My grandfather’s pocket-sized prayer book lay encased in thick black leather, a cross engraved on its cover, now scuffed and scratched, edges worn. Shortly after he was executed in 1947, his best friend’s niece picked up his belongings: She had kept this prayer book nearly fifty years as a relic to pass on to his daughter, my mother.
The prayer book sits on a corner shelf of my desk now, handed down to me. I finger its thin yellowed pages, its ends brown, tattered, as if pecked by a bird. The glue that had bound the pages to the book’s spine has dried out, leaving the leaves loose and fragile. Even in my grandfather’s day, the pages must have been delicate, for several are edged with a shiny tape, darkened to a coffee-color. A breeze could scatter them easily; even now they seem close to crumbling to dust. I open the book, expecting to read some Lithuanian verses, but am surprised to find all the words in Polish, the title page bearing CICHA LZA above CHRZESCIANSKA. The book had been printed in 1879 in Warsaw. Why did he have a Polish prayer book?
I leaf through the pages at a leisurely pace until I come across a prayer card in Lithuanian that must have served as a bookmark. At the top, it says, “Remember Jerusalem!” Beneath an illustration of a cross and wreath are the words, “In memory of the Mount of Olives. Placed on Christ’s grave.” The card looks handmade, the picture of the cross filled in with two thin, rectangular slices of what might have been palm leaves. The wreath surrounding the cross had been carefully glued in with small flowers and leaves. The edges of the card were stitched with gold and green lace, a pleasing combination of paper, plants, and cloth, created unhurriedly, in a bygone era.
I consider the words “Remember Jerusalem!” and how eerie this message seems, given the allegation of my grandfather’s murderous acts against 14,500 Jews. It reminds me how all Christians are descendants of the Jews, how Jerusalem is another name for heaven, how perhaps the most historically significant city of Israel is the source of spiritual sustenance for both of our religions.
I hold onto this prayer book, perhaps my closest connection to my grandfather, to consider how far I have come with his story and how much further I need to go. I hold fast to this prayer book, looking for spiritual strength to continue. For most of my life, the beginning of the story was the last day my mother saw her father, when my grandfather was taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp, how he suffered there, how he wrote a fairytale for her, then how he was released, returned to Lithuania to mastermind a resistance movement against the Communists, how he was captured by the KGB, tortured and executed. But now I grasp how his story began much earlier and how the contradictions are part of the same man.
Endless hours in KGB prison
Fanned open, the prayer pages emit a musty breeze, a balm to his soul to help him cope with the endless hours spent in the KGB prison. I picture him opening his prayer book, pulling it out of the pocket of his pants, gazing into its contents, searching for answers to questions he must have asked. Why am I here? What is the meaning of all my suffering? What good will come of it? Was my sacrifice worth it? Will my wife understand? Will my daughter cope without her father?
Perhaps he fingered the thin pages and landed on Psalm 6. “Do not reprove me in your anger, Lord, nor punish me in your wrath. Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are trembling. In utter terror is my soul—and you Lord, how long? Turn Lord, save my life, in your mercy rescue me. For who among the dead remembers you? Who praises you in Sheol?”
Holding the book feels strange, even mystical, like it’s a charmed talisman that could bring me back in time to the place my grandfather suffered, the KGB prison that is now a museum, home of the Genocide Center. I hold it cupped in my hands as if holding a delicate small bird, perhaps a nightingale maimed in a terrible accident, its right wing broken, bone exposed. I lift it to my nose and smell bloody autumn leaves fallen in a dense forest where the rebels hid plotting their coup against the Communist invaders, the fire smoldering, dirt hastily kicked over to kill the flames before they moved to a safer spot. I rub it against my cheek, and feel its bony brittleness, dry hardness from lack of use.
Storm Door Blog
What is the truth?
Would my grandfather want me to write this story? I assume he would have preferred to stay silent during his lifetime, but I wonder what he thinks now in the afterlife nearly seventy years later. Isn’t he in an enlightened state? By the same token, I feel inadequate to the task, and have nightmares of extremists retaliating with severe measures, such as bombing my house, or causing the community to go into an uproar of hate and anger directed at me. They had suffered too, at the hands of the Communists–irrationally, cruelly, and this is what they would want the story to be about. Why was it about the Jews? Although prone to these wild worries, I still had a longing to discover the truth of my grandfather’s story.
I had grown up with his ghost all of my life, had watched how my mother and grandmother worshiped him, and had promised on my mother’s deathbed to finish what she couldn’t. I feel a longing to determine not only how he had been a hero in Lithuania, but also how this same man could have played a dark role in the holocaust. My grandfather has become central to my identity as a Lithuanian American, and I need to know what he did—the noble and the reprehensible, so that I could judge for myself whether he should be revered or condemned, or perhaps both.
And so, leafing through my grandfather’s prayer book, one of the few artifacts remaining of his life, I pray for words of wisdom to help guide me forward, to do the right thing, and I land on what looks like a litany of saints’ names, some of which I recognize, even in Polish—Sylvester, Ambrose, Augustine, Michael, Anthony, Benedict, Bernard, Dominic, Ignatius, Francisco, Casimir, Anne, Mary Magdalene, Agatha, Lucy, Barbara, Dorothy, Teresa, Elizabeth, Sofia, Salomea, Ursula.
Yes, I smile to myself, to share this story, I need the help of all of heaven’s court, and I am not beneath begging for an intervention to aid me in disseminating the truth of my grandfather’s role on Lithuania’s stage during its darkest time. On my knees, I beg that Lithuania listens.
In related news . . .
Statement of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Lithuania: Wrong Man in the Wrong Place—about the appointment of Vidmantas Valiusaitis as an advisor to the head of the Genocide Center.
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: https://amzn.to/39Ki8Yc
Harper Collins Mexico will release Mi Abuelo: El General Storm ¿Héroe o criminal nazi? later in 2020.
Taglines: Holocaust Distortion; General Storm; Jonas Noreika; Silvia Foti; Writer’s Life; The Storm Door blog; Genealogy; Grant Gochin