When I first realized with a heavy heart that my grandfather Jonas Noreika played a significant role in slaughtering Lithuania’s Jews as leader of the 5-day uprising in Žemaitija and as the district chief of Šiauliai between 1941-1943, I still hadn’t fully grasped how he was part of a vast bureaucratic machine of genocide overseen by the German Nazis and their enthusiastic Lithuanian collaborators.
How did Lithuanians have so much agency in killing Jews? Wasn’t it just the Germans? Unfortunately, the newest book on this subject shows that Lithuanians played a pivotal role in killing Jews.
This is still unbelievable to Lithuanians today. It is as if Lithuanian feel they have been ambushed by this news. The Lithuanian psyche is that they were the victims of Soviet oppression–not that they oppressed the Jews. They seem so unprepared to deal with this history. I know because I was also unprepared.
Yet the fantastic book called How Did It Happen? by Dr. Christopher Dieckmann, a noted German historian, and Ruta Vanagaite, a noted Lithuanian author, delves into how the Shoah unfolded in Lithuania. The Nazis certainly instigated it, but in the question-and-answer dialogue between the two authors, Vanagaite takes the role of the naïve Lithuanian posing elemental questions while Dr. Dieckmann takes the role of the wise historian who patiently answers them. Together they show in devastating fashion how and why Lithuanians eagerly joined the Nazis’ passion to eliminate Jews from Europe.
Part of the reason is that Lithuania had a government in place when the Germans invaded, and the government remained for the first six weeks of the Nazi Occupation. I keep hearing that members of the Provisional Government were appointed and not elected, and therefore did not represent Lithuanians when they called for the ethnic cleansing of Jews. Yet the counterargument is that none of them were forced into their positions, and that once in their positions, for better or for worse, they acted as if they spoke for all Lithuanians, and Lithuanians themselves acted as if they were being represented. The leadership of the Provisional Government was not a secret to Lithuanians before the leaders assumed their role to head the country. There was no known opposition. Just as Smetona had a coup and ruled, the Provisional Government did too.
2020 Historical Hindsight
With 2020 historical hindsight, we can assuredly say it was all for the worse. The Nazis left vacuums of leadership because they couldn’t fill those positions themselves. The EK3 unit had 139 personnel, of which 44 were secretaries and drivers, and 95 were murderers. When Lithuanians filled the positions, they complied with the Nazis and the slaughter of Jews–and in their enthusiasm to please the Nazis–they made all Lithuanians look terrible.
Ms. Vanagaite asked Dr. Dieckmann about the Provisional Government’s role throughout the book. She sent me a review copy in English, which is expected to be released shortly. Here are a few excerpts on the Provisional Government, which I found interesting:
During the first days of the occupation the Lithuanian Provisional government was created. What kind of a country was Lithuania supposed to be?
There were no plans for it to be a democratic state. There were hardly any democratic states left in Europe at that time. The Lithuanian Provisional Government (PG), formed by the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) wanted to build Lithuania as a strong Fascist state. We have already looked at the Fascist elements present in the program of LAF. The Provisional government was the main project of the LAF. The restored Lithuanian nation-state was supposed to be for ethnic Lithuanians exclusively (in contrast to the Lithuanian constitution of 1938), the role models were the Fascist states Germany and Italy. In the future Lithuania there was not supposed to be any separation of powers (legislative, judiciary and executive), and no democratic rule of law.
As a side note, my grandfather, Jonas Noreika, was appointed by the Provisional Government as County District Chief of Šiauliai. He officially took his position on August 3, 1941, but based on my research, I believe he unofficially took his position in early July when the previous chief, who was less radical than my grandfather, had resigned.
What message was contained in in the last memorandum of the Provisional government?
Tis memorandum is mainly about the history of Lithuania from the 13th century with Vilnius as its center. It describes the Uprising in June 1941 in which, according to the memorandum, the whole Lithuanian nation took part. The Provisional Government admitted that this Uprising was coordinated with the German army. Therefore, for all these efforts, Lithuania deserved independence. In the opinion of the ministers, Germans were not doing what they should have done – they did not take into account Lithuanian efforts and national aspirations
Let’s summarize the role of the Lithuanian Provisional Government. It was very patriotic and tried hard to fight for Lithuanian political aspirations. But why did the ministers agree to organize the first concentration camp in the Kaunas Seventh fort? Why did they allow the first mass killings there just a week after the German invasion? Did this government have any means to sabotage German orders?
