Long before I learned my grandfather was responsible for murdering approximately 14,000 Jews in Lithuania during the Holocaust, I had been groomed in Chicago to love and revere him. I understand why Lithuanians have been so reluctant to accept the horrible and dark truth about him. We have been indoctrinated to believe he was a hero, and it’s so difficult to let go of that stunning and reassuring story. . .
In 1955, my grandmother and mother left Buenos Aires in a plane headed for Chicago, and at the end of their twelve-hour flight, if they had circled over the Southwest Side, they might have had the chance to look down upon Marquette Park, also known as Little Lithuania. They would have seen a long rectangle of green grass and trees with a three-mile winding lagoon lazing its way through foliage. At its peak, Marquette Park harbored 100,000 Lithuanians, more than anywhere else in the world, save the Fatherland. This hive of exiles resolved to mimic the homeland until the terrible experiment of Communism extinguished.
Anchoring the park at the northeast end stood a granite slope, as tall as a three-story building. The monument’s shape represented a shiny wing of the first Lithuanian airplane, called Lituanica, to cross the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Lithuania in 1933. Unfortunately, after it flew 4,000 miles it crashed somewhere in Germany, but Lithuanians are very good at memorializing near-success, because that is all we usually achieve. We called it the Darius and Girėnas monument after two noble Lithuanian-American pilots. In the summers, barefoot children like myself, dared each other to climb the wing to the top, one tender foot followed by another on cold granite, inching our way up, only to slide all the way back down and start over.
If my mother could have beheld the future while looking down upon Marquette Park from that plane, she would have seen me hiking around the lagoon, sweating through the mud – and losing a shoe while slicing through cattails and tall grasses. In the spring, a hazy, gray fog swayed over the lagoon, spreading throughout Marquette Park like a misty shield, insulating it from the rest of the world.
During the riots in August 1966, when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. marched through the park, she would have observed me standing behind an oak tree just in front of a small, grassy hill, trying to walk home from day camp. When I peeked around the wide trunk, I saw men in Nazi uniforms and others, including Lithuanians, in everyday clothes, hurling stones, bricks, and sticks at anyone with black skin. “Get outta here!” I had never seen such hate on my neighbors’ faces, and it was mixed with an elated excitement at driving out those blacks, who at the time, I feared as well.
Holy Cross Hospital
About two blocks south of the granite wing, they would have noticed the white roof of a building in the shape of a huge cross. Built in 1928, Holy Cross Hospital had four wings, which from an airplane, made a cross. It was founded by the Sisters of Casimir, saint of Lithuania. Flanking the hospital to the north stood Maria High School, an all-girls school, also founded by the Sisters. Mom would attend that school within a few days of landing, and I would go there twenty years later. The school faced the granite wing, where students like me met to smoke cigarettes and gossip.
To the south stood McKay Grammar School, which transformed into a Lithuanian grammar school on Saturdays and where my grandmother would teach second grade. The school opened its doors at 9 o’clock to hundreds of progeny destined to become warriors for freedom.
Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary Church
Behind the hospital and across the street from the school rose the Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary church, dedicated to Our Lady of Šiluva, where Mom would marry Dad in five years. From this heart of hospital, schools and church, sprouted an artery of bars and taverns, restaurants and bakeries, extending eight blocks long, from California to Western Avenues, known as 69th Street or The Lithuanian Plaza. This plaza had everything an exiled Lithuanian could desire. It had Tulpė (Tulip), a ramshackle restaurant the size of four picnic tables and a lunch counter, where patrons slurped cold beet soup with buttermilk in the summer, just before they crossed the street to Gintaras (Amber), a bar that featured Lithuanian bands—some with oompah-pah accordions, others with country-rock guitars. My friends and I, wearing Maria High School uniforms, would unabashedly enter the bar after school on a Friday. The next night, we’d come in our jeans and flannel shirts to smoke, play pool, and get more beer. After listening to a band at Gintaras, we could walk to Pranas’s, Jonas’s, Liths Club, or Knights Inn for more drinks and friends. Who needed Mardis Gras when you had 69th Street every weekend?
