Žemaitija (Samogitia) is the western region of Lithuania with its own dialect, history and culture. It’s also where the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania began.
The onset of the Holocaust in Lithuania hasn’t been sufficiently researched. Mostly, myths still abound. Lithuanian propaganda talks much of an “uprising,” placing significance on one set of mass murders, while simultaneously suppressing the slaughter of Jews by Lithuanians. Truth and facts are needed. Here is a start:
As far as is known, the first mass-shooting of Jews in Lithuania was in Gargždai on June 24, 1941. Some claim these were the first such massacres of Jews in Europe, but the truth seems to be that there were similar episodes earlier in Poland after the 1939 invasion.
In Gargždai the total extermination of the Jews of Lithuania began in what is now known as the “Holocaust by Bullets”. Two hundred men and one woman were shot on June 24 in Gargždai. Stahlecker, the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, issued the orders for this mass murder. The RSHA (ReichsSicherheitsHauptAmt, or Supreme Reich Security Department) confirmed his orders on June 23. Tilsit, East Prussia, Gestapo commander Hans Joachim Böhme planned the mass murder operation and Tilsit SD commander Werner Hersmann carried it out.
Perpetrators of the mass murder in Gargždai:
Tilsit Gestapo commander Hans Joachim Böhme;
Tilsit SD commander Werner Hersmann;
Memel/Klaipėda chief of police Dr. Erich Frohwann;
Memel/Klaipėda Schupo (security police) commanders Werner Schmidt-Hammer and Bernhard Fischer-Schweder;
White-armbanders (volunteer “insurgents” in the Lithuanian “uprising”).
Gargždai was just the beginning. Stahlecker and the RSHA wouldn’t have been greatly interested in such a minor location. They issued orders to murder all Communists and Jews in a border zone extending 25 kilometers from the Lithuanian-East Prussian border. They implemented the order shown below.
It’s not clear why high-ranking SS commanders from Tilsit and Memel personally participated in these mass murder operations. Probably, they did so because these were the first “test-runs” in a much wider operation and they weren’t yet certain their subordinates and Lithuanian collaborators were completely reliable in the quest for genocide of Jews. Lithuanians enthusiastically aided in those very first massacres.
Organizational work for the uprising
On the evening of June 22 after Germans had already occupied Gargždai, Lithuanians began “organizational work for the uprising,”. A committee of ten was formed whose task it was to convoke a force of “insurgents.” Throughout the entire Kretinga district where Gargždai is situated, Nazis selected those to be in command of this “organizational work for the uprising.” In some locations they formed committees and in some locations they held public meetings where former riflemen, police officers and men with military experience were urged to join the “uprising.” These so-called National Labor Security (Tautinė darbo apsauga or TDA in Lithuanian) forces were joined by resistance groups operating underground in the district against the Soviets, both groups formed by the Lithuanian Activist Front or LAF, and those under the direct control of German intelligence or Abwehr.
The “honor” of murdering women and children
The Kretinga district was an important border area which the German Abwehr and the LAF used to connect with and support their underground cells inside Lithuania. Lithuanian Security Police official and Nazi agent Pranas Jakys acquired great authority in organizing mass murders of Jews in the Kretinga district after Nazis occupied the district. He also became a member of the general staff headquarters for the LAF formed in Kretinga on June 22. Prior to the outbreak of war, Jakys was in hiding in Nazi Germany. Nazis gave Pranas Jakys his authority and Germans supplied the insurgent units with arms. What these were to be used for – quickly became clear – as some of the Germans who were complicit in the mass murders told the war crimes tribunal in Ulm in Germany after the war, the “honor” of murdering women and children was entrusted to Lithuanians. The loyalty of these “insurgents” had been tested already by their performance in the mass murder of Jewish men in the border zone.