We do not really know. I think the Lithuanian Provisional Government had the means to at least protest the orders. In the beginning of the occupation, they had access to the radio and press. The PG was in a position to tell the Lithuanian police and the city administrators: “We do not want and will not get involved in the mass killings of our people organized and ordered by Germans.”
What could the Lithuanian Provisional Government have done to stop the killings? They were just a minor political force.
They could have tried to protest or sabotage the murders. They did neither. The murders were happening in July when the Lithuanian Provisional Government was fully operational, proactively issuing around 100 laws in six weeks, many of them antisemitic.
How many Lithuanian Jews were killed by the time PG was dissolved?
Only about five percent of all Lithuanian Jewry. In the beginning of August 1941, 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews were still alive. But there was another serious problem with the resignation of this government. When they resigned, they did not tell their subordinates how to behave. Should all the Lithuanian administration refuse to cooperate with the Germans? There were tens of thousands of people in the lower ranks working in the administrative system and in Lithuanian police forces and they were cooperating with the Germans! When the Cabinet resigned, these people where simply left in their positions. What were they supposed to do? They did not know, and so they continued to cooperate.
Lithuanians were not forced to work for the Nazis
I keep hearing today that Lithuanians were not responsible because the Nazis were in charge, yet a considerable number of Lithuanians filled government positions during the Nazi occupation. Far from being forced into this labor, they were paid a generous salary by the Nazis. My grandfather received about 1,000 RM each paycheck during the Nazi occupation and lived in ostensibly in the best building in Šiauliai, the government mansion.
I had discovered that my grandfather was one of approximately 300 Lithuanians who worked in the district’s government, all of whom answered to the Nazis, but none of whom would have been punished for refusing to work for them. [Levinsonas, Josifas. ŠOA Holokaustas Lietuvoje: Skaitiniai I dalis (“Shoah Holocaust in Lithuania: Essays, Part I”). Vilnius: Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Žydu Muziejus (Vilnius Gaon Jewish State Museum), 2001.]
Who is Christopher Dieckmann?
Dr. Christoph Dieckmann is a German historian. He taught Modern European History from 2005 until 2014 at Keele University in the United Kingdom. Since 2000, he has also been a member of the Presidential International Commission for the Evaluation of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. Until 2017, he conducted a research project called Yiddish Historiography on the Russian Civil War at the Fritz-Bauer-Institut in Frankfurt am Main. Presently, Dieckmann works at the University of Bern on a project focused on sound-history called Sounds of Anti-Jewish Persecution. His study Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941-1944 (German Occupation Policy in Lithuania 1941-1944) was published in 2011 and was awarded the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research in 2012.
Who is Ruta Vanagaite?
Ruta Vanagaite is a Lithuanian writer and journalist who has been run out of her country for writing Our People with Efraim Zurroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This newest book, with Dr. Dieckmann, is also referred to as Our People, Part II. www.vanagaite.lt
How can you get a copy of the book?
For now, the book is available only in Lithuanian. To order a copy, please go to www.vanagaite.lt.
The book has been accepted by a publisher in the United States, USA Rowman&Littlefield, and will be released in English in spring 2021.
The Storm Door Blog
It’s so difficult for Lithuanians today to acknowledge that they played any role in the Holocaust, other than being the heroes who saved Jews. I know because I was one of them. But once I opened that scary Storm Door to begin investigating the role of my grandfather during WWII, I soon saw with clarity that the Germans couldn’t possibly have run the country by themselves, without the help of Lithuanian mayors, vice-mayors, tax collectors, and monitors, because most of the German military and police forces had been sent to the war front.
In related news….
Ruta Vanagaite and Efraim Zuroff will join Grant Gochin and myself in a video conference hosted by ICAN on Tuesday, September 8 at 7 pm Central Standard Time. The program will be focused on Vanagaite’s and Zuroff’s book Our People, recently released in English. It will also be the first time the four of us will be together for an event.
Wishing you truth and peace in the storms of your life,
Silvia Foti, granddaughter of General Storm—Jonas Noreika
Regnery History will release The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal in May 2021; HarperCollins Mexico will release Mi Abuelo: El General Storm ¿Héroe o criminal nazi? later in August 2020.