Holocaust Documentary Asks Why Lithuania Honors Villains As Heroes
A new film unraveling the role of some Baltic countries in the Holocaust has caused controversy from Los Angeles to Eastern Europe.
Grant Gochin had seen documentation of Jonas Noreika’s signature ordering the construction of a ghetto to confine Lithuanian Jews who would be brutally shot to death. About 100 of Gochin’s relatives die this way, he said. So when the granddaughter of Noreika (who was governor of the Šiauliai district during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania) called him on the phone in 2018, he figured there might be a legal threat.
“I was expecting her to say, ‘I want to sue you for slandering my grandfather,’” Gochin told Zenger News. “I had absolutely no idea she was doing her own research. The relationship she and I had created is proof that we can create reconciliation.”
Silvia Foti was calling to tell him her research showed that the number of Jews murdered in an area was more likely 10,000 more than he thought.
Gochin has filed more than 30 court actions against Lithuania, including lawsuits and appeals, largely due to the courts listing Noreika as a hero.
Foti and Gochin feature prominently in the riveting and harrowing new documentary “J’Accuse!” which focuses on how Lithuanians were in many cases eager to murder Jews, even before the Nazis did.
Gochin, the honorary consul for the Republic of Tongo in Los Angeles and author of “Malice, Murder and Manipulation: One Man’s Quest for Truth,” became friends with Foti, and they have a similar mission.
Foti is a journalist who had long been told her grandfather was a hero who battled the communists. But when she visited a school named after him, she was told of the rumor that his work directly resulted in the murder of Jews.
She’d sworn on her mother’s deathbed to write a book about her grandfather. She wrote the book, including evidence that he was not in fact a hero. That was over the objections of her grandmothers, who told her not to dig around. The book, “The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal” was difficult to write, the author said.
How did she do it, knowing her community would be angry with her?
“It came from my Catholic faith,” Foti told Zenger News. “I pray every day. I had a prayer that went something like ‘Dear God, if this is true, give me the strength to continue with this. If this is not true, put obstacles in my way…”
She said that she feared for her life. “I imagined bombs being thrown at my house,” Foti said. “It was something I couldn’t stop worrying about.”
A key in life is facing up to facts, she said.
“I think it’s important to face the truth because we have to accept what our ancestors did,” Foti says in the film. “And as traumatic as that is, the repression of that is worse and the denial of that is worse…”
About 94% of Lithuania’s estimated population of 220,000 Jews was murdered in the Holocaust, a higher percentage than in any other country, due to widespread participation in the massacres by the non-Jewish local paramilitaries.
“J’Accuse!” director Michael Kretzmer told Zenger News in an interview from Vietnam that he doesn’t care much that the film has won some awards and been nominated for others at festivals.
“They are afraid of the truth,” he said of the Lithuanian government. “I’m usually lazy but I was obsessive about this project. I got prostate cancer in the middle and had surgery and barely missed much time. They set him [Noreika] up as a hero ’cause he’s such a pretty boy. They say, ‘Yes, he signed the order for the deportation and imprisonment, but he was doing it to protect them.’ Or, they get a dishonest priest to say he loved the Jews. But he printed this ‘Mein Kampf’ and they say, ‘Oh, he was young.’ They will give you excuses and say ‘we can’t look into men’s souls so let’s just be friends, sing ‘Hava Nagila,’ and make latkes.”
In 1933, Noreika wrote a virulently antisemitic booklet titled “Hold Your Head High Lithuanian!!!” that included such lines as “Jews drive through the countryside and buy up the cattle, flax and crops. Let us make our holy vows….Once and for all: We won’t buy from Jews!” It also calls media members traitors if they accept advertisements from Jewish businesses.
There are statues and plaques honoring Noreika in Lithuania.
Kretzmer said he has not tried that hard to get distribution for the film and thinks he may get it.
There are two unusual elements in the film. The first is that the narrator speaks from the viewpoint of murdered Lithuanian Jews and the second is that the film stops and lists the names of many prominent Jews of Lithuanian ancestry, from Bob Dylan to Steven Spielberg to Sacha Baron Cohen to Bar Refaeli.
“The cruelty was beyond (believable) and at first, I struggled from what point of view it should be from, but realized it should be from the viewpoint of Jews who were massacred,” he says, adding that more than 60 of his Lithuanian ancestors were murdered, including a rabbi whose picture is shown in the film. “And as for the children who have done great things in all walks of life, it’s quite a list to be proud of.”
Kretzmer added that he first made a small film about Lithuania where he “believed the propaganda” and when he wanted to make a second, more in-depth one, when he learned information from Gochin and Foti, a company offered him 100,000 Euros but would not let him write about the plight of the Jews.
“I told them to f*** off,” he said.
Instead, Kretzmer made the movie how he wanted to make it for $30,000, he said.
