Jonas Noreika-Vėtra, a controversial Lithuanian military officer who signed orders establishing a Jewish ghetto in Šiauliai during the Nazi occupation, in 1941 also organised a rescue network for Jewish people, recently found documents reveal.
The Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania (LGGRTC) said on Wednesday a testimony by Father Jonas Borevičius was found in the archive of the Lithuanian and Latvian Jesuit Province, shedding more light into the controversy.
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The report states that Borevičius gave this testimony in 1986 under oath at the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois's eastern division in Chicago in a case of the United States vs Antanas Virkutis.
He recalled that Noreika invited him to work for the Lithuanian underground resistance "almost at the time when the Germans came," according to LGGRTC. Noreika asked Borevičius to organise a small group of priests to "directly help the Jews in the Ghetto," according to the court's transcripts quoted by the LGGRTC.
Borevičius told the court that after being taught by Noreika, he organised a Jew rescue group that operated under a strict conscipary rule set by the Lietuvos Frontas, instructing that underground groups must include three people only.
Since the Šiauliai Ghetto was close to the St Peter and Paul's Church where Father Petras Dziegoraitis served, he would lead Jews to St Ignatius of Loyola's Church in the city centre where Borevičius used to work.
After resting for several hours, Jews would further travel to Kužiai, some 12 kilometres from Šiauliai, where they would be taken in by Adolfas Kleiba, who would hide between 15 and 20 Jewish families before finding farmers willing to accept them.
Borevičius was commemorated with an award in 2017 for saving Jews following the proposal by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, and a memorial plaque was also installed in Lithuania's northern town of Šiauliai.
The LGGRTC report also states that Noreika did not realise until the liquidation of the Žagarė Ghetto that they were used as instruments in the Holocaust.
"By agreeing to become the head of Šiauliai District, Noreika picked this position as a cover for his underground activity," the LGGRTC report states.
Noreika's commemoration sparked controversy in Lithuania after his memorial plaque was removed in July by the initiative of Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius.
At the initiative of a nationalist organisation, Pro Patria, a new memorial plaque was unilaterally reinstalled in September.
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Šimašius said he made the decision to remove the plaque because Noreika, as the head of Šiauliai County during the Nazi occupation,s igned documents in 1941 establishing a Jewish ghetto and expropriating Jewish property.
However, supporters of Noreika point out that he later joined anti-Nazi resistance and was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, and organised post-war resistance to Soviet occupation, before being sentenced to death by a Soviet military tribunal in 1946 and executed a year later.