August 22 holds horrific memories for civilized people. On that date in 1941, a Lithuanian named Jonas Noreika (a.k.a. Generolas Vetra), signed orders to send the Jews of the Lithuanian Siauliai region into ghettos. Several hundred Jews were immediately murdered; the remaining Jews were then concentrated in ghettos, only to be murdered later. My relatives were among them.
Noreika was appointed as head of the Siauliai district by the legitimate and legally constituted pro-Nazi provisional government of Lithuania on August 3, 1941. Present-day Lithuania has confirmed the legitimacy of that government.
That this government came to power as a result of collaboration between Nazis and pro-Nazi Lithuanian activists like diplomat Kazys Skirpa barely stirs controversy within Lithuania. On the contrary, collaborators like Noreika, Skirpa and others are honored in Lithuania as freedom fighters with memorials, streets and schools named in their honor. Facts attesting to their virulent anti-Semitism and obsessive participation in crimes against fellow citizens are deliberately whitewashed or obscured.
Recently a group of prominent Lithuanians wrote a letter to Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius challenging the appropriateness of the memorial honoring Noreika on the facade of the Library of Lithuania’s Academy of Sciences. Simasius seems to agree, but has left it to the owners of the building to remove the plaque. For now, they appear disinclined.
Noreika’s participation in the Holocaust is not news. The details have been known for years. His role in the murder of the Jews of Plunge was noted in an article by the German magazine Der Spiegel in April 1984. Additionally, physicist Aleksandras Pakalniskis, who worked briefly as a secretary in Noreika’s office in Plunge, where Noreika was commandant, wrote in his memoirs (published in 1995) that he personally heard Noreika inform German soldiers that he had ordered all of the town’s Jews to be killed.
The Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Lithuania, a Lithuanian government agency, has verified Noreika’s signature on orders to ghettoize Jews and plunder Jewish assets. Despite every effort to raise doubts about his responsibility for other atrocities of which he is accused, the center has not denied the eyewitness reports that implicate Noreika.
Much is made of the fact that the Nazis eventually put Noreika in a concentration camp, as though this could not have happened to a collaborator. This fact is often cited as evidence of Noreika’s participation in an “anti-Nazi resistance.”
However, as columnist and signatory of Lithuania’s 1990 Declaration of Independence, Rimvydas Valatka points out in a recent editorial, the Nazis themselves did not accuse Noreika of that. He was arrested without any charges, interrogation or trial and sent to Stutthof.
What is dismaying, particularly in light of efforts to reestablish Lithuania’s place among the community of democratic nations, is the extent to which its present-day government and other public institutions are prepared to overlook the collaborationist activities of people like Noreika and Skirpa. Defenders of these “heroes” point out, instead, their supposedly patriotic intentions (reestablishment of Lithuanian independence under Nazi patronage) and participation in the anti-Soviet resistance, as if this washes away the stain of genocide.
The matter of Noreika’s participation in the Holocaust was raised in Siauliai in 1993, but apparently the nation was not in the mood to look at truth. Soviet propaganda had painted the anti-Soviet resistance as fascists and criminals, and, having just broken free of Soviet rule, Lithuania was unwilling to examine and reconsider the legacy of such “heroes.”
Further adding insult to injury, in 1997, Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas posthumously awarded Noreika the Grand Cross of the Order of the Cross of Vytis, which is the second highest honor that can be bestowed by the Lithuanian government. This was revisionist history at its finest.
Once again muddying the distinction between heroes and collaborators, in May 2012 the conservative Homeland Unionled government funded the re-burial of the head of the 1941 provisional government, Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis, exhuming his remains from a graveyard in Putnam, Connecticut, and re-burying them in a place of honor in the Church of the Ascension of Christ in Kaunas with full state honors. The ceremony was organized with the support and participation of Lithuania’s independence movement avatar and first post-Soviet head of state Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis (whose own father was a minister of the pro-Nazi provisional government).
The best that can be said about Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis is that he served as a hapless Nazi stooge who, despite having lived to a ripe old age after emigrating to the United States, showed no remorse, even later in life, for his own role in facilitating the Holocaust in Lithuania. The decision to honor such a man raises serious doubts about the moral judgment of Lithuania’s conservatives and their patriarch, Landsbergis.
The lionization of “heroes” with the blood of Lithuania’s Jews on their hands is, unfortunately, all too consistent with the horrendous treatment that Lithuania’s Jewish population endured since the 18th century. Privileges and protections granted by Lithuania’s medieval rulers – paragons of tolerance, by comparison – were replaced by anti-Semitic barbarity under Czarist rule. And that legacy seems to have stuck. Known anti-Jewish violence (pogroms) against Jews on the territory of today’s Lithuania are recorded in 1801, 1814, 1827, 1861, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1883, 1886, 1888, 1892, 1896, 1900, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1929 and 1939. In 1844 and 1915 there were mass expulsions of Jews from Lithuania, each one leading to tens of thousands of deaths of Jewish Lithuanians, and between 1941 and 1944 there was an almost total annihilation of remaining Jews in Lithuania. Lithuanian soil is fertilized with the blood of murdered Jews.
In the final orgy of murder of Lithuania’s Jews, the local population shared the loot and were temporarily enriched by a fount of free, liberated Jewish property flooding the economy. Anecdotes are told of Lithuanian schoolgirls showing off their new stolen underwear, appropriated from their murdered Jewish classmates.
Those dividing plundered Jewish property are not unknown and Jonas Noreika was only one prominent perpetrator.
If not for relentless discrimination and persecution, it is unlikely there would have been such large-scale Jewish emigration from Lithuania. Today’s Litvak (Jews of Lithuanian descent) diaspora are the descendants of Jews who fled an increasingly hostile environment. And yet, despite everything, we remain very much attached to our roots. This has not escaped the notice of the Lithuanian government. Smooth-talking Lithuanian diplomats are dispatched to Tel Aviv, Washington and London to tell us of Lithuanian sorrow at the loss of Jewish lives and culture and the country’s interest in attracting Jewish assets and tourism. Yet, when it comes to explaining the glorification of Nazi collaborators like Noreika and Skirpa, they seem curiously unaware.
On August 22, we will remember the Jews who were betrayed and callously murdered by their fellow Lithuanian citizens.
We question the ethos of those who would venerate the perpetrators that helped make that happen, and what this bodes for the future of Lithuanian-Jewish cooperation. The author lives in Los Angeles. He is author of ‘Malice, Murder, and Manipulation: One Man’s Quest for Truth.’