SUKIONIAI, Lithuania >> For the tiny village of Sukioniai in western Lithuania, the exploits of Gen. Storm, a local anti-communist hero executed by the Soviet secret police in 1947, have long been a source of pride. The village school is named after him, and his struggles against the Soviet Union are also honored with a memorial carved from stone next to the farm where he was born.
All along, though, there have been persistent whispers that Gen. Storm, whose real name was Jonas Noreika, also helped the Nazis kill Jews. But these were largely discounted as the work of ill-willed outsiders serving a well-orchestrated campaign by Moscow to tar its foes as fascists.
Blaming Russian propaganda, however, has suddenly become a lot more difficult thanks to Noreika’s own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, a Lithuanian-American from Chicago who has spent years researching a biography of her revered relative and went public in July with her shocking conclusion: Her grandfather was a fierce anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator.
Her unequivocal verdict — announced in an article posted on Salon — has stirred emotional debate inside Lithuania and triggered a flood of “told you so” reports by state-controlled news media outlets in Russia.
“It was terribly shocking,” Foti said in a telephone interview of her finding that her grandfather was a killer, not a hero. “I had never heard about any of this Nazi stuff.”
It was also shocking for Jolanda Tamosiuniene, a teacher and librarian at the J. Noreika Basic School in Sukioniai, where Noreika was born at the end of the hamlet’s only street in 1910.
What shocked her, however, was not Foti’s discovery that her grandfather was complicit in the Holocaust — that was not really news to locals — but that a member of a patriotic émigré family had gone public and turned a private family matter into a public national shame.
“We have all heard things about what Noreika did during the war,” Tamosiuniene said. “He obviously took the wrong path. But his granddaughter should have kept quiet. Every family has its ugly things, but they don’t talk about them. It is better to stay silent.”
Keeping things in the family might be a natural self-defense mechanism in a small, traumatized country that, since it first gained independence from Russia in 1918, has been occupied once by Nazi Germany and twice by the Soviet Union.
But the silence has only played into Russian claims of a cover-up and cast a long and sometimes unfairly dark shadow on a country justifiably proud of its success in building a tolerant, democratic nation on the ruins left by the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
Virtually nobody in Lithuania is denying the Holocaust or the role in it of local people. Its horrors are taught in schools and denounced by officials. And lately there have been growing calls, at least from a younger generation less scarred than its elders by memories of Soviet oppression, for an honest accounting of the role played by some national heroes like Noreika.
Indeed, on a visit last month to Vilnius, the capital, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, praised the country for taking “great steps to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust” and for its “commitment to fighting anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head.”
Foti’s research into her grandfather helped prod the mayor of Vilnius into asking the country’s guardian of official history, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, to take a fresh look at whether Noreika merited his status as a national hero — and whether a plaque in his honor at the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in Vilnius should be taken down.
But at a time of rising nationalism across Europe and heightened tensions with Russia, Noreika has managed, despite repeated protests, to stay secure on his pedestal.
Appeals that he be toppled have met resistance from nationalists and the many Lithuanians whose relatives were deported to remote Soviet regions by Stalin or tortured by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service, crimes that blur the far greater crime of the Holocaust and often make them loath to condemn the actions of those who resisted Soviet power.
“They have built up a whole national narrative around fighting communism that they cannot dismantle,” said Grant Gochin, a South African of Lithuanian descent who has calculated that he lost 100 family members to the Holocaust in Lithuania, dozens of them in territory under Noreika’s control during the Nazi occupation.
For many citizens of Lithuania and the two other Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia, the all-important memory of the war and its aftermath is of the 200,000 people deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan from 1941 to 1949 and of the tens of thousands who took to the forests at the end of World War II in a doomed fight against rule from Moscow.
For others, particularly those with family memories of the Holocaust, this is an undeniable calamity but one far less horrendous than the systematic extermination of more than 200,000 Jews in Lithuania alone from 1941 to 1945.
