported from London.