The Woman Accusing Her Lithuanian ‘Hero’ Grandfather of Mass Murder in the Holocaust

American Silvia Foti grew up on stories about Jonas Noreika’s anti-Communist exploits. Then she learned he called the shots in cities where 14,500 Jews were murdered

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Jonas Noreika
Jonas NoreikaCredit: Silvia Foti
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Last month an usual trial began in Lithuania. The plaintiff, Grant Gochin, is a Jew from California; 100 members of his family were killed in Lithuania during the Holocaust. The defendant is a government research institute that has declared that one of the murderers, the Lithuanian Jonas Noreika, is a national hero. At the heart of the matter: a claim of Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Lithuania.

Silvia Foti

A court in the Lithuanian capital, Vilna (Vilnius), is the center of attention abroad as well for historical, legal and political reasons: In Lithuania, 96 percent of the Jews (about 200,000 people) were killed during the Holocaust – sometimes with the help of Lithuanian collaborators. This attention is increasing thanks to Silvia Foti, an American teacher and journalist – who is also Noreika’s granddaughter.

A few years ago Foti, who grew up on myths about how her grandfather was a national hero, discovered that he was actually a Nazi war criminal. When she delved into research about him, she found evidence that he was responsible for the murder of at least 14,500 Jews during the Holocaust.

Now seven decades after her grandfather’s death, she has joined forces with Gochin and is providing the court with evidence against her grandfather. “There’s a chance history will be changed and it will be acknowledged that my grandfather played a large role in the Holocaust,” she says.

>> International Holocaust Remembrance Day was a mistake

Foti grew up in the United States in a Christian family that emigrated from Lithuania after World War II. Her grandfather Noreika remained in Lithuania and was executed by the KGB in 1947 because of his opposition to the Communist regime, which controlled Lithuania in the early years of World War II and, with the Soviets’ return, after the Nazi occupation. When Lithuania regained its freedom in 1991, he was hailed as a national hero and is considered a martyr.

“I was always told that my grandfather was a hero who fought so bravely against the Communists,” Foti says. “I adored him, I looked up to him and I loved him. He truly was a presence in the home, always mentioned by my mother and grandmother.”

Foti’s mother began writing a biography of Noreika but became ill and never completed the work. Eighteen years ago, on her deathbed, she asked her daughter to continue the project and gave her the thousands of documents she had collected. At the time Foti didn’t imagine that the task would be so devastating for her and lead to a personal, family and national crisis.

Her grandmother, Noreika’s widow, warned her to leave history alone, but Foti felt she had to keep her mother’s efforts alive. “I thought I would be writing about a hero because that’s all I ever heard about him,” Foti says. “I had heard almost nothing about Jews and the Holocaust in Lithuania. If I heard anything, it was that the Germans did all the killing of the Jews, and the Lithuanians were innocent victims.”

Foti began to see the dark stains in her grandfather’s past, but at first she considered them baseless.

“When I heard the rumor that my grandfather was involved in killing Jews, my first reaction was a lack of trust and denial,” she says. “I was torn: As his granddaughter, I wanted to flee those rumors. As a journalist, I knew I had to investigate.”

Reams of evidence

In 2000, after both her mother and grandmother had died, Foti went to Lithuania to bury their ashes, as they had requested. To her surprise, Lithuania’s president showed up at the ceremony in Vilna’s main cathedral to honor the widow and daughter of “General Storm,” as her grandfather is called by admirers.

Later, during a tour of the capital, she visited the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences – her grandfather had been a lawyer there in the mornings and an anti-Communist activist at night. At the entrance hangs a plaque in his memory with a relief of his face.

From there Foti headed north to the city where her grandfather was born to attend a ceremony for him at a school named after him – and there the principal punctured the myth. “I got a lot of grief when we chose his name,” he told her. “He was accused of being a Jew killer.”

A plaque at the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences of Jonas Noreika, who was executed by the Soviets in 1947. Credit: Almat Pater / Wikimedia Commons

Foti decided to continue her research when she returned to the United States and was horrified to find documents confirming what the principal had said. First she found a booklet published by her grandfather in 1933, “Raise Your Head, Lithuanian,” in which he called for a boycott of Jewish businesses.

She says that when she read a book featuring documents on the Holocaust in Lithuania, “I saw the order he wrote in August 1941 to send all Jews in Siauliai” – Lithuania’s fourth-largest city – “to a ghetto in Zagare” – a city near the Latvian border. “As his granddaughter, I wanted to burn that booklet and that book.”