“Every nation has to have its heroes. I understand Lithuanians on this. But how can we have heroes like Noreika?” said Pinchos Fridberg, 80, a retired professor and the only Jew left in Vilnius who was born in the city before the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Clouding Lithuanians’ judgment, Fridberg said, has been a deep fear of Russia and a widespread assumption that anything that puts their country in a bad light must be Russian disinformation or at least worthy of skepticism because it comforts the Kremlin.
“Whatever someone says or does, so long as they are against Russia they are heroes,” Fridberg said.
When a group of prominent public figures in Lithuania signed a petition in 2015 demanding the removal of the plaque honoring Noreika on the library in Vilnius, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center protested that “the contempt being shown for Lithuanian patriots is organized by neighbors from the East.” In other words, Russians.
Portraying opponents of Moscow as fascists has been a feature of Russian propaganda for decades. After the end of World War II in 1945, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Ukrainians who resisted their incorporation into the Soviet Union were invariably tarred by Moscow as Nazi collaborators or their ideological heirs, no matter their record or views.
President Vladimir Putin has further stoked this narrative, repeatedly smearing Russia’s opponents at home and abroad as fascists as he establishes reverence for Russia’s huge role in defeating Hitler at the center of his campaign to revive national pride and his country’s status as a great power.
Dovid Katz, an American authority on Yiddish who lives in Vilnius, said the best response to Russian propaganda would be for countries like Lithuania and Ukraine to draw a clear line between heroes and criminals in their accounts of the war. Instead, he said, they have often gone into a self-defeating defensive crouch.
“Just because Russia says something for the wrong reasons does not mean it is automatically wrong,” said Katz, who runs a website focused on the Holocaust.
Noreika spent the last months of the war in Nazi detention, a fact that his defenders cite as evidence that he was never really pro-Nazi. But his principal claim to hero status is that the Soviet Union convicted him of treason and executed him for his role in organizing anti-communist resistance while working as a lawyer in Vilnius at the Academy of Sciences following the war.
After regaining its independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Lithuania canceled the conviction and declared Noreika a heroic martyr, ignoring his role as an official under Nazi occupation, which resulted in the slaughter of about 95 percent of the more than 200,000 Jews living in Lithuania when Hitler invaded.
Today the country is dotted with Holocaust grave sites and memorials. One of the biggest stands in a forest outside the western town of Plunge, where Noreika served as commander of the Lithuanian Activist Front, an openly anti-Semitic group that was fiercely hostile to an initial Soviet occupation in 1940 and cheered the Nazis as liberators the following year.
Plunge’s entire Jewish population of more than 1,800 was murdered within days of the invasion, mostly by local people.
Eugenijus Bunka, the son of a prewar Jewish resident who survived because he fled to the Soviet Union, said Noreika probably did not kill Jews himself but still bore responsibility as an administrator who signed orders seizing their property and ordering their “isolation.”
“I hear all these people shouting about defending our patriots, but the people who have another view are all silent,” he said, pointing to one of the pits where Plunge’s Jewish residents were buried after being shot or beaten to death by their neighbors.
When Foti started researching her book on her grandfather 18 years ago, she expected to produce a glowing tribute.
“My grandfather was going to be the white knight in shining armor, a pure hero from beginning to end,” she said. “I had always heard how he had done so much for Lithuania and had died at the early age of 36 at the hands of the KGB.”
Instead, after digging up wartime documents with her grandfather’s signature relating to the treatment of Jews and talking to relatives and others during research trips to Lithuania, she realized that he had been an accomplice in mass murder. Noreika, she said, did not pull the trigger himself but was a “desk killer.”
She said he oversaw the slaughter in Plunge, where his family moved into a handsome home seized from its Jewish owners, and also in the nearby town of Siauliai, where he served as county chief under the Nazis starting in late 1941 — and where the main government building now has a plaque in his honor.
“Lithuanians have been raped three times — by the Communists twice and by the Nazis once,” Foti said. “All they know is that they were raped, that they are the victims. They have no more room in their psyche for any other victims.”