She thought her grandfather was a Lithuanian hero. Research leads her to ask, was he a patriot or a Nazi?
To this day, Silvia Foti is not sure if she was supposed to expose or exonerate her grandfather Jonas Noreika.
In Lithuania, he is remembered as General Storm, his nom de guerre when he led an underground resistance to the Soviet army’s invasion of his homeland during World War II. There are statues and streets named for him. His daughter, Foti’s mother, spent decades assembling myriad documents for a biography of Noreika. At 55, Foti’s mother got a doctorate in literature to prepare herself to write a book about his life. But she fell ill, and never wrote it.
“In the hospital on her deathbed, she pulled me close and whispered: ‘You must write the story,’ ” Foti recalled her mother saying.
Yet when Foti told that to Noreika’s widow, she replied: “Just let history lay.”
As Foti began working her way through the documents, she found troubling hints that there was more to her grandfather’s story than the heroic legend she was raised on. Because of Noreika’s fame, Foti felt like a princess as a child in Chicago’s Lithuanian community, the largest outside the homeland. But eventually she uncovered a pamphlet her grandfather wrote in 1933. It was filled with rants against the Jews as economic exploiters of Lithuania and urged: “We won’t buy any products from Jews!”
“I wonder if my mother was wrestling with her father’s anti-Semitism,” Foti said. “Did she want me to tell or suppress that part of the story?”
This Tuesday, a court in Vilnius, the country’s capital, will be asked to decide whether Noreika was, in fact, a hero or an accomplice in the Nazi Holocaust. The plaintiff is Grant Gochin, an American of Lithuanian descent whose Jewish relatives were murdered in Lithuania during World War II. He wants state-funded institutions there to cease honoring Nazi collaborators, like it is alleged Foti’s grandfather was.
Until last year, neither Foti nor Gochin knew that the other one was on Noreika’s trail.
But while it was emotionally wrenching for her, he went at it with an uncompromising sense of purpose. Gochin grew up palpably sensing the pain felt by his grandfather who got out of Lithuania in time — a look on his face suggesting he was recalling relatives he left behind who perished.
“We cannot give our families justice,” Gochin said. “We can only ensure the truth is told.”
The Soviets in Lithuania
Foti and Gochin became acquainted in 2018, after she published an article in Salon about her grandfather and he separately filed a lawsuit. The suit named as defendant the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. A government-funded institution, its name echoes the tragic chapters of the tiny country’s history.
Long part of Russia, its gargantuan neighbor, Lithuania got its independence as a consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Early in World War II, the Soviets annexed Lithuania. In 1941, Hitler’s armies pushed the Russians out. They returned as the war was ending. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.
Given those twists and turns, Lithuanian scholars and patriots have had to wrestle with a cornucopia of troubling memories. One is the fact that Jews were being rounded up by Lithuanians before the Nazi invaders arrived. On June 22, 1941, as the Soviets were retreating, armed Lithuanian nationalists locked up the Jews of Plunge in the town’s synagogue. They were among the 200,000 Jews who perished in Lithuania during the war, a number at Lithuanian hands.
For decades, the official narrative attributed those atrocities to low-life ruffians, noted Saulius Suziedelis, a leading scholar of the Holocaust in Lithuania. But he rejects the idea that they were spontaneous killings.
“The Germans trained armed deserters from the communists’ army,” Suziedelis said. “Lithuanians said: ‘The Jews did the same thing to us.’ ”
Since some Jews were communists, ergo they were responsible for Lithuania’s suffering under Soviet domination, was the prevailing thought. In recent decades, Suziedelis added, younger Lithuanian scholars have taken a more textured view of the war years.
But as Gochin discovered, many Lithuanians are reluctant to admit that Noreika, whom the Soviets executed in 1947, was an accomplice to the Holocaust. Gochin’s lawsuit followed futile attempts to convince Lithuanian officialdom that Noreika and others were war criminals, not patriots.
“I thought it was a mistake,” Gochin said. “I found it was an agenda.”
His suit asks that the certificate of good conduct during the war issued Noreika by the Genocide and Resistance Centre be revoked. Gochin sees that as a first step in ending Lithuanians’ hero worship of Noreika.
A granddaughter steps forward
When the horrors of the Nazi era were first revealed, victims and perpetrators were often described as exclusive categories. That the reality is more complicated has been difficult for some to accept. Poland passed a law making it a crime to say that Poles participated in the Holocaust. The French were long blind to their cops’ roundup of Jews.
Foti encountered similar resistance to her research. In 2013, she met with the director of the Genocide and Resistance Centre. She noted that her grandfather — a district official during the Nazi occupation — had signed orders for the transport of Jews to ghettos and the expropriation of their property.
According to Foti, the Lithuanian official responded: “It is psychologically difficult to comprehend what he was thinking and feeling when he signed those papers.”
Foti went to Lithuania after consulting with Suziedelis, the scholar. “I obliquely warned her about what she might find,” he said.
Indeed, the trip denied Foti any lingering hopes that her grandfather was a mere bystander to the destruction of Lithuania’s Jewish community.
She said she met with an aunt in Lithuania who recalled that Foti’s grandparents had lived in a house in Plunge that had “suddenly become free.” What did that mean, Foti asked?
“The Jews were gone, so the house was free,” Foti recalled her aunt replied. “Many Lithuanians were moving into new free houses.”
Did that mean Noreika, as a district official, was responsible for the Jews being gone? “Maybe he had no choice,” Foti recalled her aunt saying. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”
For Foti, the terrible truth was patent. For a while she despaired of being up to the task her mother had set her.
“I wanted to burn the manuscript!” she said.
Then she switched professions: formerly a freelance writer, she became a high-school teacher. That gave her summers off, and she took college courses in creative writing. When she told instructors about her qualms about the book she was struggling with, they urged her to finish it — and make her grandfather’s culpability the centerpiece.
So as a warmup for the book, she sent a brief account of her research to Salon in 2018.
Though she is not going to Lithuania for the trial, she filed an affidavit of support for Gochin’s lawsuit in Vilnius.
“I am Silvia Foti, Jonas Noreika’s granddaughter,” she wrote to the court. “It is painful for me, but I am prepared to talk about my findings.”