The mass murder of the Jews of Gargždai wasn’t the first such mass murder committed in the Kretinga district. On June 23, a day before the Gargždai mass murder operation, soldiers from the 505th platoon of the 291st infantry division of the German Wehrmacht shot 42 people. Judging from the circumstances in the case, it doesn’t appear this was entirely planned out prior to execution. The story is, someone shot at the Germans, and the Germans burnt down the village and slaughtered all the inhabitants. The Wehrmacht did this in many locations.
As the Wehrmacht marched into Lithuania around 1,000 local residents were murdered, including peaceful civilians and men who had taken up arms in order to fight the retreating Soviets. This of course pales in comparison with the atrocities of the Holocaust, but it is odd Lithuanian historical memory policy (which so likes to showcase atrocities at the onset of Nazi-Soviet hostilities in locations such as Praveniškės, Rainiai, Panevėžys and elsewhere) has simply glossed over these murders. Soviets also murdered around 1,000 peaceful civilians as they withdrew, mainly prisoners from the Praveniškės and Telšiai prisons.
There weren’t just ethnic Lithuanians in the prisons of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in June of 1941, there were also Jewish prisoners. There have been studies or research on what the so-called Lithuanian partisans did with the Jewish prisoners left in these prisons.
While researching Jonas Noreika’s activities, we discovered an organizational chart which Damijonas Riauka constructed (he’s one of the main people responsible for much of the heroization of Noreika in post-Soviet Lithuania), according to which Noreika was in charge of LAF activities and the “uprising” in Žemaitija.
Noreika’s influence did not extend to the Kretinga district. Here, Pranas Jakys was in charge. There is absolutely no documentary foundation or testimonies indicating the “uprising” in Žemaitija was directed from an operations command base in Kaunas. The Lithuanian “partisans” were tipped off about the date for the outbreak of hostilities from Germany itself. Whether or not Kazys Škirpa’s LAF in Berlin somehow was responsible for sending this information, no one knows. Riauka didn’t even bother to include LAF headquarters in Berlin on his chart. The “uprising” was staged in the Kretinga district after Germans had already fully occupied it. These armed men terrorized, arrested and murdered Soviet loyalists and Jews, as well as Soviet soldiers remaining behind. The Germans had operational groups for carrying this out. Einsatzgruppe A was in charge of Lithuania.
Einsatzgruppe A had subordinate units. While in the larger portion of Lithuania Einsatzkommando 3 under the command of Karl Jäger operated, Einsatzkommando 2 under the command of Rudolf Christoph Batz was in charge of these operations in Žemaitija. This latter commander simply continued what had already been done in the border region in regions more remote from the border.
Slaughter of all Jews
Ylakiai, a small town in the Mažeikiai district, became the first where all Jews, including women and children, were murdered. The mass murders began July 6, 1941, with Germans participating. Although there are some testimonies the Germans also shot Jews, it was mainly ethnic Lithuanians who conducted the slaughters. The women and children were murdered on July 7.
Two weeks proved long enough to give Lithuanians the time needed to organize their forces for murdering their neighbors. In Ylakiai there were reportedly 475 people killed, including 4 Karaïtes, 25 Lithuanians and 100 Jewish families (note – Jews were not considered Lithuanians, and Lithuanians were not Jews). Other sources claim the number killed was less than 300. Whatever the case, we would think 100 families must have been the total number of Jewish families living in Ylakiai before the war and that the total number of Jews killed there would be around four hundred. We don’t have any lists of names of victims. The Lithuanian “partisans” in Ylakiai apparently engaged in battle several times with Soviet forces. In those battles three Lithuanian “partisans” were killed.
Following German occupation of the town, Jews were publicly humiliated and tortured; men’s beards were cut off and other tortures invented. We find no trace of Jonas Noreika in the formation of the Ylakiai unit nor in the mass murders carried out by that unit. Damijonas Riauka’s claim Noreika commanded the Lithuanian “partisans” in Žemaitija is probably a legend – not based on facts.
