Learning

My Grandfather Wasn’t a Nazi-Fighting War Hero, He Was a Brutal Collaborator


Jonas Noreika. Photo: personal collection of Silvia Foti

A deathbed promise led to me discovering his complicity in the Holocaust, and what it means beyond my family

by Silvia Foti, July 14, 2018

Eighteen years ago, my dying mother asked me to continue working on a book about her father, Jonas Noreika, a famous Lithuanian World War II hero who fought the Communists. Once an opera singer, my mother had passionately devoted herself to this mission and had even gotten a PhD in literature to improve her literary skills. As a journalist, I agreed. I had no idea I was embarking on a project that would lead to a personal crisis, Holocaust denial and an official cover-up by the Lithuanian government.

Growing up in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood–the neighborhood that had the largest population of Lithuanians outside the homeland–I’d heard about how my grandfather died a martyr for the cause of Lithuania’s freedom at the hands of the KGB when he was just 37 years old. According to the family account, he led an uprising against the Communists and won our country back from them, only to have it snatched by the Germans. He became chairman of the northwestern part of the country during the German occupation. According to family lore, he had fought the Nazis and then been sent to a concentration camp in retaliation. He escaped that camp and returned to Vilnius to start a new rebellion against the Communists, had been caught, taken to the KGB prison and tortured. I’d heard how he was the lawyer who had led the defense for 11 rebels before the KGB tribunal, was found guilty and had been executed. His nom de guerre was General Storm. It all seemed so romantic to me.

That is the book I started to write. My mother had collected a trove of material that included 3,000 pages of KGB transcripts; 77 letters to my grandmother; a fairytale to my mother written from the Stutthof concentration camp; letters from family members about his childhood; and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. A few months into the project, I visited my dying grandmother, who lived a few blocks away. She asked me not to write the book about her husband. “Just let history lie,” she whispered. I was stunned. “But I promised mom,” I said. She rolled over to face the wall. I didn’t take her request seriously; I thought she was simply giving me a pass because she knew how taxing the project was for my mother.

Full text here.

Congratulations to Sholem Aleichem Graduating Class

The graduation ceremony at the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium this week was filled with congratulations, warm wishes, music and jokes. There were sad moments when graduates bid farewell to their beloved school, friends and teachers as they set out on their own. The ceremony seemed to affect everyone–students, teachers and parents–who shed tears of joy and traded happy smiles.

This year the graduating class consisted of 18 young men and women. Principal Miša Jakobas passed out the diplomas. The head of one of the best schools in Vilnius, Jakobas said all the graduates were well-prepared for their exams and passed them all.

“The graduation ceremony is an opportunity to take pride: our graduate Daniela Mindelevič got the three highest scores, 100 points each! Three hundred is a great achievement!” Jakobas noted. She received a letter of commendation at the ceremony for her excellent work from Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius, and she will take part in a national ceremony later in July to honor top graduates held by Lithuanian prime minister Saulius Skvernelis. Graduate Arina Kac also scored high with two perfect scores of 100 each.

Five graduates passed the English language test with perfect scores of 100. Six also scored perfectly on the Russian test. Thirteen graduates received perfect scores on the state Lithuanian language test. Graduates also scored high in math. “Of course this makes us happy, because these kinds of achievements are not just the result of work by students and their parents, but also the great work of our teachers,” principal Jakobas said.

Yad Ruth Reps Visit Kaunas

Yad Ruth representatives Barbara and Dieter Maier of Hamburg visited Lithuania in June. The Lithuanian Jewish Community and Yad Ruth began working together back in 1994. Members of the organization are Israeli patriots, enthusiastically support Jewish culture and history and study Hebrew and sacred texts.

The idea to start Yad Ruth began in 1980 from personal meetings with Holocaust survivors. The association was formed in 1994, allowing the organization to expand financial prospects and other activities. Yad Ruth means both “Ruth’s hand” and “Ruth in memoriam” in Hebrew, and both phrases fit the organizations activities and goals which are aimed especially at Holocaust survivors and Jews in hard times. Members say as Germans of the post-war generation they feel a special responsibility for the welfare of Jews and for the state of Israel. One of their main tasks is fighting anti-Semitism in Germany and educating the public.

Yad Ruth is active in Germany, Israel, Estonia, Ethiopia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova.

Recommendations for Fighting Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania, 2018

Attorney and Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky on the project “Preparation and Publication of Recommendations for Fighting Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania”:

I am truly glad the Lithuanian Jewish Community was given the opportunity to implement the EVZ project “Preparation and Publication of Recommendations for Fighting Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania.” Appreciating the great importance and appropriateness of inter-institutional cooperation, the Community carried out the project with experienced and trusted partners: the Roma Social Center, the Lithuanian Human Rights Center, the Women’s Information Center and a specially formed group of experts.