My grandmother also had her routine. Every Friday, just after finishing a week of work as a seamstress at Holy Cross Hospital, she’d enter the beauty shop, tired and gray-haired, then exit rejuvenated and raven-haired, ready to attend a Lithuanian concert or funeral. My grandmother shopped at Parama, a grocery store that carried pickled herring, dark bread, and krustikai – little pastries folded like bows and powdered with sugar.
My grandmother’s modest apartment occupied half of the second floor of a two-flat on Rockwell Street in Chicago, just a block from the Lithuanian Plaza. Her wooden house was covered with brown tarpaper, and her front steps had been painted a shiny brown. We always visited her on Saturdays, just after Lithuanian school.
At one o’clock on any Saturday in 1971, when I would have been ten, Ray and I took the shortcut to Močiutė’s through the alley, carrying our satchels of texts and notebooks, skipping eagerly because she always made the best meal we had all week. This time, she treated us to cepelinai – ground beef engulfed in grated potatoes – named after the German Zeppelins, which were accompanied with bacon bits and sour cream.
By two o’clock, we had eaten our cepelinai and helped clean the dishes. I washed, while Ray dried, and Močiutė wiped down the plastic tablecloth so we could tackle our homework. This way the rest of the week would be freed for our American school assignments.
“I hate doing this homework on a Saturday,” Ray whined – in Lithuanian, of course.
“Me too!” I added. “All our friends get to watch cartoons, and we’re stuck with more school.”
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” our grandmother would say, as she put away the dishes. “The Americans speak only one language, so if you speak two, you’re twice as smart.”
Once we finished the dishes and took our seats to start the homework, we’d write something in pencil on the blue-lined notebooks. Močiutė would inevitably have to fix our grammar and vocabulary. The plastic tablecloth was always covered in eraser shavings by the end of our sessions. She was a teacher in Lithuania and was punctilious about us learning the correct forms, but the fourteen noun declensions made her job nearly impossible. While we spoke it at home during our pre-school years, English dominated once we attended kindergarten, and we often rebelled against speaking Lithuanian to our parents. With our grandmother, however, we had no choice. “Lithuanian is the oldest living language on earth,” she’d say. “You are different from the Americans because you have a rich heritage, one that goes back a thousand years.” She barely spoke English, although she had learned German, Polish, Russian, French and Spanish before arriving to Chicago at the age of forty-four on that airplane. She complained bitterly about English homonyms and spelling.
Her home, our neighborhood in Marquette Park, was a fly in a chunk of amber. In a Lithuanian dwelling, amber was ubiquitous, for it was our national stone – tree resin fossilized over millions of years. Like the fly in the chunk of amber, we were never expected to escape our heritage, but to somehow wash up on the shores of the land where we belonged. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the idea was to return to the Fatherland as soon as the occupiers had been defeated, and the community acted as if the possibility were imminent. In the face of the Cold War and McCarthyism, Lithuanians in exile had frozen themselves in time to preserve their love for their land.
I had no doubt how much my grandmother revered Lithuania, for her immaculate three-room apartment pulsed with amber necklaces, bracelets, and a small flag next to the Vytis, the country’s coat of arms featuring a white knight galloping on a horse. There were Lithuanian newspapers and magazines, and her breath always puffed nationalism. She did all she could to make us feel responsible for the country’s fate, and she made it her job to keep Lithuania at the center of our lives, even if we lived 5,000 miles away.
After she helped us with our history, geography, reading, and writing, we’d wait for our father to drive us the mile and a half home. Meanwhile, she’d tell us a story, often centered on her husband, Jonas Kazimieras Noreika.
We’d follow her from the kitchen into the living room, and sit down next to her on her couch, the color of dark amber. She’d grab our hands, hold them tightly, and squeeze them for emphasis. Her hands were dry and shiny from smoothing fabric all day in front of a sewing machine in the bowels of Holy Cross Hospital, her nails groomed to perfect ovals. “It’s up to you,” squeeze, squeeze, “to set our Fatherland free.” Squeeze.
