LONDON — Seventy years after he was shot by the Soviets, the reputation of Jonas Noreika goes on trial in Lithuania next week.
Noreika — a hero to many in the Baltic state for resisting the Communists’ subjugation of their country — stands accused of being a Nazi collaborator who was complicit in the Holocaust.
The case before the Vilnius Regional Administrative Court charges the state-funded Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania with intentionally distorting the role of Noreika in the murder of Jews.
It has been brought by Grant Gochin, a Lithuanian citizen living in the US, whose relatives were among Noreika’s victims.
But in an extraordinary twist, Gochin’s effort is being actively supported by Noreika’s granddaughter. Silvia Foti has spent more than two decades investigating “General Storm,” as her grandfather is known to many in his former homeland. Her conclusion is brutal: “Jonas Noreika willingly played a role in cleansing Lithuania of Jews. He did everything in his power to help the Nazis kill Jews, and nothing to stop them.”
Foti, a Chicago high school teacher who is soon due to publish a book about Noreika, has submitted a letter to the court stating that her independent research corroborates material gathered for Gochin’s lawsuit. Lithuanian academics have spent 850 hours reviewing 20,000 pages of historical documents.
Gochin praises Foti as “a woman of incredible bravery and dignity who understands that reconciliation can only come from a place of truth, and that truth must be told.”
“Her stepping forward means everything to me because her independent research validates all of my research, it shows that people that believe in truth and justice can cooperatively work towards a better future,” Gochin says.
“Her integrity restores my faith in humanity. I hope one day, Lithuania will recognize her as a true Lithuanian hero,” he adds.
Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, invaded in 1941 by the Germans, and then annexed by Josef Stalin after the advancing Red Army swept through the country in 1944. The country’s independence was not restored until the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 50 years later.
“General Storm’s” supposed heroic status rests on his effort to organize postwar resistance to the Soviets while working as a lawyer at Vilnius’s Academy of Sciences. Arrested and tortured by the KGB, he nonetheless led the defense of 11 fellow anti-Soviet rebels. He was executed at the age of 37 in 1947.
But this narrative obscures a darker side to Noreika’s story, who was a member of Lithuania’s nationalist underground. It initially viewed the Germans as liberators, timed an uprising against the Soviets to coincide with their arrival, and falsely hoped they would restore the autonomy snuffed out by Stalin the previous year.
Indeed, even before the German occupation, local paramilitary groups initiated pogroms against Jews. Most of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered by December 1941 — a month before the Wannsee Conference commenced the Final Solution — with a significant role played by Lithuanian auxiliary forces.
Over two hundred thousand Jews, an estimated 96 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population, died in the Holocaust — the highest percentage of any country in Europe.
Noreika led the nationalist uprising in Žemaitija and then became a county administrator in the northwestern part of the country after the German invasion. On his watch, an estimated 14,500 Jews are believed to have been murdered in Plungė, Telšiai, and across the Šiauliai district. While he may not have killed Jews personally, Noreika signed directives in the summer of 1941 which ordered Jews to be sent to ghettos and outlined how their property should be distributed. His family benefited directly from the plunder, moving into a house in Plungė seized from its Jewish owners.
Gochin’s lawsuit charges that the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, which was established in 1992 to study the country’s experience of Nazi and Soviet occupation, has intentionally distorted Noreika’s role in the murder of Jews and persists in portraying him as a national hero. Its actions are, it is claimed, tantamount to Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Lithuania.
Noreika’s memory is honored by street names, memorials and an inscribed stone block on a central Vilnius street. A village school in his hometown is also named after him. In 2015, a petition signed by prominent Lithuanian politicians, historians and writers called upon the government to remove a plaque from the Vilnius Library of the Academy of Sciences Building. The Genocide and Resistance Research Center reportedly denounced the move as Russian-inspired and said it was “assisted by some Jews.” Critics in turn accuse the Center of being “a bastion of far-right extremism that, in the opinion of many, does grave damage to the image of modern democratic Lithuania.”
Last year, Lithuanian Jewish community leaders joined calls for the plaque to be removed. “Noreika collaborated with the Nazi regime and contributed to the persecution of Lithuanian Jews, and this person can in no way be portrayed as a Lithuanian hero,” they said in a statement.
“We believe the Lithuanian people, now celebrating 100 years of statehood, are mature enough to accept the whole of historical facts and the state is capable of accepting responsibility for this public display of disrespect to historical truth,” read the statement.
The Center refused a request to comment on the case from The Times of Israel.
An obsession rooted in a family tree
Gochin’s interest in Norieka was sparked when he began genealogical research in the 1980s.
“Virtually every branch of my family ended in 1941 in Lithuania as a result of Holocaust murders. My family came from one region in Lithuania, I researched who murdered them. All roads led to Noreika,” he recalls.
At first Gochin, who was born in South Africa and serves as the Special Envoy for Diaspora Affairs for the African Union, believed that Noreika had been honored by the Lithuanian government in error.
“It took me a long time to recognize that honoring Holocaust perpetrators was a deliberate inversion of their history,” he says.
Gochin has detailed his campaign to expose and counter Lithuania’s alleged Holocaust revisionism in a series of blogs for The Times of Israel.
