I met Michael Kretzmer, the director of J’Accuse! about three years ago via WhatsApp, never imagining our initial conversation would lead to a multi-award-winning documentary of the Holocaust in Lithuania, largely based on the findings of my book Storm in the Land of Rain. In the past few months, Michael’s film has been exploding minds across the globe, garnering prize after prize at film festivals–now more than 90, including the Australian Jewish Film Festival, Berlin Indie Film Festival, Black Swan International Film Festival, Dreamz Catcher International Film Festival, Scorpiusfest, and the IndieFest Film Awards.
When we first started talking, Michael, gracious and unassuming, barely mentioned his BBC background or law degree. He presented himself as a funny, yet passionate Litvak who had gotten it into his head to create a documentary. He wasn’t the first to approach me about doing a film on my book and so I thought to myself, here’s another one. We’ll see how far this one gets. I had become so jaded by the whole movie industry that I found myself going through the motions, expecting the endeavor to implode at any minute.
Saturday mornings with Michael
Yet, every two weeks or so, Michael would call via WhatsApp, gently asking for a moment. He lives in Birmingham, England, and I live in Chicago, so with our six-hour time difference, we fell into a routine of talking on Saturdays at 10 am my time.
He told me how he was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) in 1954. He left for England in 1976 and became a journalist and film-maker, writing for the London Sunday Times and producing many documentary films for the BBC, Channel 4, and other international broadcasters.
After that he did many other jobs, most notably building a small media company, which he sold in 2010, allowing him to retire. He lives on a tiny farm in the English countryside where he grows vegetables and chickens. He is a father of two and grandfather of one and likes motorbikes, travel, and Torah study.
After the introductions, we gabbed about my grandfather, the Genocide Centre, and how the Holocaust has been so distorted in Lithuania.
2019 trip to Lithuania
Michael recounted a journey he took in 2019 to Biržai, Lithuania, where his family of nearly 50 was murdered and how the trip affected him so profoundly he wanted to make a film of returning to his roots.
“My family had never discussed the Lithuanian holocaust,” Kretzmer said. “I first went to Lithuania in 2019 to attend an unveiling of a monument in Biržai that names the murdered (only 550 out of 2,400 victims were recovered). When the drape covering the memorial dropped just before Kaddish, I found myself staring at perhaps 50 Kretzmers. The scale of my family loss suddenly became very clear to me (all four grandparents, I later discovered) and from that moment I started to understand the reasons for the complex and dysfunctional issues that dominated my family–my mother’s and grandmother’s depression, the reluctance to ever speak Yiddish, the anger of my father. From that moment, I sought to understand the truth of what happened then, and the truth of what is happening today.”
He made his first film about Lithuania during that trip, a lovely letter to Lithuania, which recounted his trip to Biržai and how Lithuanians there were trying to come to terms with the Holocaust, although it stopped short of blaming any Lithuanians of killing Jews. He skirted the issue. Like the Lithuanian government, he blamed only Nazis in the murder of Jews in Lithuania.
“I realized the one thing I had not covered was the Lithuanian perspective in how the Holocaust had affected Lithuanians themselves, so I approached a film company in Vilnius to make this film,” Kretzmer said. “To my amazement, they then said they could get funding of $80,000. I was flattered and intrigued by this offer. While researching this film, I came across your work, as well as Grant’s, and of course this changed my perspective completely. That is when I wanted to shift the focus to Lithuanians’ role in the Holocaust. I suspect that the film company in Vilnius was advised by an expert from the Genocide Research and Resistance Center. They were not at all interested in my exploring the role of Lithuanians in killing Jews.”
Kretzmer was told by his contact that would not be possible, that Lithuanians were the victims and that the Holocaust was entirely perpetrated by the Nazis. Couldn’t Kretzmer just do a beautiful film about how the Jewish community had thrived in Lithuania? About the rich Jewish culture? About how grateful Jews were for living in Lithuania for nearly a thousand years? About how the loss of Jews was a tremendous tragedy for Lithuania? Leaving out the distasteful part about how they were killed by their Lithuanian neighbors in 1941?
