O P I N I O N
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
Who was Jonas Noreika?
Jonas Noreika (1910-1947), also known by his nom de guerre, General Vėtra, has been named by the current Lithuanian government as “an important member of the resistance” and an object of every sort of heroic commemoration.
In 1997 he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Cross of Vytis, First Degree. The same year a memorial plaque was placed on the facade of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences Library in Vilnius.
In 2010 the primary school in Šukoniai in the Pakruojis region was named after him. A symbolic grave and a statue to him were set up in the Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius right next to the memorial to the victims of January 13th 1991 — the unarmed demonstrators killed by Soviet forces at the Vilnius TV tower.
In Vilnius, Noreika’s name looks out upon the city’s main boulevard, Gedimino, from high up on the outside wall of the Genocide Museum.
In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, there is a street named for him: Generolo Vėtros gatvė.
Official sources present Noreika as a Lithuanian attorney, prose author, popular writer and a member of the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet underground. If one reads the biography provided by the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania [hereafter “Genocide Center”], one is left with a picture of a heroic saint.
Before 1940 Noreika served in the military, studied law, worked at a military tribunal and wrote for the military press. In 1939 he had won a prize from the head of the military for his writing. In 1940 he was retired and immediately became involved in underground anti-Soviet activity.
And what about when Germany occupied Lithuania in 1941? We are told that he then became involved in anti-Nazi activity and in the autumn of that year became the head of the Šiauliai district. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and spent two years in Stutthof concentration camp. In 1945 he was called up for service in the Red Army with the rank of private. In November that year he returned to Vilnius and got work as a legal consultant at the Academy of Sciences. He and fellow like-minded people established the National Council of Lithuania, but the leaders of this organization were arrested on March 16th 1946. On November 22th 1946, Noreika was sentenced to death by firing squad by Soviet authorities.
Reading through this biography, it is hard to say whether it consists more of omissions or of untruths. A good writer and an even better lawyer, a staunch anti-Bolshevist and an even stauncher anti-Nazi. Isn’t this a bit much for just one person? After all, resistance to both occupational regimes is much more natural than carrying out orders, not for a trained soldier, but for some recalcitrant anti-authoritarian. But that is all mere speculation at the end of the day.
The fact the supposedly anti-Nazi Noreika held a post in the Nazi administration during the occupation also appears rather unusual.
Let us attempt to fill in some gaps.
We may begin with the small matter of Noreika’s literary activity. Most people don’t know that this “writer” wrote antisemitic articles as well as ultrapatriotic portrayals of battles against the Bolsheviks. Vygantas Vareikis, an historian who has researched antisemitism in the interwar period, says this about one of Noreika’s books:
“In 1933 a small book by War College student and Vytautas Magnus University law student (and later LAF member and head of the Siauliai region from 1941 to 1943) Jonas Noreika called ‘Hold Your Head High, Lithuanian!’ appeared, containing a program of radical nationalism in connection with the economic battle against Jews and the boycott of Jewish trade.”
1940. Under Soviet rule, Noreika became a captain in the reserves and went to the Plungė rural district, the former home of his wife. The Genocide Center says: “He immediately became involved in underground activity.” What exactly does “underground” activity mean here? They omit that he brought together members of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) and the National Labor Battalion (TDA in Lithuanian), both known for the mass murder of peaceful Lithuanian residents (primarily Jews), and maintained close contacts with the structures of the Nazi administration.
Reporter Aras Lukšas added this to the narrative in his article “Choosing Vėtra” writes:
“It was there that he came to know former Lithuanian Border Police officer Kazys Šilgalis, who would later escort the future member of the resistance to the border patrolled by the Soviets with the German-occupied Klaipeda region. Every time Noreika returned from there, he brought anew news that the war between the USSR and Germany would begin very soon.”
Pilypas Narutis, who was one of the leaders of the June Uprising of 1941, wrote in his book Tautos sukilimas [Uprising of the Nation] released in 1994 that Noreika at that time created a “Union of Lithuanian Unity” (elsewhere called the “Movement of Lithuanian Unity”), which later merged with the LAF:
“The Union of Lithuanian Unity began in Žemaitija; its leaders were captain J. Noreika, Juoceris and J. Meta. They published underground publications and proclamations and had good connections with the LAF. … J. Noreika was in Plungė and printed up proclamations for the LAF (from 500 to 1,000 copies).”
Narutis also says in his book that “It is known that ‘Unity’ was also set up by the KGB’s services. One has to suppose this was unconnected with captain J. Noreika. There is no further information about J. Noreika’s role in preparing the 1941 uprising.” Subtle traces of the KGB would follow in the life of “General Vėtra” later as well.
Fast forward to the events of the summer of 1941.
The Genocide Center claims: “After Germany occupied Lithuania in 1941, Noreika became involved in anti-Nazi activity.” Here it becomes clear this is not some kind of omission. It is a case of unabashed falsification.
