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2020.01.16 17:00

Lithuanian officer in Holocaust controversy saved Jews – does evidence stack up?

LRT.lt, LRT RADIJAS2020.01.16 17:00

Lithuania’s Resistance and Genocide Centre (LGGRTC) breathed fresh controversy into the case surrounding Jonas Noreika, a World War Two-era officer accused of being complicit in the Holocaust.

Despite signing orders establishing a Jewish ghetto and expropriating their property, Noreika also organised “a Jew rescue network” as the head of Šiauliai County during Nazi occupation in 1941, the state-funded research centre said in December 2019.

However, historians have criticised the centre’s report compiled by Dalius Egidijus Stancikas, a geologist by training, and currently a member of the secretariat and a data protection officer at the LGGRTC.

Read more: Political fallout continues after protesters reinstall Noreika plaque

Testimony at a US court

The LGGRTC said on December 11 that a testimony given by Father Jonas Borevičius at a US court was recently located in the Lithuanian and Latvian Jesuit Province archives.

During the US vs Antanas Virkutis case in 1986, Borevičius told the court in Chicago under oath that Noreika invited him to work for the Lithuanian resistance in 1941, "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.

The centre claimed this proves that Noreika organised a Jewish rescue network.

Read more: Lithuania's Jewish community divided over response to historical commemoration debate

Jesuit Priest Jonas Barevičius is recognised as a someone who had rescued Jews, and a memorial plaque to him was unveiled in Šiauliai during the commemoration of the 75th liquidation of the Jewish ghetto. Barevičius mentioned Noreika in his testimony and “his solid arguments give [LGGRTC] no doubts,” according to the centre’s director, Teresė Birutė Burauskaitė.

Noreika was already known as the head of the anti-Nazi resistance in northern Lithuania due to a report by Karl Jäger, an SS officer, which led to Noreika being imprisoned in the Stutthoff concentration camp, said Burauskaitė. “One fact reinforces the other,” she added.

Dalius Egidijus Stancikas, who compiled the report, said the findings were the result of work begun in 2015.

Already then, he said, “society and the municipality were raising questions whether to take down the memorial plaques, therefore, we released the first investigation into Noreika’s work during the Nazi [occupation]”.

Karl Jäger’s report also indicated that “by turning a [horse] carriage around, Noreika helped save a Jewish family,” said Stancikas.

Other anecdotal evidence recalled Noreika saving Jews, said Stancikas, “we didn’t publish these claims anywhere, because they weren’t serious, but it inspired us to continue researching Noreika’s anti-Nazi work”.

More discovieries during the two-year research included Noreika’s close relationship with Domas Jasaitis, “who is officially accepted as the head of the Jewish rescue [network] in Šiauliai,” and Jasaitis’ statements confirming Noreika’s work in saving Jews and organising anti-Nazi resistance.

Importantly, anti-Nazi newspaper Lietuva (Lithuania), published under Noreika’s auspices in Šiauliai, issued warnings “that those who harm Jews will be tried in the courts of independent Lithuania,” said Stancikas.

These examples helped reinforce the statements of Priest Barevičius made in the US, according to Stancikas.

Historians criticise the centre’s conclusions

Meanwhile, the head of Lithuanian state-funded Institute of History, Alvydas Nikžentaitis, as well as other historians in the country have criticised the centre’s recent report on Noreika.

Nikžentaitis criticised the centre’s jump to conclusions based on a conversation Noreika had with the priest. “An assumption is made into a real thing [when] Borevičius refused to take part in the underground, but was requested by Noreika to help Jews in the Šiauliai ghetto.”

“The only conclusion that can be made is that Noreika didn’t like the Germans’ behaviour with the Jews, but it doesn’t prove his active, or passive, involvement” in the rescue of Jews, according to Nikžentaitis.

Read more: Accusations against Noreika are ‘outrageous’, but we shouldn’t ‘heroize controversial figures’ – experts

Nerijus Šepetys, a historian at Vilnius University (VU), said that similar testimonies were abundant in the 1980s and 1990s after the US and the UK reopened extradition cases against Lithuanians. The diaspora provided generally positive testimonies, because their compatriots faced persecution if deported back to Soviet-occupied Lithuania.

Šepetys also said that a history student would receive a poor grade for a similar report. Nikžentatisi also said that the research centre should be more careful and not base its conclusions on a single source.

Meanwhile Jurgita Verbickienė, a history professor at VU, claims that Lithuania has a problem with understanding the Holocaust. Instead of trying to establish what happened, Lithuania is trying to look for justifications, she said.

“It’s well known that Noreika took part in establishing a ghetto [in Šiauliai],“ she said, but “we suddenly start looking for ways of how he could have rescued Jews”.

The centre’s report author, Stancikas, disagreed.

Ghettos were often the only route for survival for the Jews, and Noreika never implemented the Nazi order to establish the ghetto in Šiauliai. “This was done by the previous head of Šiauliai County,” he said. “In 1941, Jews had two options, either go to the ghetto, or be shot.”

“Even before the establishment of the Šiauliai ghetto, there were horrific killings of Jews, and none of them happened in the ghettos,” he added, claiming that the SS officer responsible for killings in Kaunas told “Jews that their only way to survive is to go to the ghettos”.

However, “in Poland, killing a Jew in a ghetto was not considered an offence from March 1941,” said Nikžentatitis from the Institute of History. “Lithuania is no exeption, so Jews were definitely not safe [there].”

A question of competency

Stancikas, who, according to 15min journalists, had previously written for fringe Lithuanian websites, including tiesos.lt, slaptai.lt, alkas.lt, pozicija.org and ekspertai.eu, was criticised for his lack of experience by the historians.

If Stancikas “is named as a person responsible for public relations and communication [at the centre], something is really wrong,” said Nikžentatitis from the Institute of History.

Burauskaitė, meanwhile, said that there were people at the centre “who are doing the job of historians for 20 years or more, but don’t have a diploma.”

“Stancikas has been investigating KGB archives since 1992, has taken part in publishing numerous document collections,” she added. “To call him a geologist would be really unfair.”

“I’m not a historian myself,” she said. “My requirement for all of our specialists is that they believe in the results of their research.”

The centre’s conclusions have never been dismissed, said the centre’s director. “A [report] on Noreika was once taken to an administrative court [in Vilnius], but it ruled that the conclusions were made using scientific methodology.”

Arvydas Anušauskas, a conservative MP, defended the centre’s conclusions. The US officials were highly informed of events in Šiauliai during the war, based on the questions submitted to the priest.

“This episode only confirms and complements other sources on Noreika’s involvement in the [anti-Nazi] underground [and] support for Jew rescuers that included people close to him,” Anušauskas wrote in an op-ed for LRT.lt.

An international commission was established in 1991, made up of experts from Lithuania, US and Israel. It concluded that Noreika issued orders to establish a ghetto and expropriate Jewish property when mass killings had already begun, therefore, Noreika shouldn’t be publicly commemorated.

Noreika's legacy sparked controversy in Lithuania after his memorial plaque was removed in July last year by the initiative of Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius. This led to protests in Vilnius and later, the nationalist organisation Pro Patria arranged a new plaque to be installed.

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 the Soviet occupation, before being sentenced to death by a Soviet military tribunal in 1946 and executed a year later.