Silvia Foti grew up hearing praises of her grandfather. Jonas Noreika—known affectionately as “General Storm”—is still hailed in Lithuania as a war hero and anti-Soviet partisan who fought for Lithuania’s independence at the height of World War II. One can find streets and schools named after him, and songs of his bravery are still sung in Foti’s childhood neighborhood of Marquette Park, Illinois, which at one point was dubbed “Little Lithuania,” due to its high immigrant population.
“My grandfather, even though I had never met him, I was raised to love him,” Foti says. “I heard nothing but wonderful things about him.”
This explains Foti’s shock when she discovered, while writing a biography of Noreika, that her grandfather was neither hero nor liberator, but rather a Nazi collaborator responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews.
The Lithuanian community of Marquette Park originally bestowed the responsibility of telling Noreika’s story on Foti’s mother. Unfortunately, she fell ill early on in her research, and before her death, entrusted the task of completing the biography to her daughter. Given that Foti grew up speaking Lithuanian as a first language, attending Lithuanian-Catholic school on Saturdays and was involved in Lithuanian organizations on the weekends, she was committed to telling the story of such a nationally renowned figure. It was only when her grandmother passed away several months later that she began to suspect things were not as they seemed.
“She told me to not write the book,” Foti confides. “She told me to just let history lie, that there was no reason to dig around. I was stunned by it. … I did not know why she said that. She then turned around in her hospital bed and just stared at the wall.”
Despite her grandmother’s parting wishes, Foti did write the book after 20 years of “psychological challenges.” Foti recalls that, in the first 10 years of her research, she was still in “a state of denial.” Yet finally, what was meant to be a glistening portrayal of a man who stood up to foreign invasion and totalitarianism became instead The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal, a documentation of Jonas Noreika’s supervision of the deportation and extermination of up to 15,000 Lithuanian Jews.
Foti told her family story in Vilnius last month at a seminar titled “Learning from the Past, Acting for the Future—Teaching About the Holocaust and Human Rights,” organized by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI). The event, TOLI notes, came on the heels of a newfound national reckoning in Lithuania over its past collaboration with Nazism. It also corresponded with the sentencing of Lithuania’s oldest concentration camp guard at the age of 101.
Noreika was a “very ambitious” man from the start. “Everyone always said that he was a wonderful speaker, that he could inspire crowds with his words,” Foti recounts. In childhood, she learned that her grandfather, at the ripe age of 30, was instrumental in liberating west Lithuania from the Soviets in 1941. But this was also the beginning of the German occupation, the consequences of which Foti was never taught in school. “We learned about Siberian camps, and we learned about the evils of communism, but we never were told about the Holocaust in Lithuania. I didn’t even know there was a Holocaust in Lithuania. We were never told about the Jews, other than that Lithuania was very welcoming to the Jews. By the time I started drafting this book, imagine my embarrassment.”
Eighty percent of the Jews in Lithuania, more than 200,000, were killed in the span of six months, from June to December of 1941. The murders were carried out primarily 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 the position by the German high command. During his time in office, the Jews of Plunge, Telsiai and Siauliai were all murdered and their communities destroyed. Even though the entire area was under German occupation, Noreika was still “top desk”—carrying out orders and making decisions for his country. “It took a genocide machine to kill all those Jews,” Foti points out. “There were steps that needed to be taken to destroy them: identifying the Jews, transferring the Jews, leading them to the mass graves, translating documents for the Nazis. Of course, Lithuanians helped with this.”
She continues, “At the time, propaganda was so strong that it became common knowledge in Lithuania that every Jew was a communist. And eventually, that turned into the belief that Jews as young as children were communists. That gave the Germans and the Lithuanians, but mostly the Lithuanians, a license to kill them as a form of revenge. This was all hidden from me.”
Lithuanians pedestalize Noreika using the justification that “he himself never pulled the trigger against Jews. They think only the one who shot a Jew is guilty,” Foti explains. In addition, when the Nazis began to lose the war, many Lithuanian leaders and intellectuals, including Noreika, were thrown into German concentration camps. It would appear that vengeance against the Soviets and victimization under the Nazis is a perfect resume for a lionized national hero.
Six weeks into his German imprisonment, however, Noreika and his rank were granted the position of “honorary prisoners” by Heinrich Himmler and were subsequently treated much better than other political captives. “They got their own barracks with only 36 men in each. They got their own beds, sheets, blankets, pillows and new uniforms. They could write and receive letters and packages. They did not have to work but could if they wanted to stave off boredom.” Foti speaks with humor in her voice, amused at the absurdity of Lithuanians conflating her grandfather’s experience with that of Jews in Auschwitz. “By concentration camp standards,” she says, “he was living as an aristocrat.”
In January of 1945, Noreika was released, only to be recaptured by the Russians and executed in a KGB prison in 1947.
Hearing Noreika’s story in full is uncomfortable, but fascinating. The Nazi’s Granddaughter, rather than just being a historical account, contains explicit themes of betrayal and guilt that weigh heavily on a “proud Lithuanian and Lithuanian nationalist’s conscience,” as Foti describes herself.
I ask Foti how the Lithuanian community both abroad and at home has responded to her work. “Not well,” she answers, without much hesitation. “They’re very angry at me. They’ve 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 her book. “It’s kind of traumatic for this community to own up to what was done,” she adds remorsefully.
Surprisingly, Lithuanians in Lithuania have reacted more positively than Lithuanians in Chicago. “The response is better there than here. Here, Lithuanians feel they need to prove their patriotism, part of a sort of long-distance nationalism,” Foti hypothesizes. “Whereas in Lithuania, the people feel less need to prove something to their country.”
Despite the piqued interest in a shameful past, press for Foti’s book in the mother country has been limited, perhaps a warning that the Eastern European proclivity to deny participation in Nazi atrocities, from Hungary to Poland, is far from vanquished. Lithuania’s Genocide and Resistance Research Centre (LGRRTC) has officially denied the claims that Noreika participated in the Holocaust, arguing instead that Noreika misunderstood the purpose of Jewish ghettos in Lithuania and actually helped to save Jews.
Foti is fighting back. Despite a lawsuit against LGRRTC on the basis of Holocaust denial being scrapped by Lithuanian courts, she is focused on educating the public. “My grandfather could be the doorway to having a conversation more honestly about Lithuania’s past,” she explains. “Nobody asked me permission to put up the plaques honoring him or the schools named after him. They should be removed and renamed, to honor someone who saved Jews, maybe someone recognized by Yad Vashem.”
Toward the end of our call, Foti and I discussed my own family, which hails from Lithuania, specifically the village of Tryškiai, located in the very region supervised by Noreika during World War II. Though my family fled to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and fortunately did not bear direct witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, it was nonetheless chilling to be speaking with the descendant of a man who helped annihilate the civilization from which I trace my bloodline.
Hearing from Lithuania’s Jewish community and from Lithuanian Jews in the Diaspora like myself has completely changed Foti and her sense of self-identity. “I did not expect the Jewish community to embrace 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 to Jewish life. That is why I feel I have been received so well, even as a perpetrator’s granddaughter.” She continues, “God’s hand is behind us in this work. And we all have the same God.”
The Nazi’s Granddaughter is a story of one family’s secret and one country’s shame. It is an important piece of literature in Holocaust education, as it offers the perspective of a descendant—not of the victim, but the victimizer. Knowing 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.
This article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.