What does appear true is that Noreika was installed by the Germans to organize Lithuanian forces in Plungė. There are no surviving testimonies as to what form that organizing activity took. We are forced to look for an analogy for support. Take, for instance, the case of the town of Rietavas next to Plungė. Despite the fact the Lithuanian “partisans” were unsuccessful in their attempts to safeguard the town’s bridges, German police arriving on motorcycles appointed the commander for these “Lithuanian” forces. They knew the name of their appointee prior to arrival and fashioned him the official translator for the Rietavas kommandant. This Nazi collaborator’s career ended even sooner than that of his fellow collaborator Jonas Noreika. He appointed a chief of police and began forming a much larger “partisan” force. Under his command Jews were publicly humiliated and tortured. The rabbi Fondiler and the shokhet Rabinovitch both from Rietavas were publicly humiliated, tortured and then thrown into a pit and buried alive. Four Jews who tried to hide in a rural location were shot. But the kommandant’s translator made a fatal mistake: he arrested a female relative of Adolfas Ramanauskas, the head of the Telšiai district, as a member of the “resistance.” For this he spent some time locked up in the Telšiai prison, at the end of July he was replaced in his post, and he never received any more important posts during the whole Nazi occupation. He was convicted by the Soviets after the war of having spied for the Germans. He was released from Soviet prison due to mental illness and placed in a psychiatric hospital instead. After the war, the Soviets also convicted one of Rabbi Fondiler’s executioners, but on completely different charges, and the horrific homicides weren’t even mentioned in the criminal case against him.
Not all Lithuanian commanders installed by the Nazis made a successful career out of it. There was in-fighting, intrigue and incentives to make greater efforts. Jonas Noreika did well in Plungė. The Germans didn’t need any translators in that town, burgermeister Misevičius spoke fluent German. Plungė was another step forward in the bloody history of the escalation of the Holocaust of bullets. One thousand eight hundred Jews from Plungė were murdered in nearby Kaušenai village on July 15 and 16. This was the first larger town where Lithuanians slaughtered the entirety of Jewish residents. The Jews were accused of trying to burn down the town. In one version of events, Noreika gave the order to eliminate all Jews there. According to a different version, (the one which the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania (Genocide Center) constantly trots out), the Germans issued that order (there is no customary legitimate basis to the Genocide Center’s ideological determinations). According to testimonies by eye-witnesses, the Germans arrived at that mass murder site well after the mass murder had begun. The Genocide Center manufactures denials of any involvement by Jonas Noreika in that mass murder operation. Notwithstanding, one fact is very clear and undeniable: Jonas Noreika and his family moved into the Orliansky home – a Jewish family’s apartment right next to the synagogue in Plungė where Jews were held before they were all murdered. The Noreika family moved in before the mass murder. In early July there were no cases at all of Jewish real estate being turned over to someone without any rank or official post who had simply moved somewhere from another location. The convoluted version of events in Noreika’s life fabricated by the Genocide Center make it very difficult to see how Noreika became the head of the general staff headquarters of the Telšiai LAF.
If we accept the version of events which says the Germans delegated a certain amount of authority to Jonas Noreika, then we can make sense of the way in which he became the head of the general staff headquarters of the Telšiai LAF in mid-July. There was a sufficient number of qualified people in Telšiai to direct the Lithuanian institutions and agencies.
District head Adolfas Ramanauskas made a career out serving the Nazis, later becoming general advisor on agriculture for them. Mayor Svilas formed the TDA troops. One of the burgermeisters from Telšiai, a man called Mylimas, later became head of the Tauragė district. Bronius Juodikis was in charge of the police and the mass murder operations. It’s unlikely some person from a village near Plungė, not a local of Telšiai, could show and make a career for himself so quickly, if he didn’t enjoy the protection of the Germans. Whatever the case, Jonas Noreika became the chief of staff of Telšiai LAF headquarters immediately following the extermination of the Jews of Plungė and immediately prior to the mass murder of the Jews of Telšiai. He also played some part in the activity of the Telšiai military justice tribunal and there are testimonies he took part in the murder of the Jewish men in Telšiai district as well.
