“Whom Does Lithuania Honor, General Vėtra the Partisan Leader, or a Murderer of Jews?”

“Whom Does Lithuania Honor, General Vėtra the Partisan Leader, or a Murderer of Jews?”

Writing on the DELFI webpage, long-time Lithuanian editor, writer and journalist Rimvydas Valatka says he detects a sea-change in Lithuanian attitudes towards a painful past.

In an opinion piece/editorial roughly translated as “Whom Does Lithuania Honor, General Vėtra the Partisan Leader, or a Murderer of Jews?” Valatka opens:

“The removal of the idols [human figures in the socialist realist style from the Soviet era] from the Green Bridge [in Vilnius], and consequently the liberation of our history, has been met by some people with pain. There are signs, however, showing that these resolute steps could become the very foundation in a critical assessment of our history of memory. One such [step] is a letter by a group of intellectuals calling upon the mayor of Vilnius to immediately take steps to remove a plaque from the façade of the [Lithuanian] Academy of Sciences [building in Vilnius] commemorating and honoring partisan commander General Vėtra, aka captain Jonas Noreika.”

Valatka goes on to relate what has become an almost mainstream genre of reporting in Lithuania at the present time: the painful truth and horrible crimes lurking in the backgrounds of people who have—almost all posthumously—received the highest state awards and honors since Lithuania regained independence in the 1990-1991 period, by governments and presidents far to the left as well as on the more extreme right side of center.

Why has it taken so long for this obviously interesting and even somewhat easy genre to catch on? Valatka notes naysayers concerning Vėtra’s true past already appearing on facebook with the usual accusations about Russian propaganda campaigns, but this time positing some sort of revenge being visited upon Lithuania’s heroes as a result of anger kindled over the removal of the old statues on the Vilnius bridge. Valatka counters with a whole host of fairly well-known and respected Lithuanians who put their signatures to the letter to the Vilnius mayor, including deputy chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community Leonidas Donskis; Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund founder and writer Sergejus Kanovičius, among many others.

Valatka notes Noreika shared the fate of many of his victims to a limited extent at least, and was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, where he was liberated by the Red Army, which he then joined and served to the end of the war. Only following the war did he become the partisan leader nicknamed General Vėtra. He was apprehended in 1946 and killed in 1947.

Although Noreika’s life was certainly strange, things became truly weird in 1997 when former Lithuanian Communist Party secretary and Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas awarded him posthumously the Cross, 1st class, of the Order of Vytis. A primary school was named in his honor in Šukioniai, a village in the Pakruojas region, and a memorial stone was unveiled in his honor in Šiauliai (Shavl), Lithuania.

Valatka notes that even his “official biography” contains a number of not exactly heroic facts. On August 22, 1941 it was by his order that the Jewish ghetto was established in Žagarė (Zhager). His appointee the burgermeister of Joniškis (Yanishok) A. Gedvilas likewise was carrying out Noreika’s orders when he transported the Jews of Joniškis to Žagarė. SOldiers sent into Joniškis immediately murdered there several hundred Jewish citizens of Lithuania and took the remainder to Žagarė where they were shot to death later.

“Such facts would be sufficient to de-heroize anyone. But there are even more problems. The physicist A. Pakalniškis who fled to the West in 1944 had worked for several days in the office of the  Plungė (Plungyan) Kommandantur and in the book ‘Per dvidešimtąjį amžių’ [‘Over the Twentieth Century’] thus described the massacre of the Jews of Plungė:

“‘The night of July 12 to 13 all the Jews of Plungė were exterminated without exception including women and children. Before that they were locked into their house of prayer, from which every night they were led in groups to the forests and shot. Captain Noreika was the kommandant. There were other Lithuanian officers as well. … They had ordered a mobilization of young men in the Plungė rural district and so had a sizable contingent of armed men. At the time in Plungė there were only two pathetic-looking little soldier fellows from the German military. … One those little soldier fellows came into the kommandantur and shaking a bit from excitement asked the kommandant:

“‘”What are you planning to do with those Jews locked in the synagogue?”

“‘”I already gave the order to shoot every last one of them,” kommandant captain Noreika the Lithuanian said. He had stood up out of respect for that miserable German.'”

“The reliable German magazine Der Spiegel also noted in 1984 that Noreika was responsible for the mass murder of the Jews of Plungė: ‘Many of the Lithuanians imprisoned at Stutthof had been officers, including unit head Buragas who served as advisor on Jewish affairs and was in charge of the Vilnius ghetto, and unit head J. Noreika, who organized and perpetrated the mass murder of the Jewish residents of Plungė,'” Valatka quotes from Der Spiegel.

Leiba Lifshitz, the late “walking encyclopedia” of the Šiauliai region who was imprisoned in the Šiauliai ghetto with his family, collected material showing Noreika was responsible for the murder of 5,100 Jews. Noreika had also issued ordered that lists of Jewish property be sent directly to him, Valatka notes.

“How then did Noreika became a participant in the anti-Nazi underground? This sort of question can only occur to people whose minds are still beclouded by the “black-and-white” clichés of Soviet historiography. There were even greater transformations back in those satanic times. But in this case, as the historian Arūnas Bubnys notes, history has not been kind to the hero: even the Nazis themselves never accused Noreika of anti-Nazi activities,” Valatka explains.

To really finish off Noreika’s reputation as some sort of hero, Valatka says there is reason to believe Noreika never took part in any anti-Soviet activities in the 1940-1941 period. One of the better known Lithuanian partisans from the June Uprising of 1941, Pilypas Narutis living in exile in the United States wrote in his book published in 1994 said Noreika had worked for a Soviet-created partisan formation in the Plungė area in 1941, the Lietuvių Vienybės Sąjunga, or Union of Solidarity by Lithuanians: “It is a known fact that the KGB services created Vienybė. One has to think this was not connected with captain J. Noreika. There is no other information about Noreika’s role in effecting the uprising of 1941,” Narutis says.

Valatka ends with a call to Lithuanians to accept their history exactly because it is theirs, however terrible or tragic some of the episodes.

The entire editorial is available in Lithuanian