Silvia Foti never knew her maternal grandfather, Jonas Noreika, whom many Lithuanians see as a hero who fought against the Soviet Communists during World War II.
He was a militia leader, governor, political activist and an important nationalist.
To preserve his legacy, Foti decided to finish writing his grandfather’s biography, which was started by his late mother.
But he had no idea what he was about to discover, something that would change his life forever.
“I had no idea of his dark past.”
For decades, Foti had heard of the heroic acts what his grandfather did to protect Lithuania.
Growing up in the United States, where the writer currently lives, I was proud from his grandfather’s past.
His mother and grandmother told him that Jonas Noreika was killed for protesting the Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1947.
Lithuania’s schools and streets were named in his honor, and there are even commemorative plaques dedicated to Noreika all over the country.
However, it was the headmistress of a school named after her grandfather who He “casually mentioned” to him that his grandfather “was accused of killing Jews.”
“I almost fainted when he said that, because it was the first time I’d heard it,” recalls Foti, who was 38 at the time.
“My mother had just died. My grandmother had just died,” he tells the BBC’s HardTalk program.
“I thought I was going to write a wonderful story about my grandfather. I had no idea of his dark past“, keep going.
“I thought I was about to write about the WWII hero who fought the communists.”
Shocked by what she heard at that school, and assuming it was “communist propaganda,” she says she was denying it for a decade.
Mass murder of Jews
The writer spent 10 years reviewing all the information about her grandfather.
During that time, he found a 30-page document written by Noreika in 1933, when she was 22 years old. Foti explains that the content was riddled with anti-Semitic ideas, including why Lithuanians should “boycott” Jews.
Other documentation he found also confirmed that his grandfather was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
But what came next was even more shocking: he found overwhelming evidence about what Noreika was involved in the mass murder of Jews, although there was no evidence that he himself murdered people.
Based on his new evidence, he decided to title his book “The granddaughter of the Nazis.”
More than 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during the Nazi regime in that country.
Today, together with some members of the Lithuanian Jewish community and their descendants abroad, Foti is campaigning to remove his own grandfather’s name from the list of Lithuanian national heroes.
But those who defend Noreika say the man was “defending the nation” at a time when Lithuanians were under threat from both the Nazis and the Russians.
This man’s admirers argue that the Nazis did not regard him as one of their own, as he was arrested and taken to a concentration camp and then assassinated by the Russians.
But Foti says he discovered documentation showing that Noreika was a member of the anti-Soviet resistance andcollaborated with the Nazis in 1941, when I was 30 years old.
His grandfather led an operation to expel Jews from their homes, who were taken to ghettos. And discovered strong evidence that Noreika oversaw the mass murder of nearly 2,000 Jews.
A close friendship and highly unlikely
The strongest evidence to prove it is in the memoirs written by Noreika’s secretary, who claims that his boss gave the order to kill the Jews.
“So he was a witness,” says Foti.
As he discovered more and more evidence of his grandfather’s atrocities, some Lithuanian Jews were waging their own campaigns against Noreika, including Grant Gochin, who claims that at least 100 of his relatives were killed by that man.
“I went public with all my research. And one day Silvia emailed me,” recalls Gochin, a South African-American Jew of Lithuanian descent who has unsuccessfully filed several cases against the Lithuanian government.
“I was very suspicious of her … She called me and said, ‘I’ve read all your research, but you’ve made a big mistake.’
“He said, ‘You haven’t checked around 10,000 victims of my grandfather‘”.
That was the beginning of a very close and unlikely friendship between Gochin and Fonti.
So close in fact, that when Gochin brought a case against Lithuania in the European Court of Human Rights, Foti supported the case with his own affidavit.
Gochin claims that Noreika is responsible for about 15,000 murders, of the nearly 220,000 Jews who died from Lithuania, which the Lithuanian authorities deny.
Discovering your grandfather’s past was a very traumatic experience for Foti, who admits that he would not write the book if his mother or grandmother were still alive.
“Psychologically, I was fighting with his ghosts while writing this book. They were both hovering over me in my imagination and sometimes I swear I was crying as I repelled them,” he explains to the BBC.
“This has shattered my Lithuanian identity. I was once a very proud Lithuanian and now I am ashamed. I had to accept the horror, not only of that country’s role in the genocide, but its role in denial, which terrified me for years. “.
However, Foti believes that her mother did not know much about her father’s past.
“In 1941, he was only two years old. I think later he should have heard the rumor, but then he denied it, like me and like most Lithuanians.”
That long process of denial, he says, was one of the reasons why it took 20 years to write the book.
About his grandmother, he says it’s a different story.
“She definitely knew it and once I realized this, I felt betrayed, disappointed, even dejected. How could I live like this?”
“In a way, it’s a blessing that she died before I knew it. I don’t know how I could have faced her.”
Gochin says that he really appreciates and admires Foti’s courage.
“Can you imagine the strength of character Silvia needed to do that? It is extraordinary,” he told the BBC.
A movie in the making
The “granddaughter of a murderer” and the “grandson of that murderer’s victims” coming together to fight for the truth is a “true story of reconciliation,” Gochin says.
Foti agrees on that and also hollywood, as your story will appear in a movie.
The reason there was a connection between the two, according to Foti, may be because she was one of the first Lithuanians who was willing to investigate the Holocaust in her own country.
Someone who believed that Lithuanians “unfortunately played a big role in it.”
“The Lithuanian people must recognize their role in the Holocaust and stop shirking their responsibility. It will not bring the victims back … but it will restore their memory, as it should be remembered,” says Foti.
By doing this, as he did with his grandfather’s biography, it will not only be “healing for the families of the victims” but also “healing for the Lithuanians.”
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