One reason Lithuania is in denial over its own role in the Holocaust is because most in the country barely knew about it, strange as that seems. When the country was subjugated by the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1990, it wasn’t allowed to freely investigate its own history, and it only heard the Soviet Union’s version: Those who were murdered in Lithuania were all Soviet citizens, not Jews. Why? Perhaps because Jews were a religious group, and Soviets didn’t believe in God, so everybody was deemed a proletariat atheist, or a Soviet citizen.
By the time my grandfather died in February 1947, Lithuania was on lockdown by the Communists–nobody could leave or enter. Those who stayed were subject to a revision of history–the Communists came to “liberate” Lithuania from the Nazis and from God, “the opium of the masses.” Everybody became a Soviet citizen and was forced to embrace Russian as their language and Man as their center. Those who were suspected supporters of the bourgeoisie nationalists, fervent in their faith, or landowners who refused to give up their individual farms for collectivization were purged and cleansed–executed, imprisoned, or sent to Siberian work camps.
The Iron Curtain
Those who left Lithuania in July 1944, like my father at age ten and my mother at age six, were the lucky ones because even a month later, it became impossible to escape. The Iron Curtain descended with a loud and final thud. I recall stories from my mother, aunt, and grandmother of what happened as they escaped. The Šiauliai chief of police, a friend of my grandfather, arrived to their home at 265 Vilnius Street in an Opal on July 28, 1944, already stuffed with five passengers–himself, his wife, her sister, and their two children. (My grandfather was still in the Stutthoff Concentration Camp.) To accommodate three more–my mother, grandmother and aunt–everybody sacrificed some luggage, and each left with just one small piece. Then they headed southeast to the German border. Hordes waited at the train station to mount the cargo wagons. My mother remembered how one family tried to lug their piano. The family wanted their precious piano, but the passengers insisted there wasn’t room, and a riot erupted.
Once they arrived to Germany, they were quarantined–men and women separated, stripped naked, showered and disinfected, then inspected. “It was the first time I saw so many naked women,” Mom remembered. After the quarantine, my mother, grandmother, and aunt moved in with a farmer’s family; at first they thought they were fortunate because most refugees ended up in deportation camps. But the farmer’s wife was abused by her drunken husband, and everybody was afraid to leave the single bedroom they shared when he drank. All they could do was lock the door and pray he’d fall asleep soon. During the day, the adults worked in a clock factory in Muelheim An Dem Donau, a small town near the Blue Danube River, while the children attended school and learned German. My aunt remembered drilling holes in a metal tube, nothing else, one hole after another, then another. It turned out to be a gun factory. My grandmother remembered how little food they had—a ration of bread and bacon. She would tie a piece of string on the bacon and allow her daughter to chew on the piece when she was hungry, then pull it out of her mouth to save for later. Their ration included coffee, which they served to the children as soup.
Mom learns French and Spanish
About six months later, they moved to Switzerland, where they lived in Yverdonne in the Hotel de La Prairie, supervised by the Red Cross. About 200 refugees lived there who established a community of cooks, cleaners, landscapers, and handymen. My grandmother helped set up a school to teach children. After two years, they moved to another hotel in Jogney/Vevey, which stood on a mountain with a view of Leman Lake. By this time, my mother spoke French and attended a regular Swiss school, while my aunt and grandmother became seamstresses.
Still unable to get a visa to the United States, they moved from Switzerland to Buenos Aires. Stasys, the eldest brother of Jonas Noreika, had moved to Argentina in the 1920s. He arrived from Las Pampas in Bahia Blanca to Buenos Aires to greet them and help them find an apartment with a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and patio. Stasys bought them furniture—sofas, a bed, a table, and a little stove. My mother slept on a table and attended school where she learned Spanish, while my grandmother found a job in a loom factory, my aunt as a seamstress. In 1955, the long-awaited visas to the United States finally arrived, and my mother and grandmother flew to Chicago, leaving my aunt behind with her new Lithuanian husband who refused to leave Argentina.
Anything to escape the Communists. Sometimes the plans were extreme. Long before the Lithuanians were forced into exile, the architects of the Lithuanian Community considered a proposal by Kazys Pakštas to colonize in a location where they could be culturally isolated among people of another race and avoid assimilation or “mixing”. According to the book, Lithuanian Diaspora Königsberg to Chicago, written by Antanas J. Van Reenan, Pakštas was a geographer who in the 1930s scouted the world for the best habitat to incubate Lithuanians should their country be overtaken by the Russians again. He created a concept called “Reserve Lithuania,” envisioning that “the nation’s survival depended upon a unity of purpose and an intensified cultural activism.” He explored Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar and the New Hebrides Islands, but settled on the British Honduras as the best location.
He created guidelines for the ideal haven, stating that Lithuanians should not colonize:
- near large cities where white or yellow races are dominant;
- where only one language could be spoken in schools and government offices;
- where there is no possibility of having a Lithuanian diocese with its own ecclesiastical powers;
- where there are at least several thousand whites, rural or urban, since there is always the danger to mix and embrace a foreign language and culture.
It had all been forseen—Lithuanian children growing up in a host land, learning a new language, enjoying new food, and mixing with other cultures. This would dilute the essence of Lithuanianism, perhaps eradicate it, and this must be avoided at all costs, for The Lithuanian Cause, no matter where one lives in the world, is to free Lithuania from the terrible Communists. But most exiles preferred Chicago over the British Honduras, for the city had thousands already settled in Marquette Park, Brighton Park, Bridgeport, and Cicero with churches and newspapers and schools and bakeries with bacon buns. When they settled in, however, they embraced the “Reserve Lithuania” concept as well as they could, raising their children in a proud Lithuanian manner.
