Californian Grant Arthur Gochin has spent decades investigating the history of his Lithuanian Jewish ancestors, who lived in Lithuania. He learned about his cousin Sonia Beder, who survived the Holocaust and testified that, in June, 1941, armed Lithuanians prevented 6,000 Jews in her village from escaping to the Soviet Union three days before the Germans arrived.
Her testimony was harrowing, describing boys recruited from a local middle school to help shoot the Jews. Armed Lithuanian men, she recalled, plundered the Jews’ homes, beat, humiliated and killed their victims — men, women and children. They set a Rabbi’s beard on fire, branded his body with hot irons and shot him in front of his community. Ms. Beder managed to escape and lived in a Lithuanian ghetto before being sent to Dachau.
Silvia Kučėnaitė Foti is a journalist and high school teacher who researched her own Lithuanian roots, particularly because her mother, on her deathbed, charged her daughter with completing the book she had been writing about her own father, celebrated as a World War II-era Lithuanian nationalist hero who fought both the Nazis and the Soviets.
His name was Jonas Noreika, and it is a name that graces a school in his hometown and a plaque on the facade of the Library of Lithuania’s Academy of Sciences in Vilnius, better known to Jews as Vilna.
Mrs. Foti’s family lore about her grandfather had him leading an uprising against the Communists. When the Germans invaded Lithuania, Noreika was appointed as head of the Siauliai district by the pro-Nazi provisional Lithuanian government.
The story Mrs. Foti had been told was that her grandfather had resisted the Nazis, was sent to a concentration camp, escaped and returned to Vilnius to start a new rebellion against the Communists. As the family account had it, he was caught, taken by the KGB to prison, tortured and shot to death.
Mrs. Foti’s research, though, led her to a very different place. The more she discovered about her grandfather, nicknamed “General Storm,” the more horrified she became.
She read through a trove of material her family had, including 3,000 pages of KGB transcripts, 77 personal letters from Noreika to his wife, other letters from family members and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. She visited her dying grandmother, who, disturbingly to Mrs. Foti, asked her to not to write the book about her husband but “Just let history lay.”
To her credit, though, the journalist/teacher didn’t do that.
She went to Lithuania, where, as the descendant of General Storm, she was showered with affection and astonished to receive a visit from Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She and her brother were taken as honorary guests to Šukoniai, the town where their grandfather was born, to see the grammar school named after him. The school director warmly welcomed them and explained that he had gotten “a lot of grief at first when we picked his name. He was accused of being a Jew-killer.”
That comment only galvanized Mrs. Foti, who went on to discover that her grandfather was no hero at all, at least not to civilized people. Her further research led her to Mr. Gochin, who, once and for all, disabused her of any hope that her grandfather’s reputation might be salvaged from the facts.
Years went by before Mrs. Foti could bring herself to publicly report what she had found. But, to her credit, she recently laid out the results of her research, embarrassing as they were to her.
Holocaust expert Simon Dovidavičius had informed her that Noreika conducted the initial action against Jews even before the Germans arrived. He taught the Lithuanian soldiers underneath him how to sequester Jews, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them.
A great-aunt of Mrs. Foti, Aldona Budrytė Bužienė, told her how her grandfather moved his family into a house in the center of town once it became “suddenly free.” Asked what that meant, Mrs. Bužienė explained: “The Jews were gone, so the house was free. Many Lithuanians were moving into the new free houses.”
Mrs. Foti believes that her grandfather sanctioned the murders of 2,000 Jews in the Lithuanian towns of Plungė, Šiauliai and Telšiai.
Addressing the larger issue of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust, she wrote: “In the face of tremendous resistance by the Lithuanian government, the effort to convince it to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust will be long and hard. The souls of 200,000 Jews buried in Lithuanian soil demand such a reckoning.”
It is a fact of life and world history that revered personalities are often shown with time to have had proverbial clay feet. It is no less a fact that some, like Jonas Noreika, are creatures made entirely of the most noxious clay.