Speaking of expressions of anti-Semitism in Lithuania, the positive changes are obvious. Celebrating 30 years since the restoration of our organization, the Lithuanian Jewish Community is experiencing a real, contemporary cultural renaissance. Our organization is stronger than it was, and interest in Jewish topics in Lithuania is greater than it has been ever. The Community has contributed at least partially, within our powers, to this positive breakthrough. Since 2013 we have been carrying out the Bagel Shop tolerance campaign which to the present has attracted more than 7,000 friends and followers on social media. The year 2017 also saw several important achievements in the field of human rights and the commemoration of historical truth: a jubilee March of the Living at the Ponar Jewish mass murder site, Lithuania’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, and the LJC taking the leadership position in the international memory campaign We Remember, which culminated in a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry with high state officials, members of the LJC and various public figures. In February of 2018 the Community published our Lithuanian translation of Yitzhak Rudashevski’s Vilnius ghetto diary. This publication, an authentic primary source on the history of the Holocaust, attracted great public interest, and we hope it will be accepted as an aid to teaching the Holocaust in the nation’s public schools and educational institutions.

Despite the evolving discussion by the public and the political class regarding these important issues, the fight against discrimination continues. The history of Lithuanian Jews, spanning 700 years, is still not integrated appropriately in the Lithuanian educational system, the Lithuanian experience of the Soviet occupation is often equated with the Holocaust and the internet is full of expressions of hate directed against Jews as well as Romani.

I am convinced the successful implementation of this project will contribute significantly to the further expansion of human rights and the fight against anti-Semitism and Romophobia, and to encouraging dialogue between distinct communities who share similar problems and institutions in the state and non-governmental sectors.

Recommendations 2018


Condolences

Vidmantė Jasukaitytė, Lithuanian Independence Act signatory, poet, writer, dramaturge and public figure, passed away July 14 following a long battle with illness. She had just turned 70 on July 10.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community express our deepest condolences to her children and friends. Jasukaitytė for many years lived at what was the HKP Nazi labor camp during World War II and created a number of works about the location. Her multimedia poetry installation “Subačius Street. Ghetto” was performed on September 24, 2015, the culmination of a week-long commemoration of Holocaust victims with events held around Vilnius.

Her event was held at the square outside her home where there is a monument to the Jewish inmates and victims of the HKP camp. Moving and still images were projected on the bare brick walls there as professional actors read selections from her poetry, testimonies of HKP camp inmates and Žeraldas Povilaitis’s oratory “Voice from Underground.”

Jasukaitytė had a number of plans for more Holocaust commemoration events including with musicians from the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Today we have a lost a talented writer, a good politician (who personally challenged Gorbachev about locking up Lithuanians avoiding Soviet military duty as mental patients) and a friend, and so we say, may you rest peacefully in the Lithuanian earth.

On Holidays at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius

Many events have taken place recently at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius. Besides daily prayer services and Kollel Torah studies, seminars, traditional Jewish holidays, Sabbath and kiddush with many visitors from around the world as well as Women’s Club activities, there is a growing demand for traditional Jewish rituals.

We can take pride that this year there were two circumcision and 3 bar mitzvahs as well as a traditional huppah or Jewish wedding ceremony held at the Choral Synagogue.

Last week two families from the USA held bar mitzvah ceremonies at the Choral Synagogue. The young men were born in America but have family roots in Lithuania.

The boys had been prepared well for the Torah reading. Their gratitude to their parents and their parents’ stories about the footsteps taken on the way to adulthood and how much they love their children moved the large audience of friends, relatives and guests.

Alanta Synagogue Hosts Memory Exhibit

by Vaidotas Žukas, Bernardinai.lt

Jews constituted the majority of the population of the towns of the Molėtai region before World War II. In 1941, however, the Nazi regime issued a verdict against the Jews, the descendants of David were to be abused, tortured and shot… And only God knows how many people from this beautiful lake country contributed to the rescue of their neighbors and vice versa, informing upon them, betraying and shooting them. The Nazis only sent a few Germans to Molėtai. Lithuanian lowlifes performed all of the arrests and shootings of Jews.

There is a bright side, though, to this tragedy: there were also several hundred rescuers of Jews in the Molėtai area, since it took the conviction, daily work and risk-taking in the face of death of several dozen people to hide and protect one Jew. Respect to them!

