The Naz­i’s Grand­daugh­ter: How I Dis­cov­ered My Grand­fa­ther Was a War Criminal

By – December 6, 2021

Some Holo­caust books start with ques­tions: what hap­pened to my great-aunt’s fam­i­ly? How did my rel­a­tives reach Brazil? Sil­via Foti takes a dif­fer­ent approach. The very title she devised for her book tells every­one her con­clu­sions about what hap­pened: yes, her grand­fa­ther was a Nazi and a war crim­i­nal. She’s also empha­siz­ing that this book is about her­self, the grand­daugh­ter, and her process of accept­ing these ter­ri­ble truths.

Foti opens by intro­duc­ing her­self — she’s a mid­dle-aged woman deeply embed­ded in the Chica­go Lithuan­ian com­mu­ni­ty. On her deathbed, her moth­er made her promise to fin­ish the book she had spent a life­time writ­ing on Silvia’s grand­fa­ther, Jonas Nor­ei­ka, a larg­er-than-life hero of the Lithuan­ian resis­tance in WWII, exe­cut­ed by the Bol­she­viks. Foti feels inad­e­quate for the task in so many ways. Nor­ei­ka is a high­ly revered free­dom fight­er in her fam­i­ly, in Lithua­nia, and in the Lithuan­ian dias­po­ra. She has no expe­ri­ence writ­ing a biog­ra­phy, much less the hagiog­ra­phy this fig­ure demands. The inevitable avoid­ance sets in. She takes writ­ing cours­es, changes jobs, goes on a dry run to Lithua­nia to bury funer­al ashes…and then final­ly com­mits to mak­ing a ded­i­cat­ed research trip to dis­cov­er the real sto­ry of her grandfather.

In Lithua­nia, she finds mark­ers of her grandfather’s hero­ism (plaques on street cor­ners, build­ings named in his hon­or) plas­tered every­where. Lithuan­ian offi­cials read her the offi­cial accounts of his hero­ism. Dying war bud­dies sing his prais­es. She inter­views his sur­viv­ing asso­ciates and fam­i­ly mem­bers, before meet­ing with Holo­caust researchers and his­to­ri­ans. Very slow­ly, she begins to notice incon­sis­ten­cies, details that tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Yes, the Nazis impris­oned Nor­ei­ka and oth­er Lithua­ni­ans in the Stut­thof camp, but then he was made a pris­on­er of hon­or,’ and accord­ed unusu­al lux­u­ries. Was it a coin­ci­dence that Nor­ei­ka acquired a grand house and fur­nish­ings the day after the mass mur­der of Jews in the town he direct­ed? And then, even more damn­ing — she saw Noreika’s own sig­na­ture on the orders remov­ing Lithuan­ian Jews to the ghet­tos for extermination.

As Foti dogged­ly con­tin­ues her inter­views, read­ers begin to won­der how much evi­dence she real­ly needs to accept that Jonas Nor­ei­ka was an anti­semite who used anti-Bol­she­vik rhetoric to anni­hi­late Jews. Even­tu­al­ly, Foti does real­ize that her grand­fa­ther was wip­ing out thou­sands of Jews even before the Nazis invad­ed Lithua­nia. But this process she goes through, mov­ing from idol­iz­ing her grand­fa­ther to accept­ing that he was a war crim­i­nal, might be the real val­ue of this nar­ra­tive. Real­iz­ing his guilt also means real­iz­ing that good’ Lithua­ni­ans were — and are—will­ing to deny that they hat­ed and resent­ed their Jew­ish neigh­bors, that they were will­ing to march them into the woods and shoot them by the thou­sands, that they were will­ing to wear these dead Jews’ clothes and move into their homes. For Foti, it’s a search for the sto­ry of her grand­fa­ther; for her read­ers, it’s a deep dive into the mind­set of Holo­caust denial, and the dif­fi­cul­ty of accept­ing ugly truths.

This book is a strug­gle, but a worth­while struggle.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Sil­via Foti

  1. How should our family’s past, shame­ful or noble, shape our identity?

  2. How could one man be revered as a hero, hav­ing a gram­mar school named after him, and yet be a vil­lain respon­si­ble for the deaths of thousands?

  3. Why are some Euro­pean coun­tries still in denial about their role in the Holocaust?

  4. How was this kept secret until now?

  5. What would you do if you dis­cov­ered a close rel­a­tive was a vil­lain”? Would you go pub­lic with it?

  6. What was the per­son­al toll on the author in writ­ing this book?

  7. When the author’s fam­i­ly was in cri­sis, par­tic­u­lar­ly her daughter’s hero­in addic­tion, should the author have gone to Lithua­nia for sev­en weeks to con­duct her research?

  8. If you were her spouse, how would you have felt?

  9. Grant Gochin launched a law­suit against the Lithuan­ian Geno­cide Research and Resis­tance Cen­tre for Holo­caust dis­tor­tion. Although he lost his case, he forced the gov­ern­ment to go on the record in defend­ing Jonas Nor­ei­ka. How would you feel about Lithua­nia if you had lost rel­a­tives dur­ing the Holocaust?

  10. The Lithuan­ian government’s posi­tion is that Jonas Nor­ei­ka was just fol­low­ing orders when he signed doc­u­ments to round up Jews, bring them to a ghet­to, and dis­trib­ute their prop­er­ty, even before their death. To what extent is Jonas Nor­ei­ka guilty of com­mit­ting war crimes?

  11. At this point, the case has gen­er­at­ed a lot of pub­lic­i­ty and has been mak­ing the coun­try of Lithua­nia look bad. If you had the posi­tion and pow­er, what would you sug­gest gov­ern­ment of Lithua­nia do? To what extent was Lithua­nia a will­ing par­tic­i­pant in the Holocaust?

  12. What should be done about the mon­u­ments” in the Jonas Nor­ei­ka name? Gram­mar school, plaques on build­ings, streets named after him? What hap­pens when nation­al heroes turn out to be more vil­lain­ous than orig­i­nal­ly thought? How would you con­nect this to the dis­cus­sion of mon­u­ments in our country?