“What they wanted was more propaganda,” Kretzmer said. “As soon as I became aware of this, I severed all links immediately. It also concerned me that after this, they often invited me to claim money for work I had not done! It seemed weird, and I now realize it was brought about by their belief that a Jew can never refuse money. This stiffened my resolve to find a way to make my own film on my own terms more than they could possibly imagine.”
80,000 pieces of silver
For a nanosecond, Michael might have been blinded by the $80,000 dangling before him. As he has since said, “It’s nearly impossible to find money for filming, and here it was laying before me on a silver platter.”
But his better instincts kicked in. He smelled a con job. He would have been used by the Lithuanian government to showcase the Holocaust in Lithuania in a mild, yet beautifully Jewish, light. If Kretzmer had done it their way, the Lithuanian government would have had a powerful propaganda tool to present its version of the Holocaust to its own people and the rest of the world—all filmed by a Litvak, a descendent of Jews killed in Lithuania during the Holocaust, formerly of the BBC.
Dismayed, yet resolved to do it his way, Kretzmer turned down Lithuania’s offer and decided to make his own film independently, even though he barely had an extra cent to his name.
“I was working on my tiny farm one day and I suddenly realized I had no option but to address the insult of Noreika,” Kretzmer said. “At that moment I made a promise to both God and my murdered families that I would not rest until I had completed this task. Making a film was my only weapon. I cannot describe the wave of furious energy that left me working literally all waking hours (very, very uncharacteristic of me!). To this day I am very puzzled by this.”
After about a year of our leisurely conversations, Michael suddenly became urgent, saying he wanted to move ahead with his project. One Saturday morning, he declared that he was looking for funding.
I thought to myself, all the previous documentarians had gotten to this point, and their projects fell apart for lack of money. I braced myself for failure.
To my surprise, almost instantly, Michael found funds, not hand over fist, but a few thousand dollars to start.
“My producer was my best friend (another Litvak boy) from Bulawayo called Richard Rabins whom I hadn’t seen for 60 years,” Kretzmer said. “I was eight years old when his family left Bulawayo to go to Johannesburg. Richard immediately understood the importance of the project, and he and I wrote to a few friends and family members (all Litvaks). This is how we raised the money. Generally, donations were small, but every penny went into production. I took nothing. At no stage did I ask any of the big funders or museums to support me. It was all done by small donors who believed in what I was doing. I made the film in six months for $30,000, which is simply incredible.”
However, it was the middle of Covid and Michael couldn’t just hop on a plane to Chicago.
Instead, he found a cameraman in New York who could hop on a plane to Chicago on a Saturday. He had a list of questions written down by Michael, and so I was interviewed in my living room, my dining room, my kitchen, and my office. At Michael’s request, I took Sam Stulin on a tour of Marquette Park, Little Lithuania in Chicago, pointing out Holy Cross Hospital where I was born, the church, Nativity BVM, where most Lithuanians get married, and Maria High School, where Lithuanian girls attended.
Snips and cuts
Michael came out of retirement on his little farm to edit the 12 hours of footage, working 15-hour days, into a 90-minute film. He struggled with finding the film’s voice. After much prayer, he was inspired to tell the film through the voice of children murdered in Lithuania. He searched for photographs of the victims until he found the perfect one. The cover of the film features a kindergarten school in Plungė, 14 children seated at a table outside the one-room schoolhouse, facing the camera, their teacher standing behind them.
Then he was struck by cancer!
“I was diagnosed with prostate cancer the day before I started sectioning the film,” Kretzmer said. “This is the most demanding phase, where you go through all your ideas–literally thousands of them–and try to piece together a narrative with your interviews, each a couple of hours long. To be perfectly honest, I did not miss an hour’s work. In fact, once I realized I had cancer (and at one stage the diagnosis was not looking good) I understood that I had to finish this task before the cancer took hold. Again, I am utterly amazed by this and cannot explain it.”
