VILNIUS, Lithuania — As her mother lay dying, Silvia Foti made a promise. She vowed to continue her plans to write a book about her mother's father, Foti's grandfather, a Lithuanian hero known as "General Storm."
He was among the young soldiers who fought the Soviet Union in its brief but brutal first occupation of Lithuania in 1940, and he was later shot in a KGB prison. He, like many of his comrades, is considered a national hero.
But Foti, a high school English teacher from Chicago, said that after years of researching the man, whose name was Jonas Noreika, she discovered that her grandfather collaborated with the Nazis by facilitating the extermination of thousands of Lithuanian Jews.
"He agreed with the Nazis on the elimination of the Jews," she said.
Foti's revelations ignited a firestorm in Lithuania when they emerged two years ago. Laid out in painstaking detail in a book published last month, they have contributed to an increasingly toxic public debate over Noreika's legacy and what role Lithuanians played alongside Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
An estimated 95 percent of Lithuania's Jews, more than 200,000 people, were massacred as the Third Reich took hold — one of the highest proportions of any country affected by the Holocaust.
Yet the dominant narrative in Lithuania has long been one of resistance to both the Soviets and the Nazis, a hallmark of national identity that state officials have worked to reinforce. In January, a lawmaker and longstanding defender of Noreika's legacy sparked outrage by suggesting that local Jewish leaders may even have borne some responsibility for the Holocaust.
And on Thursday, the Lithuanian Parliament voted to dismiss the head of the country's genocide research center amid growing controversy surrounding the center's work.
It's a bitter dispute that, more than 75 years after the end of World War II, highlights the degree to which Lithuania is still struggling to come to terms with its own history.
Foti maintained that the official story has been a "cover-up."
Numerous streets in Lithuania are named after Noreika. So is a school in his hometown. A memorial plaque commemorating his life and work is on display in Vilnius, the capital, on the building where he worked.
Many Lithuanians are familiar with what Foti called the "fairy-tale" story: Noreika fought fleeing Soviet forces during the so-called June uprising in 1941 and was an organizer in the Lithuanian Activist Front, an underground militia group. He later fought against the Nazis before he was sent to a concentration camp. After he was released at the end of the war, he worked as a legal expert at the Academy of Science and tried to unite scattered groups of fighters to resist the Soviets before he was shot dead in a KGB prison in 1947, age 36.
Foti's family read aloud his last letter from prison, a treasured heirloom, every Christmas Eve.
The first Soviet occupation lasted little more than a year, but it looms large in Lithuania's history — thousands of people were killed or sent to gulags. The same power would rule the Baltics with an iron fist from 1945 until 1991, killing thousands more and cementing the reputation of already idolized freedom fighters who opposed the Soviets in 1941.
The period of Nazi rule over Lithuania, from 1941 until the end of the war in 1945, also casts a long shadow. Jews had lived in what is now Lithuania since the 14th century, helping to make it a thriving, diverse commercial and religious center, alive with Jewish culture.
But during the war, Lithuania's Jewish population was all but wiped out. Records indicate that Lithuanian leaders were at least somewhat involved in the massacre.
For example, a report dated Oct. 15, 1941, from the local division of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi paramilitary death squads, says that on June 25 and 26, local Lithuanian fighters "eliminated more than 1,500 Jews, set fire to several synagogues or destroyed them by other means, and burned down an area consisting of about 60 houses inhabited by Jews."
The next night, "2,300 Jews were eliminated in the same way," the report states.
But the degree to which Lithuanians were complicit in atrocities has been fiercely contested. Noreika's defenders say it was in the Nazis' interests to exaggerate Lithuanian involvement. Many also argue that Noreika's reputation was tarnished later on by KGB propaganda.
The state-run Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania, which is viewed as the official guardian of the country's collective memory, has been one of Noreika's primary defenders. In 2015, it issued a report that found that Noreika had no involvement in the mass murder of Jews. And in 2019, citing newly available documents, the center said Noreika was responsible for saving Jews through a rescue network.
Professor Adas Jakubauskas, who spoke in an interview before Parliament dismissed him as leader of the center on Thursday, said the center has "reliable data" showing that "Noreika actively organized anti-Nazi resistance and the rescue of Jews."
He said the anti-Nazi activity was why Noreika was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in what is now Poland, where he spent two years until it was liberated.
"At the time, neither the Lithuanian administration nor Noreika could take any decisions pertaining to German or Jewish questions," he said.
Jakubauskas became embroiled in controversy after 17 historians who work with the center wrote to the speaker of the Parliament, known as the Seimas, complaining that the institution's leadership was making irresponsible statements and instigating the so-called memory wars, and that its political control was "destroying the quality of research."
One of the historians, Mingailė Jurkutė, who separately criticized the center's "ideologized narrative" in an online article, was fired by the center.
Questions about Noreika's legacy, in particular, have multiplied in recent years. In 2018, Grant Gochin, an American Jew of Lithuanian descent, sued the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, claiming that his ancestors were among the Jews who were killed during Noreika's governorship of Šiauliai County. The court in Vilnius ruled that there was no evidence to suggest that Noreika was involved in the killing of Jews.
Tensions have continued to run high, however. In 2019, the plaque in Vilnius commemorating Noreika was smashed with a hammer. The plaque was reinstated, but it was then taken down again weeks later by the mayor of Vilnius, who was sympathetic to claims that the state had whitewashed the darker side of Noreika's story.
