OPINION | FILM | ARTS | MEDIA | COLLABORATOR GLORIFICATION | J. NOREIKA
by Dovid Katz
Genuine heroes of this saga—both written out of the film
- At left: Evaldas Balčiūnas (who first called his nation’s attention (in Lithuanian) and the world’s (in English) to state-sponsored adulation of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrator J. Noreika. That was a year after his classic essay “Why does the state commemorate murderers?” appeared in Defending History in 2011. Here pictured at Vilnius County Court after one of the hearings in the litany of kangaroo cases against him (Defending History was there at each hearing to support him). He is DH’s 2023 Person of the Year.
- At right: Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas brought his self-crafted poster to a nationalist event on independence day in central Vilnius, with an image to show his people the kind of national hero Lithuania should be celebrating: the inspirational Holocaust-era rescuer Malvina Šokelytė Valeikienė (DH’s person of the year in 2018). The gentle, teetotaling mathematician and philosopher took this sign right into the heart of an alcohol-fueled ultranationalist demonstration, leaving observers of every persuasion in awe of his courage. Dr. Kulikauskas boldly led the effort to expose Noreika in Lithuania and is the de facto author of the primary documents underpinning the legal petitions to the state’s Genocide Center and its courts. A Lithuanian American born and raised in California, he and his family migrated to newly free Lithuania decades ago.
- See DH’s Evaldas Balčiūnas and Andrius Kulikauskas sections. A future film maker might even find an enchanting angle in the stark differences between the two Lithuanian heroes of this story. One is a devout Catholic, the other an atheist. One is an anarchist, the other a nationalist. One an urban family guy, the other a lone thinker and dreamer in a faraway wooden hut in the depths of the Lithuanian countryside.
VILNIUS—Michael Kretzmer’s new documentary J’Accuse! provides a terrific extended interview with legendary truth-teller Silvia Foti. The film’s narration provides effective statements on ongoing East European state adulation of Nazi collaborators though focused on just one, Jonas Noreika of Lithuanian Holocaust infamy (who was the Chicago-born Foti’s grandfather).
But viewers are left wondering about the director’s decision to hitch Foti’s star, rather exclusively, to a self-glorifying, Lithuania-hating Californian wealth advisor — certainly one of notable accomplishment, and Hollywood smile, demeanor and good looks — while indefensibly writing out of the plot the true heroes of this very story in Lithuania: the inspiringly courageous Lithuania residents (both non-Jewish) who have risked so much (and paid a high price) over many years to tell the truth — in Lithuania — about the very Holocaust perpetrator that is the film’s focus (among many others they have documented).
Taken in tandem with the film’s ill-advised questionable-taste parade of “great Litvaks” (e.g. Hollywood greats with some supposed percentage or other of Litvak genealogy), a larger problem emerges that a film director might well be sensitive to: that the vitally important drive for the truth of history be a diverse coalition, and not be reduced to an American-Jewish PR front against the supposedly “evil Lithuanian people” generally, or indeed, be mired in anti-Lithuanian ethnic and racial prejudice, or simply said, hate. By flirting with such stereotyping (more on this below), the film endangers the small and fragile coalition of truth tellers, starting with the “Lithuanian-ethnicity lifetime residents of Lithuania” who have risen to tell the truth, and are not mentioned in the film’s narration. As if this were all some apple-pie American invention.
The larger danger, however, is that reductionism to a Jewish/American vs. Lithuanian-in-Lithuania issue is gravely damaging to the demand for historic truth, and the deeply just cause we all share, that of countering the campaign of historical falsification coming, so very painfully, from the budgets of EU/NATO area governments in Eastern Europe. From Day one Defending History has been proud to discover, translate and showcase the inspirationally courageous voices of Lithuanian citizens in Lithuania (see page and section).
None of this is to take credit from the admirable wealth advisor, Mr. Grant Gochin, whose impassioned and prolific blog makes many important points. This is especially impressive, when so many of his fellow South African born descendants of Litvak Jewry prefer to appease far-right Baltic revisionism for such pots of lentils as photo-ops and medals (oh yes, and Lithuanian/EU citizenship and restitution claims) from the government units responsible for using “Useful Jewish Idiots” as excellent tools for Holocaust revisionism, obfuscation, and distortion.