The Alanta synagogue is one of only several surviving wooden synagogues in Lithuania; it hasn’t been destroyed and wasn’t burned down, but it’s still not in good order and unrestored. During the Soviet era grain and fertilizer were stored there. The cut-up wooden walls of the synagogue and the tin roof still with bullet holes from the war witness to both the Holocaust and the continuing reluctant position taken towards Jewish religious and historical heritage in Lithuania.

Jakov Bunka Wooden Sculpture Exhibit

Folk artist and celebrator of Žemaitijan Jewish history Jakov Bunka’s (1923-2014) wooden sculpture exhibition “Moses of Plateliai” is being shown at the Lithuanian National UNESCO Commission gallery at Šv. Jono street no. 11 in Vilnius on occasion of the 95th anniversary of Bunka’s birth.

Bunka was unique. He was the only Jewish folk artist in Lithuania who commemorated Jewish characters within the Lithuanian tradition in wood, he was the last Jew to remain in Plungė and he was rider in the cavalry of the Don Cossacks. After reaching Berlin in 1945 he dedicated his life to commemorating the communities of his fellow Jews annihilated in Lithuania between 1941 and 1945. He made the Kaušėnai memorial to the exterminated Jews of Plungė, wrote a book about the history of the Jews of Plungė, was an honorary citizen of Plungė and was awarded the honor of Knight of the Cross of the Rider of the Order of Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas. As Grigoriy Kanovich put it so fittingly in his inscription in his book he gave to Bunka: “To a Žemaitijan Jew, to a Jewish Žemaitijan.”

Jonas Rudzinskas, the chairman of the Union of Lithuanian Folk Artists, said of Bunka: “Jakov Bunka’s aesthetic views, mentality, optimistic nature and work ethic formed in the Žemaitijan environment. … In creating large or inside sculpture, the master did without trifles and insignificant detail. … His responsible, sincere attitude towards creative work and unique style set Jakov Bunka apart from others and he joins the ranks of our greatest folk artists who set the development of folk art.”

Litvak Theater between the Wars

From the third issue of Naujasis Židinys-Aidai, 2018

Ina Pukelytė, Žydų teatras tarpukario Lietuvoje: Monografija [Jewish Theater in Interwar Lithuania: A Monograph], Kaunas: Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas, 2017, 192 pp., print-run of 100. Illustrated by Saulius Bajorinas.

Ina Pukelytė says one of the main goals of her monograph is to reconstruct Jewish theater activity in Lithuania between the two world wars, from 1919 to 1940. Another goal is to determine what influence Lithanian Jewish theater had on Jewish theater in the diaspora and on the evolution of Lithuanian theater, based on an examination of different literature and comparison with theater around the world. The author used Lithuanian periodicals, archives, libraries and museums as well as material from Yad Vashem and YIVO, including lists of actors from Yiddish troupes who toured Lithuania, founding documents of theater associations, correspondence with the Lithuanian Education Ministry, tax files of Jewish theaters and their directors, lists of foreign actors who came to work in Lithuania and iconographic material.

Full article in Lithuanian here.

Continuing Education Students from Israel Visit Panevėžys Jewish Community

Under an agreement of several years’ standing Edit Perry and Ewa Baranska have led another delegation of people from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities to Panevėžys and the Panevėžys Jewish Community. Many are adults involved in continuing education during the academic year on the topic of Jews from the Baltic states. During the summer they strive to visit as many sites as possible where they had family in Lithuania, including Panevėžys. The students were keenly interested in the photography exhibit and archival documents illustrating Jewish life before World War II preserved at the Panevėžys Jewish Community.

Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman and member Jurijus Smirnovas delivered lectures at actual historical sites inside the former ghetto territory and the old Jewish cemetery which is now called Memory Square.

Smirnovas shared his experience of World War II with the visitors. He was a small child at the concentration camps in Panevėžys and Šiauliai and lost his family members.

Happy Birthday to Sora Voloshin Kalavitch


Sora first on left.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community wishes Sora Voloshin a very happy birthday, good health and to be surrounded by the strong love of family. Mazl tov! Biz hundert azoi ve tsvantsik!

Yitzhak Rudashevski’s cousin Sora survived the Holocaust while Yitzhak and his family were murdered at Ponar. She ran away when they were being taken to Ponar. After the war she went back to the place the Rudashevski family hid, found Yitzhak’s diary and loaned it to Abraham Sutzkever for use as an exhibit in the ill-fated post-war Jewish Museum in Vilnius.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community published a Lithuanian translation of the Yiddish diary this year as we approach the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto.