The “patriotically predisposed historians,” apparently in the desire to cover up Noreika’s not-so “patriotic” activities from 1941 to 1943, mentally moved the fact of the arrest of the head of Šiauliai district to 1941, although it happened on February 23rd 1943. Thus Noreika “became involved in anti-Nazi activity” in the summer of 1941. A plethora of facts demonstrate that he served the Nazis loyally and organized the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews from 1941 to 1943.
Noreika is accused of taking part in the mass murder of Jews in Plungė and Telšiai, and Šiauliai in the summer of 1941. Here is what A. Pakalniškis, a writer and physicist who lives in the United States, wrote about Captain Noreika’s role in the mass murder of Jews in Plungė in the book Over Twenty Years (in Lithuanian; Chicago 1995):
“On the night of 12-13 July all the Jews of Plungė were murdered, including the women and children. Before that, they were locked up in synagogues, whence they were taken in small groups every night to the forest and shot. On July 12th several who had escaped lit fires in the city in three places. When the spread of the fire was halted, the massacres began. They continued all night until the next day, Sunday afternoon. During summa [Lithuanian Catholic week of prayers for the welfare of the parish] the last Jews of Plungė were buried.
“I worked in the office of the Plungė kommandant for several days before the massacre. Captain Noreika was the kommandant. There were more Lithuanian officers at the Kommandatur, including captain Vensclauskis from Juodeikiai. They mobilized the young men of the Plungė rural district, so they had a considerable number of armed men under their command. In Plungė at that time there were just two sickly German soldiers. When the fire was stopped, one of the two little soldiers came to the Kommandatur and shaking somewhat from excitement asked the kommandant:
“‘What are you planning to do with those Jews locked up in the synagogue?’
“‘I already issued the order to shoot every last one,’ Lithuanian kommandant captain Noreika answered.
“Out of respect for that little weakling German he remained standing.”
“On the night of 12-13 July all the Jews of Plungė were murdered, including the women and children. Before that, they were locked up in synagogues, whence they were taken in small groups every night to the forest and shot. […] I worked in the office of the Plungė kommandant for several days before the massacre. Captain Noreika was the kommandant. There were more Lithuanian officers at the Kommandatur, including Captain Vensclauskis from Juodeikiai. They mobilized the young men of the Plungė rural district, so they had a considerable number of armed men under their command. In Plungė at that time there were just two sickly German soldiers.”
Incidentally, there were some colorful characters among Noreika’s subordinates. Arnoldas Pabreza, head of the shooting team, had joined the Communist Party in 1940 and even donated his farm to the party, but on June 22nd 1941, he managed to organize a group who murdered some seventy Jews before the Germans arrived. He operated according to LAF instructions, apparently, even if his group didn’t necessarily belong to the LAF; “Soviet scouts” often spilled blood in order to gain “credibility with the enemy.” Some of them were tried and convicted after the war. Pabreza lived in Australia after the war and when he was discovered in 1988 Australia didn’t extradite him.
Noreika’s involvement in the mass murder of civilians is not a secret to Lithuanians or to the world. The 23 April 1984 issue of Der Spiegel names him as responsible for the mass murder of the Jews of Plungė:
“Many of the Lithuanians imprisoned at Stutthof had earlier been officers, including department head Buragas who served as secretary for Jewish Affairs and was responsible for the Vilnius Ghetto, and department head Jonas Noreika, who organized and carried out the mass murder of the civilians of Plungė of Jewish ethnicity. Another Stutthof prisoner, later professor of religious studies and priest who died in Putnam (USA), Stasys Yla in his memoir Žmonės ir žvėrys [Men and Beasts] portrayed his aide Noreika as an exceptionally religious person.”
Noreika’s actions were not confined to Plungė. His organization talents were required in Telšiai, where at a meeting of Telšiai “intellectuals” and LAF activists held on the first Sunday of June 1941, he delivered a fiery speech. A bit later the “partisans” shooting Jews stated that they were following the orders of Captain Noreika, according to witnesses. The Genocide Center, which is supposed to document genocide, rushes to deny this even as a possibility by claiming captain Noreika “was in Šiauliai” on the day of the mass murder of the Jews of Telšiai. (And it seems that on the day of the Plungė mass murders, they are a priori certain that he “was in Telšiai,” although it was possible in those days, of course, to send orders by courier and by telephone in any case.)
On August 3rd 1941, Noreika was appointed head of the Šiauliai region. Accusations of his culpability in several Jewish mass murder operations begin with this appointment. Šiauliai ghetto prisoner Leiba Lipshitz, a long-time researcher of the mass murder of the Jews in Šiauliai, accuses Noreika of the murder of 5,100 Jews in his archival collection “The World of the Jews of Šiauliai Murdered in 1941-1944” located in the Aušra Museum in Šiauliai, writing:
“Šiauliai municipal and regional head, Captain Jonas Noreika, is responsible for the murder of 5,100, the entire Jewish population of the Šiauliai region, from July 1941, until April 1943.”
Upon what are these accusations based? First, on orders by the head of the region to transport Jews to the Žagarė Ghetto (the Jews of Šiauliai were shot at Žagarė or in transit to Žagarė) and instructions to take over the assets of the evicted Jews. From these orders it is plain that regional head Noreika organized the persecution and brutal murder of Lithuanian Jews.