One scene in the film described how Jews were starved and tortured in the main synagogue in Plunge.The documentary explains that while Jews were dying inside, for sport, the Lithuanians used to Jews to amuse themselves, in one case, having a told and short Jew carry a heavy log, which was a difficult task. Noreika was given the house by the synagogue to live in, which was the nicest one and had previously been inhabited by a Jewish family.
Foti said that her grandfather lived so close to the synagogue was especially troubling.
“It underlined to me that he was a willing participant and that it wasn’t a matter of following orders against his will,” she told Zenger News. “He could take on the house and furniture, hear the screams of what was going on in the synagogue, that shocked me the most.”
Gochin said he is motivated to fight for truth and honor, spends his own money, and has not been assisted by any Jewish organization, while Foti said she is alarmed at the rise in antisemitism in America and also feels there is a negative sentiment against anyone who believes in God.
Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised Foti and Gochin for their efforts.
“I’m very happy they are bringing this to light at this time,” he said from Jerusalem. Adding that he had also done so with his book.
Zuroff and Ruta Vanagraite wrote the book “Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust” and said it ruined his co-author’s well-established literary career in Lithuania and one leader implied that she should kill herself. She wound up moving from Lithuania to Jerusalem.
“I’m the most hated man in Lithuania,” Zuroff told Zenger News. “Initially, what I tried to do is get the Lithuanians to prosecute their Nazi war criminals. There were quite a few people who could be put on trial. The Lithuanians only tried three of them. Not one spent a single day in jail. Not a single one was ever punished. They turned the judicial process into a farce. Two of them were quite big murderers….When they came to Lithuania, they were perfectly healthy. But they waited until one suffered from Alzheimer’s and the other was too sick, and then he died. They didn’t even ask them to show up to the trials. It was a bad joke.”
Zuroff said that while Holocaust denial is illegal in Lithuania, one would have to claim the Holocaust never took place to violate the statute, whereas if one says a specific person is not responsible for what others say he is, even if there is sufficient evidence to prove it, it is classified as Holocaust distortion.
He said he’d hoped the European Union “would read the country the riot act,” meaning that in order to be accepted by the E.U. and NATO, the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would have to be truthful with regard to Nazi collaboration and perpetration, though Lithuania has more blood on its hands than the other two countries.
Lithuania set up the Genocide Center, which the documentary says puts out propaganda and works to maximize the perception of what Lithuanians suffered at the hands of the Soviets and to minimize any actions by Lithuanians murdering Jews in the Holocaust.
“They want to hide or minimize crimes of their own people as Nazi collaborators,” Zuroff said. “They want to emphasize communist crimes and call them genocide. Why is that important? Because then they say Jews committed genocide, and then they will say how can Jews complain about genocide? If everybody’s guilty nobody’s guilty?
“Also, their heroes fought against the Soviets, but they murdered Jews, who were their fellow citizens? How can they be national heroes? Well in Lithuania they can. In other places, they can,” Zuroff said.
Lithuania has paid $13 million in restitution to Holocaust victims and their descendants, and says it will pledge tens of millions more.
“I don’t need to get into my own opinion about restitution, but that sounds nice, but how about not forgiving murder and making them heroes?” Kretzer asked. “Money can never replace truth.”
Foti, who lives in America, says she has been demoralized by the Lithuanian government, which, when presented with evidence, disregards it if it comes from a Jew or calls it communist propaganda, or says she is not a proper historian. She added that some have tried to dismiss her book and findings, saying she is an agent of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
An email requesting comment from the office of the Lithuanian consul general in Los Angeles, Laima Jureviciene, was not answered.
Gochin said California Congressman Brad Sherman wrote a letter to the Lithuanian government protesting a claim it made that the U.S. Congress somehow cleared Noreika of crimes against Jews, which he said it did not. He said Sherman got no response from the Lithuanian government.
Gochin said he is undeterred, after fighting for more than three decades.
“I am fueled by the engine of truth and even if I don’t win a court ruling, I still win, because there is a record and all can judge for themselves who is on the right side of history and who is on the wrong side of history,” Gochin said.”
He said that in addition to Noreika, there are others who contributed to the mass murder of Jews who are lauded in the Baltic state, either with statues or plaques or on the website of the Genocide Center in Lithuania, which omits their culpability.
A previous film, “Baltic Truth” narrated by Dudu Fisher, discusses not only Lithuania but also Latvia’s and Estonia’s roles in the Holocaust.
A screening of “J’Accuse!” was held in Los Angeles on Sunday. Speaking before the screening was Juris Bunkis, Latvia’s honorary consul in Los Angeles. “It is our duty to remember the Holocaust and to teach our descendants what happened in order to lessen the chance of something like this happening again,” Bunkis told those in attendance. “…Latvians that murdered other Latvians were monsters. They were traitors to our nation and must be condemned for eternity. No Latvian who murdered another Latvian could ever be a hero in our nation….The victims deserve nothing less,” he said.
Foti says she hopes Lithuania will face the truth publicly.
“I hope it happens, even if it is not in this lifetime,” she said.
Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate.