Two Steps Forward, One Back

Two Steps Forward, One Back
by Geoff Vasil

Readers of the Lithuanian Jewish Community website might have been surprised yesterday by a news item appearing there in which Jonas Noreika was absolved, seemingly, of complicity in the Holocaust. Noreika is one of those names which lives on in infamy among scholars of the Lithuanian Holocaust but proffered as an anti-Soviet hero by Lithuanian nationalists. The intent of the LJC, of course, was merely to report the Lithuanian news to Jews here and abroad, and not to white-wash Noreika in any way. The news item would not have been surprising even a few years ago, but now it comes as a shock exactly because Lithuanian society has moved forward so rapidly in coming to terms with the horrible loss to the country known as the Holocaust.

In summary, a Lithuanian state institution, the Center for Research on the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania, charged with sorting out history, issued a politicized report claiming Noreika was only involved in isolating Jews during World War II, not murdering them. The report came in response to a joint call by well known figures in Lithuania, including Tomas Venclova, to remove a plaque honoring Noreika from the wall of the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in Vilnius, a move which the LJC has long championed.

The document released this week cautions Noreika’s actions “cannot be judged categorically.”

Just for good measure, the institution issuing the report also touched on the historical reputation of Kazys Škirpa, Nazi collaborator who formed the Lithuanian Activist Front in Berlin. The report noted that he had engaged in “anti-Semitic activities” in 1940 and 1941.

This is sort of like arguing Eichmann wasn’t guilty of Holocaust crimes because all he did was office work. Or that Hitler didn’t actually murder any Jews by his own hand. Or, a recent claim from an unexpected quarter, that Hitler was really an OK fellow but was somehow persuaded by the Mufti of Jerusalem to murder all the Jews of Europe instead of sending them to Madagascar or somewhere. Such arguments haven’t really worked in the West since about 1945.

Writing in late July of this year on the issue, perhaps Lithuania’s most respected journalist Rimvydas Valatka said that on August 22, 1941 Noreika ordered a Jewish ghetto be established in Žagarė. The burgermeister of Joniškis A. Gedvilas, appointed by Noreika, carried out Noreika’s orders to transport the Jews of Joniškis to Žagarė. Soldiers sent into Joniškis immediately murdered several hundred Jewish citizens of Lithuania there and took the remainder to Žagarė where they were shot to death. So Noreika was in command of the death squads in the area.

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 executed in 1947.

Although the life of the Soviet veteran anti-Soviet partisan was certainly strange, things became truly weird in 1997 when former Lithuanian Communist Party secretary and Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas posthumously awarded him 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, Lithuania.

Valatka writes: “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 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.'”

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’s piece in Lithuanian is available here.

Why would the Center for Research on the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania claim Noreika’s actions “cannot be judged categorically” when it is perfectly obvious he was in command of forces carrying out his orders who committed mass murders of entire Jewish communities? What gradations of gray have been lost to the world at large, beyond their claim he was somehow working for Lithuanian independence? And what about Škirpa? “The center reported he was a Lithuanian patriot and that he expended much energy for the establishment of an independent state and in organizing resistance to the Soviet occupational regime, but that his actions in the 1940-1941 period did include expressions of anti-Semitism.” Expressions of anti-Semitism such as circulating orders among LAF cells in Soviet Lithuania to prepare to rise up and kill their Jewish neighbors at the first whiff of a Nazi invasion?

The center’s report white-washing Lithuanian Nazis stands in sharp contrast to almost a year and a half of high-level visits by Lithuanian leaders to Israel and Israeli delegations to Lithuania, the establishment of the first Israeli embassy ever in Lithuania, state support to the international YIVO conference held in Vilnius recently, the opening of a second Yiddish teaching institution in Vilnius, tangible change in official attitudes such as the Butkevičius Government’s bending over backwards to make sure Jewish tradition and law is respected in regard to renovation of the Palace of Sports and the recent official and working visits made by prime minister Butkevičius and president Grybauskaitė to Israel. It stands in ever sharper contrast to the many grass-roots initiatives by ethnic Lithuanians over the past two years to commemorate Holocaust victims and to preserve and celebrate Litvak culture. While a sea-change has taken place in Lithuanian society, which now stands ready to confront the painful past and Lithuanian actions in the extermination of the Jews, some parties on both sides of the issue of Holocaust complicity haven’t realized that this change has taken place, and continue either to white-wash Holocaust perpetrators, or to desperately try to sow ethnic discord and scandal where there was none.