I Lituani—the Opera
No one imagined Lithuania would be free in 1990. Everything changed, and our world opened like a new flag unfurled. With the advent of Perestroika, Lithuanians in Chicago celebrated in a big way with the first Lithuanian Music Festival that lasted two weeks and included singing, dancing, and opera. Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera “I Lituani” (The Lithuanians) was staged at Morton East High School in a joint production of Lithuania’s National Opera and Ballet Company and Chicago’s Lithuanian Opera Company. (“I Lituani” premiered at La Scala in 1874, and is the fifth of Ponchielli’s nine operas.)
John von Rhein, music critic of the Chicago Tribune wrote about the “big centerpiece of the festival” as the story of Lithuania’s struggle for freedom against the Teutonic Knights during the Middle Ages. Its characters include German and Lithuanian soldiers, judges of the Order of Teutonic Knights, minstrels, dancers, monks, abbots, a German Duke, the Archbishop of Marienburg, spirits and spirit watchers. The opera had been banned in Lithuania during Soviet times because of its politically sensitive nature—too easy for the audience to substitute Soviet authorities for the Teutonic Knights. At the beginning of the opera, the chorus proclaims, “Let the land of our fathers forever be free.”
I volunteered as the festival’s English-language public relations director in the hours beyond my full-time job as a journalist. I fell into a routine of spending all my spare time for Lithuania, attending meetings at the headquarters of the Lithuanian-American Council to join the efforts of coordinating the festival. Of course I didn’t work alone. I had a PR committee of volunteers who met in my home to divide the newspapers, radio and TV stations, and make all the phone calls. We were a well-oiled Lithuanian-Chicago machine, all of us on fire to let the world know Lithuania was ready for independence.
When it all ended, I headed to the banquet to celebrate, then did it all over again the following year with the Ninth Folk Dance Festival, after which I burned out and left the scene for a long time to raise my children and continue working as a journalist. As I isolated myself from the Lithuanian Cause–since it was now free and mission accomplished–I remained blissfully happy and proud and ignorant of all my grandfather had done. My mother continued collecting material on her famous father, vowing to sit down and finally write the book on her glorious hero.
The Storm Door Blog
My mother died in the year 2000, handing over the legacy of the tragic hero to me, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. One shrewd podcaster, Dr. Deborah Ekstrom of Money Loves Women (https://moneyloveswomen.com) has labelled me an accidental activist, and I have guardedly embraced the moniker.
It has not been an easy road, but the denial of truth, no matter how many “good” excuses available, is still a lie. The decent and right thing to do is to acknowledge the horrors of what our ancestors did to Jews. My hope is that my story will expose a Lithuanian government cover-up of the Holocaust and provide a measure of justice for some of my grandfather’s victims. My ultimate hope is that once this is all out in the open, once Lithuanians have finally had the courage to admit its murderous role in the Shoah, an authentic path to reconciliation between Lithuanians and Jews can finally be forged.
In related news….
- Holocaust Living History Workshop, UC San Diego, Wednesday, October 14, 2020 7-9 p.m. Central: All in the Family: Jonas Noreika and the Quest for Truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania – with Silvia Foti and Grant Gochin. What do you do when you discover that your grandfather whom you were taught to view as a national hero was a Nazi collaborator and mass murderer? This was the question confronting Silvia Foti, an American-Lithuanian from Chicago. After research into Jonas Noreika unearthed the shocking truth about her family history, Foti began a campaign to set the historical record straight. At her side: Grant Gochin, a Lithuanian Jewish American whose family was at the receiving end of Noreika’s murderous actions. At this live event the descendants of perpetrator and victim discuss their efforts to challenge the official World War II narrative in Lithuania and to secure historical justice. Foti is a journalist, activist, and teacher of high-school English. Gochin, a Californian diplomat and wealth manager, has long been actively involved in Jewish affairs, especially pertaining to Lithuania. The event will be in the form of an interview conducted by UC Diego professor of literature Amelia Glaser. Here is the page containing the registration link for next Wednesday.
- An incredible chronicle of Holocaust denial at a high level of the Lithuanian government and all levels of its courts is found in a summary of Grant Gochin’s legal actions against the Genocide Center concerning Jonas Noreika. The accumulation of guilt and shame for its dark role in the Shoah continues for Lithuanians, as the case has exhausted all possible legal avenues in Lithuania and is now eligible for a hearing in the European Court Commission.
- A thoughtful LRT radio interview with Saulius Sužiedelis on the Holocaust in Lithuania on September 23, 2020, the date Lithuania commemorates the Holocaust: Džiazuojanti istorija. Kodėl žydai buvo laikomi mirtinais nacių priešais? (Jazzing history: Why were the Jews regarded as the Nazis’ deadly enemies?)
- October 8, 2020 happens to be the 110th birthday anniversary of Jonas Noreika, my grandfather. Some in Lithuania convened a celebration of his life in his homesteads of Šukoniai and Pakruoju in his honor.
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; Iron Curtain; General Storm; Jonas Noreika; Silvia Foti; Writer’s Life; The Storm Door blog; Genealogy; Grant Gochin