Congratulations to Members Decorated by Lithuanian President

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė decorated Lithuanian and foreign citizens for contributions to the Lithuanian state on July 6, State Day.

“Today I would most like to emphasize what has been accomplished, and to thank everyone who works for Lithuania from their heart. Those whose civic-mindedness is not a pose or empty words, those for whom this country is the most important one in the world. Thanks to you Lithuania has in less than three decades travelled this road of statehood and today confidently compares itself to many states in Europe and the world with whom we have strong ties of friendship,” she said at the awards ceremony.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community is proud of and congratulates our members who were decorated on State Day on the 100th anniversary of the Lithuanian state.

Theater expert and propagator of historical memory and tolerance professor Irena Veisaitė was awarded the Great Cross of the Commander “For Merit to Lithuania.”

Journalist and radio host Ernestas Alesinas was recognized for encouraging civic-mindedness and strengthening civil society. He was awarded the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas.

Screening of The Good Nazi at Tolerance Center

Come see the Lithuanian premiere film “The Good Nazi” about Righteous Gentile Karl Plagge at the Tolerance Center, Naugarduko street no. 10/2, Vilnius at 5:30 P.M. on July 12, 2018. Major Karl Plagge was in command of the HKP slave labor camp on Subačiaus street in Vilnius. The camp repaired and maintained German military vehicles. Plagge saved a number of Jews there. The event includes a discussion with the filmmakers and visiting archaeologists. Sponsored in partnership with the US embassy in Vilnius. Film and event in English, all are welcome, entrance is free.

Holocaust Victims and Rescuers Remembered in Jurbarkas

Seventy-seven years ago, on July 3, 1941, the first mass murder of Jews was carried out in Jurbarkas (Yurburg), Lithuania. The number murdered was 322 people, including about 20 ethnic Lithuanians (including Jurbarkas sculptor Vincas Grybas). The Jurbarkas community remembers this tragedy every year and holds an Hour of Memory at the grave site of the victims of the genocide, attended by local residents and friends and family of the Jews who lived in Jurbarkas and experienced the Holocaust there.

This year representatives of the Jurbarkas regional administration including deputy mayor Saulius Lapėnas, administration director Vida Rekešienė, Culture and Sports Department chief Antanas Gvildys, Jurbarkas alderman Audronis Kačiušis and staff from the Jurbarkas Regional History Museum and Jurbarkas Cultural Center attended along with victims and relatives the July 3 Hour of Memory held at the Jurbarkas Cultural Center.

Former Jewish Jurbarkas resident Jakovas Rikleris travelled from Germany to the event and said: “I am so glad you have not forgotten and maintain this site so dear to us, the old Jewish cemetery. There were extraordinarily noble, brave people from the land of my birth, from the area around Jurbarkas, people who were unable to remain uncaring seeing these brutal massacres. These people are immeasurably brave, in fear of the mortal danger they rescued Jews, hid them, shared their meager wartime food provisions with them and believed that in saving people from death they were performing the most important duty, sacrificing themselves for the lives of other innocent people. These are the true people of the Lithuanian nation.”

Young actors from the Jurbarkas Cultural Center’s children and youth theater Vaivorykštė under the direction of Birutė Šneiderienė read selections from Grigori Kanovich’s Shtetl Love Story and compositions by Jurbarkas composer Kęstutis Vasiliauskas were performed on violin.

Lithuanian Diplomats in the Arena of Humane Action and Aggression


V. Čečeta began working at the Lithuanian General Consulate in Vilnius on September 17, 1939. Photo: Archiwum akt nowych w Warszawe

kauno.diena.lt

Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk are foreign diplomats who rescued Jews and they have been commemorated in Kaunas and the world, but they were only able to do what they did between 1939 and 1940 because of efforts by Lithuanian state officials.

Have we forgotten our own role?

When a monument costing 150,000 euros is erected next year in Kaunas to the so far little-known honorable Dutch consul in interwar Lithuania Jan Zwartendijk, the world will learn about another foreign diplomat who rescued Jews.

As current Dutch ambassador to Lithuania Bert van der Lingen told BNS, The role world-famous rescuer of Jews Chiune Sugihara was only made possible because Zwartendijk made an entry in the passports the travellers were travelling to a Dutch overseas territory. This entry, the Dutch ambassador says, was the basis for Sugihara to issue visas to Jews to transit Japan. But have we thought about our own diplomats in this context?

That there is little interest and even avoidance of this topic was demonstrated by the difficult search for historians and Foreign Ministry representatives able to say anything about the topic of the activities of the Lithuanian General Consulate in Vilnius in 1939.