In response, a nationalist group installed yet another, bigger plaque in its place, with supporters singing patriotic songs.
Now, Foti's book has added a new wrinkle to the debate.
'Nobody talked about it'
It is safe to say that Foti's book is not what her mother, or many other Lithuanians, would have expected.
"The Nazi's Granddaughter" details how Foti traveled to Lithuania and searched through piles of documents to discover evidence that she said proves Noreika ordered the killing of thousands of Jews while he was governor of Šiauliai County during the German occupation.
Nationalists like Noreika greeted the Germans as liberators in 1941 and hoped they would assist in forming a free Lithuanian state, as Germany had done in 1918.
But Foti said Noreika was not simply a bystander to the Holocaust; he was a Nazi collaborator who was sympathetic to their cause. She pointed to a nationalist pamphlet Noreika wrote in 1933, when he was 22, "Hold Your Head High, Lithuanian!!!" which called for an economic boycott of Jews in the coastal city of Klaipėda.
"In the land of Klaipėda, the Lithuanians are being overthrown by the Germans, and in Greater Lithuania, the Jews are buying up all the farms on auction," he wrote. "Once and for all: We won't buy any products from Jews!"
Foti said her grandfather "must have approved the killing of 2,000 Jews in Plungė in July 1941 as the leader of the uprising in the Northwestern portion of the country."
The episode is contested not just by Noreika defenders, but also by leading Lithuanian historians, who say Foti's account of what happened in Plungė is based on unreliable sources.
Foti has assembled additional evidence, however. In her book, she quotes a huge report by Karl Jäger, a Nazi commander who led many of the mass killings during the Holocaust in Lithuania, which meticulously lists more than 130,000 Jewish deaths and where they occurred.
The report says Jäger's unit, SD Einsatzkommando 3, took over control of the area on Aug. 9, 1941 — by which point 4,000 people had already been killed. They were "Jews liquidated by pogroms and executions (including partisans)," the report said. "Partisans" refers to local nationalist fighters.
Foti argues that, as a leader of Lithuania's partisans at the time, her grandfather undoubtedly played a key role in carrying out the atrocities.
Her research also shows that later, as governor of Šiauliai County, Noreika signed about 100 documents related to the Holocaust — among them orders that led to the establishment of a Jewish ghetto and the expropriation of Jewish property.
Noreika's defenders argue that he may have sent Jews to ghettos but did not know what the result would be. But Foti said it is time for Lithuania to fully recognize its contribution to genocide. She is among those calling for Noreika's posthumous military honors to be revoked and for any schools bearing his name to be renamed.
"I didn't even know about the Holocaust in Lithuania growing up here in Chicago. Nobody talked about it," she said.
"It's going to take a lot of education. Lithuania will have to follow in the footsteps of Germany," she said, referring to Germany's own historical reckoning.
'A bloody, bloody past'
Today, Lithuania's Jewish community is small, numbering just over 3,000 people, according to the 2011 census. Given the limited visibility, it's not surprising that Lithuanians would be shocked to learn about their country's involvement in the Holocaust, said Faina Kukliansky, head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, which is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress.
"How should local people learn about what happened in Lithuania during World War II?" she asked. "The memory of the Holocaust is kept by this small surviving Jewish community, as there is still a lack of large-scale government initiatives to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust — we have neither a national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust nor a monument to the rescuers."
She noted that there is no museum dedicated to the history of Jews in Lithuania and that the artifacts that do pertain to Jewish history are scattered among various museums and other institutions.
Kukliansky serves on a working group at the Justice Ministry that is evaluating a law banning the denial of mass crimes. Section 170 of Lithuania's penal code says anyone who "publicly condones the crimes of genocide or other crimes against humanity," including the actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, could face a substantial fine or a two-year jail sentence if convicted.
The law exists, but it doesn't work well, Kukliansky said, because people still don't fully understand what happened. In some countries, denial of what really happened is becoming the "dominant position," she said.
And while the law makes it illegal to condone "the aggression perpetrated by the USSR or Nazi Germany against the Republic of Lithuania," it makes no mention of crimes alleged to have been carried out by Lithuanians against Jews and other minorities.
That ambivalent position was reinforced on Jan. 27, Holocaust Memorial Day, when a right-wing lawmaker, Valdas Rakutis, declared in a statement published on the public broadcaster's website that there was "no shortage of Holocaust perpetrators among the Jews themselves."
The remarks were condemned at home and abroad. The U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, Robert Gilchrist, said it was shocking that a lawmaker "should espouse distortions regarding Holocaust collaborators in Lithuania and shamefully seek to accuse Jews of being the perpetrators."
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Rakutis, a history professor and former adviser to the country's armed forces who was elected to Parliament last year, resigned as chairman of the parliamentary commission on the state's historical memory and apologized to "all the people who felt offended."
But Rakutis is also affiliated with the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, and his views are closer to the mainstream than many in Lithuania might like to admit.
In the wake of his comments, however, the calls for Lithuania to take a fresh look at its history have continued to grow.
"It's a bloody, bloody past. I know Lithuanians suffered. I get it. I totally do," Foti said. "I wasn't investigating this, and if it wasn't my grandfather, I wouldn't have looked into it."
Gil Skorwid reported from Vilnius; Patrick Smith reported from London.
CORRECTION (April 7, 2021, 10:18 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the location of the Stutthof concentration camp during World War II. While the area is now part of Poland, it didn't become so until 1945.