Next to the couch stood an oak table with our grandfather’s black and white photograph. She’d let go of our hands to pick up that photograph and hold it in her lap, staring at it wistfully, wiping a tear. His code name was Generolas Vėtra – General Storm, she told us. I admired how stately he looked with his smooth skin, high cheekbones, strong chin, yet warm eyes, and could understand how my grandmother fell in love with him, as he was movie-star handsome. She clung to her widowhood as a badge of honor, a worthy sacrifice for the pursuit of her nation’s independence. She positioned the picture back and grabbed our hands. “Someday Lithuania will be free again,” she’d say. “Your grandfather didn’t die for nothing.” Squeeze.
L for Lithuania
“That is why you must excel in school,” she instructed, letting go so she could point her right index finger at me first, and then at Ray. When I look back on it now, I think she used that elegantly manicured finger to secretly inscribe the “L” on our hearts. It was a laser beam of invisible light that radiated from the point of her finger. She did it while we were looking straight at her, first inscribing mine with a deep, indelible mark, then Ray’s. “Not just in Lithuanian school, but in your American one. I want you to follow in the footsteps of your grandfather.” I picked up the Vytis on her cocktail table in front of the couch, feeling its lacquered wood, studying the knight and his sword, running the little flag through my fingers.
Ray, three years younger than I, always steered his comments toward comic effect. When my grandmother said we were to follow in her husband’s footsteps, he asked with exaggerated wide eyes, “You mean, you want us to die for Lithuania?”
Stifling a smile, Močiutė said lightly, but firmly, “If necessary.”
We laughed, but deep down, we both believed she meant it.
This is how I turned into the next memorial candle to my grandfather. I first came upon the term “memorial candle” in Eva Hoffman’s book After Such Knowledge: Memory, History and the Legacy of the Holocaust.
The transactions between survivor parents and their progeny sometimes seem nearly magical. Dina Wardi, an Israeli psychotherapist who had worked extensively with groups of second-generation adults, suggests, in her book Memorial Candles, that in every survivor’s family, one child is chosen as the “memorial candle” – that is, as the instrument of commemoration, devotion, and mourning. Once such a symbolic role is conferred on them, the children rarely have the wherewithal to refuse it. They become votaries on the altar of the Shoah, their own lives and selves dedicated to their hurt parents and to the perished, whether they would or not (Hoffman 64).
I only knew that my job was to burn brightly for him, to believe in the noble cause for his death, and to carry on his legacy. My job was to believe in his story, the one where he was a hero, the one where he was an anti-Communist and an anti-Nazi, the one where he was the victim, the one where he sacrificed all for the love of Lithuania.
In related news…
September 8, 2020
ICAN and Los Angeles Holocaust Museum broadcast of Efraim Zuroff, Rūta Vanagaitė, Grant Gochin, and Silvia Foti
- Efraim Zuroff, known as the last Nazi hunter in the world, has exposed Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust and their rampant Holocaust distortion.
- Rūta Vanagaitė, a Lithuanian best-selling writer, co-authored the book, as well as another about the Holocaust in Lithuania.
- Silvia Foti, the granddaughter of the Lithuanian national hero Jonas Noreika, has exposed the crimes of her grandfather.
- Grant Gochin, a serial litigant against the Republic of Lithuania has exposed the role of the government and judiciary in rewriting their history related to the Holocaust.
- Special guest Dr. Steven Windmueller, professor at Hebrew Union College and advisory board member to ICAN.
Now, together the first time, hear their incredible stories and learn more about how you can help protect and preserve the memory of the Holocaust.
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 the spring of 2021; the book is available for pre-orders on Amazon here
Harper Collins Mexico will release Mi Abuelo: El General Storm ¿Héroe o criminal nazi? later in 2020.
Taglines: Holocaust Distortion; Marquette Park; Memorial Candle; General Storm; Jonas Noreika; Silvia Foti; Writer’s Life; The Storm Door blog; Genealogy; Grant Gochin