Lost Property

Lost Property

At first they lost their civil rights, then their property and, in many cases, their lives. Jews from Lithuania are still waiting for the time when they can at least get their property back.

by Antanas Manstavičius
IQ magazine, June, 2018

For several decades now Lithuanian Jews who survived the Holocaust, along with other residents of the country, have had little hope of restoration of property rights, due to objective reasons. Lithuanian citizens who survived the Soviet and Nazi occupation have finally been allowed to get back private property seized or at least get compensation. Many have made use of this right.

Those who had to flee to save their lives during World War II and their descendants find themselves in a completely different situation. Until now, Lithuanian laws categorize those seeking to have their rights to property restored according to citizenship: those who don’t have it still cannot get their property back.

“You have to be a citizen to get property back,” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman and attorney Faina Kukliansky said. “But what if you don’t want to be one? How can one be forced to become a citizen of Lithuania?” She says she has clients who still haven’t been to get real estate in Lithuania back. For at least some of the Litvaks living abroad, it’s not about the money, it’s a matter of principle.

Young People in Panevėžys Interested in Jewish Heritage

Monika Šinkūnaitė and her colleague appealed for help to the Panevėžys Jewish Community on June 11 regarding a project called Orientational Walking Tour and a discussion called Jewish Culture in Panevėžys. During the meeting both parties discussed scenarios for the event and topics for the discussion.

The point of the project is to get young and older people interested in Jewish heritage.

The educational walking tour happened on June 29 and was called Along Jewish Roads, including important historical Jewish heritage sites in the city. The youth group began the tour at Freedom Alley where there was a thriving Jewish neighborhood before World War II. There were Jewish residences, stores, workshops, dentistry and medical clinics and attorneys’ offices. Some streets were named after Jewish public figures, including Dr. Mer, Rabbi Gertzel, the industrialist Kisinas, Dembas and others.

The discussion was held after the walking tour at the café Kavos Dėžutė. Panevėžys publicist Donatas Puslys, Panevėžys Regional History Museum director Arūnas Astramskas, bishop emeritus Jonas Kauneckas, nun Eleonora Kasiulytė from the Congregation of the Sisters of God’s Love and Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman participated.

Thank You to Out-Going Cultural Heritage Department Director Diana Varnaitė

The Lithuanian Jewish Community sincerely thanks Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Department director Diana Varnaitė for all the work she’s done to preserve Jewish heritage in Lithuania. The Community is also wondering who could replace her professionalism, intellect and sense of heritage as a significant legacy we leave to future generations.

Since Faina Kukliansky became chairwoman of the LJC in 2013, the Community has paid special attention to the preservation of Lithuanian Jewish heritage sites. Mainly because of director Varnaitė’s personal attention to Jewish heritage, it became one of the Cultural Heritage Department’s priorities and thus a priority for protection nation-wide. The Jewish story in Lithuania began almost 700 years ago and much has been lost, but what remains needs urgent work to save it as a treasure of the state and the people which draws people here from around the world.

Lithuanian Jewish heritage sites are relics of a cultural landscape created over centuries by the community which once numbered a quarter million people living in almost every Lithuanian city and town. It is around 200 cemeteries, more than 200 mass murder sites and mass graves and over 40 synagogues listed as cultural treasures.

Jews from Australia Visit Panevėžys

The families of Jews who lived in Panevėžys before the war are now scattered around the world. Even before the war, back in tsarist times, Panevėžys Jews migrated widely to countries such as Argentina, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Brasil and also South Africa and Australia. The Panevėžys Jewish Community often receives visitors from these countries, and especially from South Africa. This time Kelly Rozmarim from Australia visited with her husband, brother and two daughters. She brought documents showing her grandfather Hona Shepts was born in Panevėžys in 1908 and immigrated with his brother to South Africa in 1939. Her father Judelis Shepts was a rabbi. He and his three sisters were also born in Panevėžys and stayed in Lithuania. All of them died in the Holocaust.

In South Africa in 1939 there was a world-renowned Jewish community called Ponevezh. Kelly Rozmarim has a document, a list of people who sailed to South Africa which includes members of her family. She and her brother have also discovered relatives in Šeduva, Pasvalys and Biržai.

The family’s visit to the Panevėžys Jewish Community enriched our archives and provided valuable information about the Jewish residents of Panevėžys back then. The visitors thanked Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman for his active efforts to preserve the Litvak heritage and to commemorate it in Panevėžys. All of the family members left warm words and greetings in the Community’s guest book.