Through biopsies, scans and finally an operation, Michael valiantly continued working, saying this project gave him purpose and hope, and that it played a large role in distracting him from the cancer.
“There were so many unbelievable coincidences that helped me in the making of this film, so I always believed that God was my senior executive producer,” Kretzmer said, laughing. “It is true that the cancer briefly derailed this faith (I mean really, why give me cancer the DAY BEFORE I’m due to start the most difficult part of the film!!???) but not for long. And honestly, I now see that the cancer was a catalyst, helping me to finish quickly, work astonishingly hard and focus my mind in many critical ways. And indeed, in retrospect, the cancer has been a very positive thing. The operation–a full prostatectomy–I think has been a complete success, and I have never been as healthy and fit as I am today.”
Storm Door blog
A press release for the film states, “The award-winning film J’Accuse! is about the unlikely alliance between Grant Gochin, a Jewish activist for Lithuanian Holocaust truth, and Silvia Foti, the highly esteemed author of Storm in the Land of Rain, which reveals that Silvia’s grandfather—Jonas Noreika—operated as a Nazi collaborator who ordered the massacre of thousands of Lithuania’s Jews. However, Lithuania continues to view him as a celebrated freedom fighter because he fought against the Communists.”
The film’s message is an expression of outrage and accusation against the government of Lithuania for continuing to heroize its mass murderers. The children, the most innocent, have been resurrected by this work and are standing from their graves pointing their bloody fingers at the government of Lithuania. To date, tellingly, the government has not responded to the film, although its representatives have been invited to multiple viewings.
International response growing
To Lithuania’s chagrin, J’Accuse! has exceeded all viewer expectations by winning more than 90 awards at film festivals around the world and is rapidly gaining global attention. People are outraged at learning the truth concerning Lithuania’s long history of lies, cover-ups, and distortions about the Holocaust.
“Today, Lithuania’s political leaders attempt to wiggle around the issue with patronizing sentiments concerning Jews who have been ‘lost’ on their land, while simultaneously honoring their murderers, such as Noreika, with statues, parades, monuments, and buildings bearing their names,” Kretzmer said. “The guilty parties have faced absolutely no accountability for the atrocities committed, since there has never been any punishment to any individuals involved, to this day.”
Children’s voices no longer silenced
However, the families deserve the respect of acknowledging what really happened, and most importantly, the discontinuation of honoring the murderers.
“The Noreika insult beggars belief,” Kretzmer said. “Let me summarize: the Lithuanian government, via its Orwellian Genocide Centre, has manufactured a crude mythology based on lies in order to hero-worship a notorious mass murderer, thief, and polemical antisemite. Jonas Noreika murdered as many as 14,500 Jews in conditions of unimaginable cruelty and his guilt has been known for decades.
“I hope my film plays a part in raising Jewish consciousness and empowerment. But I also dearly hope it will play a part in liberating Lithuania from the shocking burden of these terrible government-formulated lies.”
Here is a link to the trailer of J’Accuse.
In related news….
- Grant Gochin, Michael Kretzmer, and I, for the first time, appeared together in person to discuss the film at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on Monday, March 20, 2023. The event was sold out.
- Evaldas Balčiūnas, who first broke the story of Jonas Noreika from Lithuania in Defending History to the English-speaking world, wrote a review of the film.
- I spoke on March 5, 2023 to a Holocaust series on Lithuania sponsored by Yeshiva University and Vilnius University. Here is a youtube of the event.
- Baltic Truth, another documentary on the same subject, will be shown at the Palm Springs Jewish Film Festival on March 29.
- J’Accuse will be shown at the Jewish Community Center in London on April 16. Please register here.
- The film will be shown in Israel on Yom Hashoah, April 18. Please register here. Kretzmer will be in person to discuss the documentary’s message with the audience after the screening.
- The three of us, Michael, Grant, and I will be touring Australia, showing the film to audiences in Brisbane, Sidney, Melbourne, and Perth, for two weeks in July.
Wishing you truth and peace in the storms of your life,
Silvia Foti, granddaughter of General Storm, Jonas Noreika