The story of Jonas Noreika, also known by his guerilla name General Vėtra (Storm), brings to sharp relief Lithuania’s ambivalent relationship with its World War Two history.
Noreika died in 1947, but his name keeps coming up in today’s debates. A report about his role in the Holocaust has attracted fierce criticism and a politician decided to boost his election campaign by smashing Noreika’s memorial plaque.
In the wake of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania 1940, Jonas Noreika joined the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) which organized an anti-Soviet uprising and sought to establish a provisional government when the Nazis pushed out the Russians in 1941.
The Lithuanians' ambitions for complete self-government were frustrated, but Noreika got appointed the chief of Šiauliai District. Under Nazi orders, he signed documents to establish a Jewish ghetto in Žagarė; 2,236 people in the ghetto were later killed.
Noreika was himself later arrested by the Nazis and sent to Stutthof concentration camp. When the Soviets recaptured Lithuania, he joined underground resistance, was arrested in 1946 and executed the following year.
As a partisan resistance leader, Noreika has been posthumously awarded state honours and memorialized, despite controversy surrounding his involvement in the Holocaust. A memorial plaque on the Library of the Academy of Science in Vilnius has attracted particular controversy due to its visibility.
Calls from the public – notably, the Lithuanian Jewish Community, but not only – have regularly urged the authorities to remove the plaque.
Finally, an activist politician smashed the plaque this month, live-streaming it on social media. The act attracted much attention to the man, Stanislovas Tomas, and his European Parliament election campaign.
Vilnius mayor initially said the plaque would not be reconstructed, but then bowed down to criticism, including from the Lithuanian prime minister, that he was thus condoning vandalism.
In 2015, the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania released a report, stating that “during the German occupation, Jonas Noreika did not take part in operations of mass murder of Jews” and that he was an active member of anti-Nazi resistance.
Teresė Birutė Burauskaitė, the head of the Centre, has told LRT.lt that Noreika was put in an impossible position by the Nazis. She insists that he did not make the decision about moving Jewish residents of his district into a ghetto, but merely signed a paper that “was put onto his table translated into Lithuanian” by the Germans.
The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre's report also maintains that Noreika, as well as Lithuania's civilian population, did not know at the time that ghettoization would lead to extermination of their Jewish countrymen.
Donatas Puslys, journalist, commentator and former chief editor of the online daily Bernardinai.lt, strongly rejects this point. He notes that Noreika signed the order to move people into the ghetto and to expropriate their homes on August 22, which was after several mass killings of Jewish Lithuanians in Kaunas, Gargždai ant the Seventh Fort.
“I cannot heroize a man who put his signature on the document isolating Lithuania's Jewish citizens who were already persecuted,” Puslys says. “I do not want to take away Jonas Noreika's resistance merits, but nor will I disregard his signature.”
Jurgita Verbickienė, a history professor at Vilnius University, believes that Noreika should not be memorialized as a hero.
“Can a man who committed a crime against humanity be our hero?” she asks. “We do not want to judge his biography and we do not want to airbrush the facts – he made the decisions he made in the situation that he was. The question to ask is this: does our society of today need such a hero?”
Accusations of Holocaust denial
Noreika's story was brought back to national attention by a court case. Grant Arthur Gochin, an American whose family perished in the Holocaust, filed a lawsuit against the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre last year, accusing it of Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Lithuania.
Gochin presented a 69-page letter and documents he claimed proved that Noreika collaborated with the Nazis and committed crimes against humanity.
A court in Vilnius dismissed the case in late March and the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre reiterated its favourable conclusion about Noreika.
The Lithuanian Jewish Community issued a statement condemning the move and calling the Centre's report “Holocaust revisionism”.
Claims that Lithuanians did not know that ghettoes were part of the Holocaust “show disrespect to the pain of ghetto inmates and diminishes heroic deeds of people who were rescuing Jews and risking their own and their families' lives,” Faina Kukliansky, the chairwoman of the community, said in the emphatically-worded statement.
Was Nazi occupation different in Lithuania?
Another controversial statement in the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre's report maintains that “the Nazi occupational regime in Lithuania was different from those in other European countries”.
Burauskaitė, the Centre's director, explains that no other occupied territory attempted to established a provisional government. It was this provisional government, she says, that thwarted German efforts to set up SS battalions in Lithuania.
Verbickienė, the historian, disagrees that this circumstance made the Nazi occupation of Lithuania unique.
The Nazi regime in Lithuania was quite identical to those in other occupied countries, she says, only Lithuanians' expectations were different. They hoped that the Nazis would help them re-establish an independent state; and this ambition overshadowed all other considerations, to detrimental effects.
Part of presidential debate
Jonas Noreika even came up in Lithuania's presidential election campaigns.
During a recent debate, which took place on the same day as Noreika's memorial plaque was smashed, the three front-running candidates were asked about it.
Saulius Skvernelis, Lithuania's current prime minister, and the independent candidate Gitanas Nausėda confined their comments to condemning vandalism.
The conservative Ingrida Šimonytė went further. She said she regretted that Lithuanians had been discussing the memorial plaque “instead of having an honest discussion about who General Vėtra was, what was heroic in his life and important to us as a nation – and what was not so good and deserves to be evaluated differently”.