Der Spiegel magazine had written about Norieka’s complicity in the 1980s, and some of his documents had been known since the 1970s. Over the past six years, others have attempted to bring the truth about Noreika’s wartime record to light.
Last year, Gochin commissioned Lithuanian Holocaust experts Andrius Kulikauskas and Evaldas Balčiūnas to investigate Noreika’s crimes. Their 40-page report was rejected by the Genocide and Resistance Research Center which went on to accuse Gochin of “possibly violating the Republic of Lithuania’s Constitution and the Republic of Lithuania’s Criminal Code.”
Although confident of the historical facts, Gochin is nonetheless doubtful about the independence of the Lithuanian courts, which he believes tend to favor the position of the state.
“I brought this case because appealing for honesty about the Holocaust from the Lithuanian government has proven to be futile,” says Gochin. “It is clear to me that the only means to accomplish truth is via an independent, impartial, honest legal process, without government influence — this process will only be available in European courts. This case is a stepping stone to get the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”
Gochin holds out little hope for the case which begins next week — it is presided over by a judge who, he says, has twice ruled against him using technicalities on other Noreika lawsuits — and plans to appeal any unfavorable decisions until he can get out of the Lithuanian courts and into the European courts.
The European Court of Human Rights enforces the European Convention on Human Rights which has been ratified by almost all European countries.
Gochin does not blame individual Lithuanians, saying they have been fed lies about the past by their government.
“These frauds are all the population knows, and having someone tell them that the national narrative is a fraudulent construct is disconcerting and not credible to them,” he argues. “They therefore, understandably, resist the facts. The government is unable to now admit the extent and deliberateness of their Holocaust frauds, so they decline to address facts. They cannot reject the case as the evidence is clear and overwhelming, so they continue on their path of distortion and aversion.”
‘It took me years to get psychologically ready to confront this’
Foti, however, shares Gochin’s determination that the truth will out. The two have been in contact since last year, when she informed him that, while most of his research was complete, he had missed many thousands of her grandfather’s victims.
Like Gochin, her involvement in the Lithuania lawsuit stems from researching her family history. As she originally detailed in a piece for Salon magazine last summer, Foti promised nearly 20 years ago that she would complete the biography of Norieka that her dying mother had been working on.
“I thought I would be writing about a hero because that is all I ever heard about him,” she suggests today.
But, on a visit in 2000 with her brother to the school named after Norieka in his birthplace, she was confronted with the first indication of a dark family secret. The headteacher let slip to his guests that he had “got a lot of grief” for deciding to name the school after an accused “Jew-killer.”
“My first reaction was disbelief and denial, that was just Communist propaganda,” Foti recalls.
“It took me years to get psychologically ready to confront this, as I was terrified of discovering that he was involved in killing Jews, so I delayed my investigation into the rumor,” she says.
Eventually, however, she began to uncover compelling evidence of her grandfather’s anti-Semitism. A book he had written in 1933 called “Raise Your Head Lithuanian” was, Foti says, “a rant against Jews, calling upon Lithuanians to boycott all Jewish businesses.” This and other facts deeply implicated him in the Holocaust.
Foti worked on her research during school holidays. In the summer of 2013, for instance, she spent seven weeks in Lithuania interviewing relatives, taking a Holocaust tour, and poring over documents from the period.
She also visited the Genocide Museum (recently renamed the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters) and interviewed its director.
“I found it odd that the Genocide Museum based its opinion of my grandfather solely from the KGB transcripts, which did not delve into his tenure as district chief of Šiauliai, but rather his rebellion against the Communists in 1945-46,” she argues. “The Genocide Museum discounted the documents my grandfather signed as district chief of Šiauliai during the Nazi occupation.”
In her piece for Salon, Foti also described how she hired a Holocaust guide who described to her how her grandfather, as a captain, taught his Lithuanian soldiers “how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them. My grandfather was a master educator.”
“General Storm, as he is known, is a legend,” Foti suggests. “However, incredibly, Lithuania has been largely unaware of his willful role in the Holocaust. The reasons are psychologically and historically complicated, and it has taken me nearly two decades of research to figure it out.”
“As his granddaughter, it pains me to come to this conclusion,” she argues. “But it took me many years of grappling with denial. So, in this regard, I understand how difficult it is for Lithuanians to accept this. All we have heard is that we were the victims, caught between the Communists and the Nazis. For me, changing the narrative has changed my very identity. I have had to come to terms that I am the granddaughter of a perpetrator who has had his crimes covered up by the Lithuanian government.”
‘Changing the narrative has changed my very identity’
Foti recognizes that she and Gochin have become “unlikely partners — the granddaughter of a Holocaust perpetrator and the descendant of Holocaust victims.” The pair are, she believes, “on a mission to introduce truth to our ancestors’ homeland.”
“This is not the first time our families’ paths have converged: our independent research has shown that my grandfather was instrumental in the murder of Gochin’s Lithuanian relatives,” she adds.
But, Foti defiantly concludes, “The shame of my family is the national shame. I will not participate in insulting the Holocaust victims further by tolerating lies about my grandfather and his horrific actions. Deliberately distorting history brings added shame to Lithuania.”