“Land of Žemaitija” delegation
Noreika’s career didn’t end there. In late July he selected a “Land of Žemaitija” delegation and travelled with them to Kaunas where intrigue and jockeying took place between the Lithuanian Nationalist Party and the so-called Lithuanian Provisional Government. The official goal of Noreika’s delegation was supposedly to support the Provisional Government. It’s difficult to believe, however, that that support would have meant much. Telšiai was just one of Lithuania’s rural districts. But one of the goals of the LNP in opposition to the PG was to hasten “the solution to the Jewish problem.” They were enthusiastic for murder and found a place for themselves in the ranks of the Kaunas TDA battalion.
The Land of Žemaitija legation had experience and expertise in this regard. It included, besides Jonas Noreika, Povilas Alimas who directed the mass murder of the Jews of Plungė, and Bronius Juodikis, who exterminated the Jewish men of Telšiai.
Wholescale extermination of all Jews
Wholescale extermination of all Jews began throughout Lithuania in August. Several hundred towns experienced what had already been tested in Ylakiai and Plungė. Despite the avowed support for the Provisional Government, Jonas Noreika in fact got involved in the power struggle underway and supported the Lithuanian Nationalist Party to some extent. The result of these intrigues was another dizzying step up in Noreika’s career: never having been in charge of any real administrative unit, Noreika became the head of the large Šiauliai district. This was one of the highest positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy of Lithuania. The Provisional Government appointed him to this post in the last days of its existence. One of those doing the appointing was Minister Landsbergis, great-grandfather of Lithuania’s current Foreign Minister. Landsbergis was a significant Holocaust perpetrator.
An interesting coincidence perhaps: that same day the Germans introduced their so-called civilian administration to replace their military administration in Lithuania. Šiauliai was still a theater of responsibility for Einsatzkommando 2. With Noreika head of the district, the Jewish men from the towns of the Šiauliai district were exterminated and the remaining Jews were sent by Noreika’s order to the ghetto he established in Žagarė, where they were all murdered on October 2, 1941. Jonas Noreika had accomplished his bloody work well.
Several dozen Jews being used as slave labor scattered across the countryside were collected and sent to the ghetto in Šiauliai. The last surviving 72 Jews working on farms and in the countryside were murdered in the Ilgoji Lova Forest from December 8 to 15, 1941.
Where the Holocaust By Bullets began
Thus we can’t say Jonas Noreika was the commander of the LAF “uprising” throughout Žemaitija. He did almost certainly participate in the mass murder of the Jews of Plungė, the mass murder of the Jewish men of Telšiai district and completed the mass murder of the Jews of the Šiauliai district. There isn’t any dispute that Žemaitija was where the Holocaust By Bullets began, initially with the extermination of Jewish men in the border area with East Prussia. That was followed by the model of murdering of all Jews in separate towns, in Ylakiai and Plungė, at a time when the mass murder of all Jewish men wasn’t being carried out in other Lithuanian locations.
Test-run for “The Final Solution”
We think this early test-run for “The Final Solution” might have happened in Žemaitija because Einsatzkommando commander Rudolf Christoph Batz had faithful and reliable collaborators in different locations there. The events in Žemaitija haven’t been researched well at all because the official in charge of the extermination of the Jews there didn’t leave behind the kind of comprehensive documentation left by other mass murderers in Lithuania such as Karl Jäger.
Until legitimate professional historians adequately investigate and report on this history, the fraudulent narrative constructed by the Lithuanian Government will hold traction among the ignorant. There are no remaining legitimate historians who afford credibility to the Lithuanian Government’s Genocide Center. The Genocide Center is internationally recognized as Holocaust deniers, revisionists, distorters and triumphalists. This is now Lithuania’s international identity.
This article was co-authored by Grant Gochin and Evaldas Balčiūnas.