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2021.04.27 17:50

‘Lithuanians still regarded as a Jew-killing nation’: book in US throws spotlight on Holocaust controversy

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2021.04.27 17:50

A controversial World War Two figure keeps dominating discussions about Holocaust memory in Lithuania, with a new book pointing at the country's alleged failure to acknowledge the role of its lionised figures in killing Jews.

In her new book The Nazi's Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal, American journalist and publicist Silvia Foti details her discoveries about her grandfather Jonas Noreika. Revered by many in Lithuania as a resistance fighter against the Soviet occupation, Noreika has also collaborated with the Nazis during World War Two.

Foti has said that writing the book was a promise she gave to her mother, but her research led her to believe her grandfather was a criminal rather than a hero.

She has shared her findings in numerous op-ed pieces and interviews, including on the BBC's HARDtalk, where Foti criticised Lithuania for refusing to accept Noreika's alleged role in the Holocaust.

Foti told BBC that her grandfather was still well respected in Lithuania, with schools and streets named after him.

Read more: National hero and Nazi collaborator: WW2 leader divides opinion

Accused of murdering Jews

Most of the facts discovered by the author are known to Lithuanian historians. Noreika was appointed governor of Šiauliai District during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, and signed orders to resettle Jews in a ghetto and confiscate their property.

In 2019, the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre (LGGRTC) – a state-funded institution researching Nazi and Soviet crimes in Lithuania – published two reports about Noreika that drew sharp criticism from local historians. The documents claimed that Noreika did not know about the killing of Jews, and that the Nazi occupation of Lithuania was different from the others, while Noreika was actually helping Jews escape death.

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

The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania has objected to public tributes to Jonas Noreika, while the LGGRTC's reports, the commission said, were offensive to victims of the Holocaust.

Foti has also accused the centre of failing to study available documents about Noreika's activities during the war.

In a comment sent to LRT.lt, the LGGRTC said it had analysed all documents held in Lithuanian archives, but admitted that further study was needed to properly evaluate these sources.

Read more: Why does Lithuanian post-war partisan leader remain a global controversy?

In her book, Foti details that her grandfather was responsible for the deaths of nearly two thousand Jews in Plungė. She quotes testimonies by Aleksandras Pakalniškis, a Lithuanian exile from Plungė.

In its 2015 report, the LGGRTC claimed Pakalniškis' version was inaccurate and that the centre did not find any evidence that the Nazis succeeded in involving Noreika in the Plungė massacres. He was however, involved in isolating the Jews in ghettos, the centre confirmed.

To show her grandfather's views, Foti quotes his 1933 pamphlet, Pakelk galvą, lietuvi (Raise your head, Lithuanian), filled with anti-Semitic statements. According to the German historian Christoph Dieckmann, research suggests that Noreika was a fascist who did not oppose the Holocaust.

The LGGRTC meanwhile claims that more research is needed before any final conclusions regarding Noreika could be drawn.

A lack of discussion

According to Foti, the LGGRTC and Lithuania in general are lying about the history of the Holocaust in the country, and failing to admit that some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews.

The topic has excited heated reactions for years. In 2019, a controversy broke out after Vilnius authorities removed a memorial plaque for Noreika from the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences Library.

Noreika's supporters held protests at the site and reinstalled the plaque, while Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda made a statement that “questions regarding historical commemoration should not be left to one city or municipality to address, there should be a national decision”.

However, no national consensus has been reached, or even attempted, regarding public tributes to Noreika.

The issue may be thrown into sharp relief once again this year, as Lithuania will commemorate an anniversary of the June 1941 uprising against the Soviet occupation. Noreika was one of the uprising's leaders. An international conference is planned in Vilnius to mark the event.

In a comment sent to LRT.lt, the Foreign Ministry said that fostering historical memory was a priority for the current government. Lithuania “must always keep in mind how to improve its communication" and institutions keep a close contact with international partners on historical issues, according to the ministry.

“There is enough political will to address issues related to remembering the Holocaust and honouring its victims,” it added.

However, back in January the head of the Lithuanian Institute of History (LII) Alvydas Nikžentaitis criticised government institutions, claiming they were neglecting to properly commemorate another important anniversary, that of the beginning of the Holocaust in Lithuania.

“The image [of Lithuania] is worse abroad. Lithuanians are still regarded as a Jew-killing nation that fails to comprehend its responsibility for these massive tragedies,” said Nikžentaitis.

The Foreign Ministry has pledged to encourage expert-based discussion that could help Lithuania form “an objective view of its own history” and take responsibility for tragedies it would rather dismiss, such as the fact that “the Nazis were actively assisted by local collaborators”.

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