There is an online photograph of one of those orders taken from the document collection “Šiauliu getas: kalinių sarašas, 1942” [Siauliai Ghetto: List of Prisoners, 1942] published by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, 2002].
Knowing these facts, it becomes even less clear why the Genocide Center calls the activity of Noreika, who figured so prominently in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jews, an “anti-Nazi.” Is it because he was arrested on February 23rd 1943, and sent along with 46 other people to the Stutthof concentration camp? The Nazis themselves did not accuse him of anti-Nazi activities. Historian Dr. A. Bubnys has written:
“They were arrested without specific charge, and without interrogation or trial sent to Stutthof concentration camp. Only later was the standard charge applied to them all, signed by German security police and SD chief in Lithuania Karl Jaeger: “led the Lithuanian resistance movement and especially incited against the mobilization of the Lithuanian nation announced by the Reichskommisar…”
Noreika was moreover not the only one to have spilled the blood of his Jewish neighbors among the “honor” prisoners, who enjoyed special and much better conditions than others. Petras Buragas, who served as secretary of Jewish Affairs in Vilnius and several other Nazi collaborators were also imprisoned together with Noreika. If all collaborators punished by the Nazis began to be called members of the “anti-Nazi resistance” then so, too, would Petras Pozela, who took part in many murder operations and who was shot by the Nazis in spring of 1942 for theft.
It is interesting that the publication Tėviškė published in Šiauliai accused Pozela of being an NKVD agent as well. There is no great surprise here, since LAF instructions before the war included these sorts of contingencies:
“The hour of Lithuania’s liberation is arriving. When the march from the west begins, you will be informed of this that very minute by radio or other means. Local uprisings, or, more precisely, taking power into our own hands, must happen at that moment in the cities, villages and churchyards of enslaved Lithuania. Local Communists and other traitors to Lithuania must be arrested immediately, so that no one will escape retribution for their actions. (Traitors will then be forgiven if they can truly prove they have killed at least one Jew each.)”
Today it is difficult to say why the LAF and TDA henchmen committed murder — was it out of greed, or did they expect medals, or because of sadistic tendencies, or because of antisemitism which Noreika also propagated? Proponents of the lionization of this “great man” like to point the finger at Soviet General Vetrov (who inspired, it seems, Vėtra’s nom de guerre). But this phase of his activities also raises many questions. How did he succeed in passing through filtration [for war criminals] so quickly and get into the Soviet army in 1945? Why was he demobilized in November of that same year? How did he manage to form a relationship with J. Vitkus Kazimieraitis, a leader in the armed resistance, so quickly? This person who had been isolated for several years in just three months created an organization, proclaimed himself supreme commander of the military, and then suddenly, all of the members of his organization are found out by Soviet security. The same sort of thing shadows many partisan commanders fighting in the forests.
By daringly calling himself General Vėtra, Noreika created a legend. But is he himself the author of that legend? History and the archives do not say. After restoration of Lithuanian independence there has been uncritical glorification of this Holocaust collaborator and perpetrator. The hero was manufactured without regard to critical statements and even through suppression of information.
Reporter Petras Dargys from the newspaper Šiaulių kraštas [Land of Šiauliai] searched for documentation about Noreika in 1993 and produced this interesting statement:
“One historian counseled me not to look into these accusations and justifications. I didn’t look into them. We must, however, proclaim the historical facts, regardless of whether they are pleasant or not. Unfortunately, it is not so simple to access them today. A new censorship has appeared at the archives: the prosecutor general has instructed that documents in cases involving mass murder not be given to all sorts of researchers. Without permission from the prosecutor, you are finished. I had to get permission. It seems we are now afraid of our own history. One archivist quietly explained to me why this was done: for the sake of blessed peace and quiet. They want to hide these cases not so much from Lithuanians, but from Jews. And so it was decided that prosecutors would first review this sort of archival material. They will see and know better whether to give it to foreigners or not. By hiding something, will we become better people?”
Šiaulių kraštas, July 2 1993
“A new censorship has appeared at the archives: the prosecutor general has instructed that documents in cases involving mass murder not be given to all sorts of researchers. […] One archivist quietly explained to me why this was done: for the sake of blessed peace and quiet. They want to hide these cases not so much from Lithuanians, but from Jews.”
Is it not because of “blessed peace and quiet” that questions on why, in any case, Noreika was proclaimed a hero and awarded the Cross of Vytis, first degree, are like beating one’s head against the wall?
After all, the Republic of Lithuania is once again demeaning itself by honoring a person with the blood of his Lithuanian-citizen neighbors on his hands. Apparently that is exactly what such an honor is worth, if it is bestowed based on unclear “patriotic” considerations and without regard to the abhorrent facts.
Noreika memorials in Lithuania include:
Noreika Street in Kaunas
209 Vaidoto Street in Panemunis (memorial plaque and bass relief)
263 Vilniaus Street in Šiauliai
The plaque on the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, Žygimantų 1, Vilnius
Translated and edited with the author’s permission from Antifa.lt (5 February 2012). Final text approved by the author.