The Levy Lecture on June 29 featured author Silvia Foti discussing how a deathbed promise to her late mother led to uncovering a disturbing – and hidden –family history: her mother’s father, revered as a hero at home in the tight-knit Lithuanian community in Chicago and in his native Lithuania, was instead an active Nazi accomplice.
Initially, the family research project was her mother’s domain, consuming her free time as she perused thousands of documents in multiple languages. But in January 2000 her mother, Dalia Kucenas, became ill, was hospitalized and declined rapidly, leading to the conversation where Ms. Foti agreed to finish the project on her mother’s behalf. Tellingly, her grandmother, the widow of Jonas Noreika, tried to dissuade Ms. Foti from the task at hand.
Fulfilling the promise would take another 20 years.
Ms. Foti’s book, “The Nazi’s Granddaughter,” tells this story in layers of awareness, methodically peeling back the stories from her childhood that depicted her grandfather as a national legend, almost a mythic hero. Blessed with movie star good looks, Jonas Noreika, aka “General Storm,” was renowned as a partisan leader who “had resisted his country’s German and Soviet occupiers in World War II, surviving two years in a Nazi concentration camp” before being executed in 1947 at the age of 37.
His story was well-known among Lithuanians, and Ms. Foti, her brother Ray, her mother and grandmother were treated like royalty because of their connection to the long-dead soldier. In 1941 he had led a successful uprising against the Soviets and won. He was made head of the Siauliai District from 1941 to 1943, then imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. He tried to lead another rebellion against his captors from 1945 to 1946, but was not successful. This was the event that led to his capture, imprisonment and ultimate execution by the KGB in 1947.
Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. In 1997 Jonas was awarded the Cross of the Vytis, the highest posthumous honor available to Lithuanian citizens. By all accounts, Jonas was considered a national hero. The true history of Jonas Noreika’s activities during World War II was still buried in the shadows.
In October 2000, Ms. Foti and her brother traveled to Lithuania to bury the cremains of their mother and grandmother, a trip that coincided with the anniversary of their grandfather’s 90th birthday. They were honored and surprised that the then-president of Lithuania attended the church funeral service, and by the press coverage their trip generated within the country. Another item on their itinerary was to serve as honored guests at an elementary school in the countryside being renamed after their grandfather. It was there that Ms. Foti first heard the rumor that her grandfather had been accused of being a Jew-killer. She was immediately shocked, repulsed and incredulous, thinking this rumor could not be true. She decided the book she had promised to write would need to exonerate this terrible blight on Jonas’ reputation. It would take another 10 years for her to be ready to confront what lay ahead.
Ms. Foti discusses how part of her hesitation in pursuing the story was psychological – it was too enormous and too diametrically opposed to the stories she had grown up with to believe this terrible story of criminality could be true. She talked to various older friends and relatives to inquire if they had heard these rumors about her grandfather. Shockingly (to Ms. Foti), they all had, but each dismissed them as “Soviet propaganda” without bothering to explore further. She realized the truth was up to her to find.
Ms. Foti started by reading thousands of pages of KGB documents her mother had paid to have copied, smuggled out of Russia and translated into Lithuanian. Ms. Foti in turn translated them into English and began arranging them chronologically. Early in her research she found a 1933 pamphlet that her grandfather had written, “Pakelk Galva Lietuvi” (“Raise Your Head Lithuanian”), a 32-page brochure attacking the Jews and advocating economic boycotts of Jewish businesses. He was only 22, but already his hatred against the Jews was fully documented.
As terrible as this brochure was, Ms. Foti held out hope that her grandfather’s anti-Semitism would only be philosophical and would not include overt killing. Those hopes were dashed when she found a document he had signed, dated Aug. 22, 1941, in his role as governor of Plunge in Lithuania. In this document he ordered all Jews and half-Jews to be rounded up and moved to a ghetto in Zagare within a week. Six weeks later, coinciding with the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, he ordered the ghetto to be liquidated. Every inhabitant, more than 2,000 Jews ranging in age from small children to the elderly, was shot and killed.
This horrible proof “flipped the switch” for Ms. Foti. Her research and quest from that point on was to bring to light Jonas’ activities despite the emotional upheaval and isolation it caused her within the Lithuanian community in Chicago as well as in Lithuania itself. Her book and her Levy Lecture, available for viewing on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel, document this journey and her efforts to combat Holocaust distortion perpetuated by people and organizations in Lithuania.
More than 95% of Lithuanian Jews were killed during the Holocaust, a percentage greater than any other country. Ms. Foti concludes by stating how her grandfather authorized killing at least 8,000 Lithuanian Jews. She found no proof that he physically pulled the trigger on any of them, but he absolutely signed the papers ordering the killings. She refers to him as a “desk murderer,” but feels he is just as guilty as if he had pulled the trigger.
These days Ms. Foti spends her time speaking about her book and aiding a new friend, Grant Gochin, a Lithuanian Jew who lives in the United States but lost more than 100 relatives in Lithuania due to orders signed by Jonas Noreika. Mr. Gochin has sued the Genocide Research Center in Lithuania multiple times, always losing, but now his case is before the European Court of Human Rights. He is seeking to correct the “Holocaust distortion,” as he puts it, that Jonas Noreika was a hero. Ms. Foti is helping him in his quest to seek justice.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.