My Lithuanian wartime grandfather was a hero, a collaborator and a murderer

How the granddaughter of Lithuanian national hero Jonas Noreika unearthed his unspoken, gruesome past


Growing up in Chicago’s “Little Lithuania”, Silvia Foti was proud of her heritage.

She had grown up with stories about her grandfather Jonas Noreika — known as General Storm — a Lithuanian national hero who had fought against Soviet domination and paid for it with his life.

He was also responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews — but she did not know that.

When, on her death-bed 18 years ago, Ms Foti’s mother asked her to write a book about her hero grandfather, she promptly agreed: it was a great story and an opportunity to enhance Jonas Noreika’s reputation.

Later that year on a trip to Lithuania, she was pleasantly surprised at the respect and affection his name elicited. However, it was on a visit to his hometown that she first heard rumours that he was a “Jew killer”.

His best friend told her that, yes, he had served as county chair under the Nazis in 1941, but only because he thought he could help more by accepting the role.

Ms Foti could not help feeling unsettled. And when she discovered an antisemitic rant in a booklet written by her grandfather, her doubts increased.

Her first reaction to her grandfather being a collaborator was shock and denial.

“At first, I thought it was Russian propaganda but the evidence kept piling up,” she recalls to the JC. Then, during an extensive visit to Lithuania in 2013, Ms Foti decided to retrace her grandfather’s steps in the company of Simon Dovidavicius, a Holocaust guide. They soon discovered that the collaboration by Noreika — and many others — was an open secret.

Mr Dovidavicius pointed out the discrepancies with the official version of the Noreika story. He noted that Noreika had led the first uprising in Lithuania in 1941, before the Germans arrived. It had been the beginning of the Holocaust for 200,000 Lithuanian Jews, 3,000 of them alone in Plunge, in Telsiai County, where Noreika was in charge.

Ms Foti’s suspicion, and Mr Dovidavicius’ certainty, that Noreika had given the orders for the killings were met with firm denials. “He wasn’t there, it was the Germans,” his best friend and comrade reiterated.

Ms Foti’s research was hampered by the lack of written documents, as everything had been done orally. But a breakthrough came towards the end of her trip when an aunt, aged just 10 at the time, recalled moving into a house in Plunge at the time of the 1941 uprising. It had became “suddenly free” when the previous Jewish owners had disappeared, probably on her grandfather’s orders.

This appropriation of Jewish property is symptomatic for Ms Foti.

“I think that, like many in Lithuania, my grandfather was envious of the economic success of the Jews,” she says. “It kind of snowballed from there, it gave licence to this dark feeling people had towards the Jews. Hatred became unleashed and justified.”

Lithuania, a small country that has long lived in the shadow of bigger neighbours like Russia, is strongly nationalistic and resents what it perceives as smears on its reputation.

Its Genocide Museum is a shrine to Lithuanian nationalists like Noreika who suffered under the Soviets —although, after an outcry about the use of the word “genocide”, its name was recently changed to Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights.

“Before I started researching my grandfather’s story I didn’t even know about the Holocaust in Lithuania. Instead, I kept hearing about the Lithuanians deported to Siberia by the Russians,” Ms Foti says.

“Lithuania is still in denial about what happened to the Jews and many see me as a traitor for making the country look bad.”

One person not worried about being perceived as a traitor is Grant Gochin, a US citizen of Lithuanian descent. For years, he has been locked in a legal battle with the Lithuanian government to force the country to acknowledge the role many of its “heroes” played in the Holocaust.

Around 100 members of his family were murdered, very likely on Noreika’s orders.

In a surprising twist that proves, in Mr Gochin’s words, that “reconciliation is possible when people are truthful”, the murderer’s granddaughter and the murdered’s relative have become friends. They are now working together to convince the Lithuanian government to come clean about the country’s Holocaust cover-up.

A few months ago, Mr Gochin submitted a 69-page report detailing Noreika’s actions, as well as an affidavit by Ms Foti on the damning results of her research, to the state-funded Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. So far, all the evidence he presented has been discounted, but he has no intention of giving up.

For Silvia Foti, pride has turned to shame and anger, but also determination to tell the truth.

Her book, now completed, may create even more friction as many in her community see her as a traitor for “making the country look bad”.

She still loves her grandfather — but hates what he did.

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