Gradually she realized that her mother had concealed the full story. The Lithuanians saw her grandfather as a hero because he had fought the Communist regime that ruled Lithuania until the German invasion in 1941 and that returned in 1944. But the Jews saw him as a war criminal – during the Nazi occupation the Germans appointed him commander of the Siauliai area in north-central Lithuania and helped them carry out their Final Solution.

“I have gone through every emotion imaginable, from denial to anger to depression and deep shame,” she says.

So for years she set aside the evidence against her grandfather. But in 2013 she returned to Lithuania and hired a local Holocaust researcher to help her. She showed him all the memorials dedicated to her grandfather and he took her to the pits where Jews were buried, in part because of Noreika.

“I gave him the book published by the genocide museum stating that my grandfather was a hero; he gave me Holocaust books stating that my grandfather was a villain,” Foti says.

What she discovered later deepened her pain: It turned out that her grandfather, after whom streets and monuments in Lithuania are named, orchestrated an action against Jews even before the Germans had arrived. Later he was the top commander in three cities – Siauliai, Plunge and Telsiai – where 14,500 Jews were murdered.

Noreika signed the orders for expelling the Jews to the ghettos and plundering their property. His family benefited directly when they moved into a house from which the Jewish owners had been evicted. In the end, she came to a definite conclusion: “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.”

The discovery about her grandfather’s past prompted Foti to launch an online campaign last year in which she documents his crimes and exhorts Lithuania to take down Noreika monuments and stop celebrating him. On her website she provides all the documents she has collected against her grandfather.

The site offers 50 different sources spread out over 6,000 pages, including passages from testimonies at Yad Vashem, memorial books and diaries. Most of the texts are in Lithuanian and some are in Russian, German or Yiddish. A few have been translated into Hebrew. Foti says the response in Lithuania and in the Lithuanian community in the United States has been negative.

“Overwhelmingly negative,” she says. “They think I’m betraying Lithuania and my family’s name.”

Familial and national shame

Last year the story shifted gears when Foti discovered that she wasn’t the only one tracking Noreika’s past. Enter Gochin, the American who lost family members to the Holocaust in Lithuania. “Our independent research has shown that my grandfather murdered Gochin’s relatives,” Foti says.

They joined forces. “We’re on a mission to introduce truth to our ancestors’ homeland. The shame of my family is the national shame,” Foti says. “I will not participate in insulting the Holocaust victims further by tolerating lies about my grandfather and his horrific actions. To deliberately distort history is to bring more shame to Lithuania.”

In this, Foti and Gochin have joined up with another duo, Nazi hunters Efraim Zuroff (who is named after a relative killed in the Holocaust) and Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite, some of whose relatives played roles in the slaughter of Lithuania’s Jews. In recent years the two went on a cross-country journey to find killing sites and documented their findings in the Lithuanian-language book “Our People: Journey with an Enemy.”

“Our research found that at least 20,000 Lithuanians participated in the mass murder in a variety of roles – from encouraging to abetting to the actual shooting,” Zuroff told Haaretz last year. “The crimes that were committed there against the Jews are a Lithuanian tragedy that will cast a dark shadow on their beautiful country until they finally confront the horrors.”

During the journey, Zuroff became the most prominent critic of Lithuania for what he calls “the distortion of the Holocaust and the concealment of the role played by the Lithuanian collaborators in the murder of Jews.”

In the meantime, Gochin is gearing up for the trial against the government research institute, which reconvenes in March. He says of the documents: “They are damning and speak for themselves; there is no way to deny their existence, and by the most minimum standard they make clear that Noreika was guilty of crimes against humanity in the Holocaust.”

But Gochin isn’t optimistic. “I don’t believe that the court will rule for me, as this would be an admission that the government has engaged in Holocaust denial and distortion,” he says. “Noreika is only one of very many Holocaust criminals they have honored, and if the deliberateness of this is openly established, the national narrative will be brought into question.”

Still, Gochin promises that if Noreika isn’t denounced as a war criminal, he will petition the European Court of Human Rights.

Foti asks: “Can a Jew killer be considered a hero even if he fought bravely against the Communists? I know it seems strange for a granddaughter to take apart the heroic image of her grandfather, to expose what happened in the hope that Lithuania can come to terms with its past for itself, for the world and especially for the Jews.”

Foti is currently completing the biography of her grandfather that has morphed into a harsh indictment. In this she joins Germany’s Jennifer Teege, who wrote a book condemning her own grandfather, Amon Göth. Teege’s 2013 work, the New York Times best-seller “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past,” tells the story of that concentration-camp commandant.

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