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2021.12.01 08:00

Silvia Foti. What it really meant to be an honorary prisoner in Nazi camp

Silvia Foti2021.12.01 08:00

The author Silvia Foti argues that spending time in a Nazi concentration camp does not exonerate her grandfather from his role in the Holocaust in Lithuania.

As I was growing up in Chicago during the Cold War, I’d heard about how my grandfather Jonas Noreika was an honorary prisoner in the Stutthof concentration camp, how he was taken hostage with 45 other Lithuanian leaders for their anti-Nazi activity.

Read more: Granddaughter of Lithuanian Nazi collaborator: ‘I love his soul but not his sins’

To my shock, as I researched his life for my memoir The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal, I realised his time in Stutthof had been used as a cover-up by Lithuanians to hide his role in the Holocaust.

Lithuanians were led to believe he was treated just as harshly as the Jews, that his anti-Nazi activity included saving Jews, and that he was victimised by the Nazis to the same extent as Jews. Thus the designation of honorary prisoner somehow conferred an increased sanctity to my grandfather, that he was even more special than “regular” prisoners.

I can recall how, at Lithuanian Saturday school in Chicago or summer camps in Michigan in the 1970s, I was patted on the back and looked upon with admiration for having a grandfather who was an honorary prisoner at Stutthof. By association, as his only granddaughter, I too was somehow blessed to have someone in my direct lineage who suffered in a concentration camp – the Holocaust halo effect.

That all changed when my mother, on her deathbed, asked me to write the story of her heroic father, known as General Storm, who fought so bravely against the communists for Lithuania’s freedom. With much trepidation and hesitation, I slowly learned that my beloved grandfather played a crucial role in murdering 8,000 to 15,000 Jews between 1941 and 1943 in Plungė, Telšiai, and Šiauliai, that Lithuania had the highest percentage of Jews murdered in all of Europe, and that this couldn’t have been accomplished without the enthusiastic help of local collaborators.

To my astonishment, I discovered that my grandfather’s time in the Stutthof concentration camp was used as a shield to cover up his role in the Holocaust. His defenders ask, how could he be involved in killing Jews if he was in a Nazi concentration camp? That alone proves he was an anti-Nazi. For years, that’s exactly what I thought too.

Read more: A glimmer of hope or prelude to Holocaust? Lithuania's June 1941 uprising remains controversial eight decades on

Nationalism beats saving Jews

But a closer look at the details reveals otherwise. My grandfather was the chair of the Šiauliai region during the Nazi occupation, from August 1941 to March 1943. During that time, he made sure all the Jews in his region were murdered, and that their property was plundered and redistributed.

Just after the Battle of Stalingrad, when the Nazis were finally losing, Lithuanians launched their anti-Nazi activity. Germany asked Lithuanians to join the SS, but Lithuanians, to their credit, boycotted the recruitment campaign. This is a proud moment in the country’s history, but the protest had nothing to do with saving Jews and everything to do with saving Lithuanians. In retaliation, the Nazis sent 46 of the country’s leaders to the Stutthof Concentration camp.

My grandfather was arrested and escorted to Kaunas, from which all the other men were sent to Stutthof. During their stay in Kaunas, they were fed bacon and eggs and provided cigarettes, although they were fearful of getting executed. Then they were led by Nazis with machine guns onto a bus, given sandwiches in wax paper, and driven to the concentration camp. Although unpleasant, it was a far cry from the cattle-car transport of Jews.

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

Six weeks of hell (March to April 1943)

Once they arrived in Stutthof, for six weeks they were brutalized – experiencing starvation, beatings, roll calls, and forced labor. Nine died of disease. One of the survivors wrote he lost 60 pounds.

Twenty months as “aristocrats” (May 1943 to January 1945)

After six weeks, Heinrich Himmler conferred upon them honorary prisoner status, which changed their conditions dramatically. While most barracks housed 500 prisoners, the surviving thirty-six were given their own barracks, their own beds, sheets, pillows with pillowcases, and three blankets. They could write one letter a week and receive letters from family and friends, including packages, which contained bacon, vitamins, chocolate, vegetables, fruits, even money. They didn’t have to work anymore, although they were given the choice of picking up a job so they wouldn’t be bored.

Honorary prisoner status was a rare designation in Stutthof. Others who got the designation were Latvian statesmen and Norwegian policemen, according to the guide at Stutthof I interviewed. It eased their lives considerably, making them the aristocrats of the concentration camp.

As if that weren’t enough “honour”, the Nazis allowed the Lithuanian men to visit women in the nearby barracks. One can only imagine what these “aristocratic” men did while visiting terrified Jewish women.

Nobody knows why

Among Lithuanians, nobody knew why they were given honorary prisoner status. The Lithuanians guessed that Germany might have been embarrassed for treating the Lithuanians so badly. The Lithuanians could not think of any other possible reason. It sincerely stumped them.

The Jews, however, suspected that Himmler respected Lithuania for cleansing its country so thoroughly of its Jews – 96.4 percent of its Jews.

As it turns out, according to the latest research, thirteen of the Lithuanian prisoners were perpetrators in the Lithuanian Holocaust, including my grandfather. It can be presumed that the other Lithuanian prisoners, including two priests, were given honorary prisoner status because of their close association with the perpetrators.

Evacuation

In January 1945, the Soviets arrived and the Nazi prisoners were evacuated. The Lithuanians were allowed to create their own sleds to pile up belongings, such as books and clothing. They were among the first to leave. The Nazis escorted them to the train station, from which many escaped to the West. My grandfather was conscripted into the Russian Army, but in November 1945, he returned to Vilnius, where he led a failed rebellion against the Soviets. He was captured by the KGB, tortured in their prison, and executed in 1947.

Perhaps history displayed an ironic touch of poetic justice to his role in the Holocaust, as his body had been tossed in a pit of mud with hundreds of others, his remains unidentified.

Not the typical Jewish experience

It was all a convenient, grand lie – a deliberate misrepresentation to hide my grandfather’s role in murdering Jews during the Holocaust. After spending twenty years investigating his life, I have come to the conclusion that the lie was so effective because it counted on the assumption that all prisoners in concentration camps were equal.

Few have heard of the honorary prisoner status given to some European statesmen and police in concentration camps during the Holocaust, how their conditions were in stark contrast to the more common version in which prisoners were starved, beaten, forced into hard labour, executed at whim, gassed, or cremated.

Unfortunately, my grandfather’s anti-Nazi activity did not include saving Jews. Instead he facilitated the murder of Jews under his domain. A prolific writer, he never expressed regret or remorse for having played a role in murdering Jews.

To my sorrow and shame, I have been left a legacy of dishonour.

A former journalist of 20 years in Chicago and now a high school literature teacher at Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy in Forest Park, Illinois, Silvia Foti is the author of the memoir The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Learned My Grandfather was a War Criminal. The book will be released by Kitos Knygos in Lithuanian in February 2022 at the Vilnius Book Fair with a new title: Storm in the Land of Rain.

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