News

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.

Condolences

Feofanija Bambiza passed away July 15. She was born in 1922. Our deepest condolences to her husband Aleksandras Asovskis.

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


Happy Birthday, Irina!

Sveikinimas

Happy birthday to Irina Belienė from the entire community! Irina is a long-standing member of the LJC, is very active on the LJC executive board and is the director of the Janusz Korczak welfare and support fund.

Dear Irina, we wish you health, love and the strength to achieve everything your heart desires! Mazl tov!

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.

Condolences

The Lithuanian Jewish Community sincerely mourns the loss of Vitas Antanaitis, father of Monika Antanaitytė, Chief of Staff to the chairwoman of the LJC. Our deepest condolences to all his many friends and family, including Monika, her mother Violeta and brother Martynas. We wish you strength in spirit and spiritual comfort during this time of loss.

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.

Lithuanian Jewish Community Asks Pope Francis to Remember Holocaust Victims in Lithuania

The Lithuanian Jewish Community values the upcoming visit to Lithuania by His Holiness Pope Francis as an important gesture of recognition and an historic event as our country celebrates 100 years of independence this year.

The Pope’s visit coincides with the National Day of Remembrance of the Genocide of the Jews of Lithuania, September 23. Seventy-five years ago on this day the final liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto was carried out: men, women, children and the elderly were deported to concentration camps in Poland, Germany, Estonia and Latvia and sent to the Ponar Forest to be shot. The destruction of the Vilnius ghetto is a symbol of the Holocaust in Lithuania. This tragedy not only cost thousands of Lithuanian residents their lives, but also ruined the great intellectual potential of society and deprived us of an important part of the identity of our state.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community calls upon the Lithuanian public and the leaders of global Jewish and Catholic communities and organizations to join us in asking Pope Francis to pray for the lives lost in the Holocaust and for the Righteous Gentiles of Lithuania, and to remember the innocents unfairly condemned and murdered at the Ponar Memorial Complex Jewish mass murder site on September 23, 2018.

Association of Italian Jewish Communities president Noemi Di Segni has called upon Pope Francis to commemorate victims of the Holocaust during his visit to Lithuania on September 23.

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.

Ona Šimaitė Dedicated Her Life to the Welfare of Others

by Rasa Baškienė, Bernardinai.lt

Ona Šimaitė was named a Righteous Gentile in 1966 for saving Jews from the Vilnius ghetto. She constantly risked her life from 1941 to 1943, when the Vilnius ghetto existed, saving Jewish children and adults and seeking out shelter and support for them. Vilnius University rector Mykolas Biržiška, his brother Vaclovas Biržiška, the director of the Vilnius University library, and professors and staff at the university helped Ona Šimaitė, as did the writer Kazys Jakubėnas and the clerics A. Lipniūnas, M. Krupavičius, M. Vaitkus and others.

Vilnius Ghetto


Rūdninkų street in the Vilnius ghetto.

On September 6, 1941, after the Germans had occupied Vilnius, 57,000 Jews were marched to the two ghettos in the Vilnius Old Town. They included many Vilnius University students and teachers, famous professors and scholars. Rector Mykolas Biržiška, university leadership and head librarian Vaclovas Biržiška tried to think of a way to help the Jews condemned to death. Finally a seemingly innocent way to do so was found: they would send two university librarians–catalog department director Ona Šimaitė and reading room director Godliauskaitė into the two ghettos to collect unreturned library books from Jewish readers.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

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.

Burning Stones in the Kaunas Ghetto

The Kaunas Jewish Community and artists from the Kiemas Gallery in Kaunas invite you to the opening ceremony of the Burning Stones project to commemorate the Slobodka Jewish ghetto in Kaunas (1941-1944) at 1:00 P.M. on July 15, 2018, at A. Kriščiukaičio street no. 21 in Kaunas.

“You stand before the gates of the Vilijampolė [Slobodka] Jewish ghetto which operated from 1941 to 1944. Beyond them stretched the territory of death. The stylized stones in the mosaic commemorate the Jewish historical and cultural heritage; while the sun rises and sets, the memory of those who lost their lives in the ghetto, the thousands of Lithuanian citizens of Jewish origin will remain in our minds and those of future generations. The portrait of boys embracing called Neighbors symbolizes the importance of friendly relations between Lithuanians and Jews in the context of those days, closeness, common ground, the ability to forgive. The color clouds floating by remind us of the course of time and, despite the scope of the tragedy which occurred, of hope, and reminds each of us of our responsibility to insure it never happens again.”

–Vytenis Jakas, creator of the Burning Stones project

The project was financed by the city of Kaunas. The opening ceremony will be financed by the Goodwill Foundation.

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.