“The blog tells readers: ‘Lithuania is an antisemitic state. Hatred and cruelty are features of Lithuanian society.’ For me, as a Jew and a dissident who has been treated splendidly by the wonderful everyday people in Vilnius for around a quarter century, this is deeply offensive.”
But his blog occasionally sinks into generalized anti-Lithuanian ethnic or racial animus, undermining the entire fragile camp of truthtellers. Today’s edition of the blog, for example, tells readers: “Lithuania is an antisemitic state. Hatred and cruelty are features of Lithuanian society.” For me, as a Jew and a dissident who has been treated splendidly by the wonderful everyday people in Vilnius for around a quarter century, this is deeply offensive. Today’s blog also dips carelessly into comparisons between modern free, peaceful and democratic Lithuania (with its irksome issues, like all countries) and Putin’s dictatorial, warmongering, brutal Russia that is — right now, as we speak, every day — raining death upon untold numbers of civilians in a neighboring state. That comparison is shameful, and at once, a damaging blow to those fighting for historic truth in the Baltics and beyond who are regularly (and nonsensically) accused of being Putinists by the far right.
Back in 2007, Mr. Gochin himself tried to organize, in Los Angeles, a Lithuanian government manipulated conference on the Holocaust. It was to feature Mr. R. Račinskas of the state’s “red-brown commission,” among others, and was rapidly torpedoed by the Vilnius group that evolved into Defending History with some lightning-quick help from legendary Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Gochin’s about-face and adopting of Defending History’s positions, his long, resolute and generously supported journey and emergence as a notable voice for historic truth, are profoundly admirable. Indeed, Defending History has often been the first to document and laud his many achievements, for example — here (2010), here (2013), here (2015), here (2018), here (2018b), here (2019), here (2019b), here (2020), here (2021). Many more references are rapidly findable via the search box, with no worries about the many uncredited uses of DH resources or, indeed, the years of bizarre and unprovoked invective against writers for Defending History, launched in Nov. 2009 in UCLA’s Bruin Standard by Mr. Gochin in the comments section to Joshua Markovitz’s powerful essay following his visit to Lithuania that year for the Yiddish summer program. Perhaps one day even a wealth advisor can embrace his own change of position in favor of historic truth, instead of a years-long campaign of personal invective, defamation, and destruction, peppered with numerous threats to sue those from whom he has wisely learned so much.
Other comment on the film: Robyn Sassen; Marc Radomsky
No doubt Mr. Gochin’s greatest, and most permanent, stroke of genius over the years was to sue Lithuanian government agencies over state glorification of Holocaust perpetrators, thereby ipso facto demonstrating the validity of Defending History’s longstanding position, that this is a problem of state policy of our European Union and NATO partners, not just “skinheads on the street.” Ergo, it is morally wrong for Western governments, and visiting Western Jews alike to pass over in silence these issues amidst a flurry of state-sponsored conferences, festivals and ongoing abuse of Yiddish studies, one of the weaker branches of Judaic studies, and most cunningly, state-sponsored abuse of Holocaust studies per se to cover for historical falsification and revisionism. In Lithuania, beyond the litany of individual Holocaust-perpetrator “national heroes” there is the fake history of the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) murderers of late June 1941 having supposedly led a “freedom revolt” when they were butchering thousands of Jewish neighbors even before German forces took over; see our critique of the central Vilnius museum exhibit on this. Every single Vilnius Holocaust survivor we knew over thirty years was sickened by the “23rd of June Street” in the nation’s beautiful capital.
Against this backdrop, the court cases lodged from California were important even if they were framed more as PR stunts. None of the “dissident campaigners” from California (or even Chicago) turned up for any of them. Defending History’s team came to each and every hearing to offer support, and this is the crew that was spat on and called names by nationalist extremists in who came to support their government’s (tragic) continuing support for glorification of Holocaust collaborators (not just Noreika; nor will this issue be solved by taking down one Noreika plaque — EU/NATO governments must dismantle all state-sponsored shrines to Holocaust survivors, starting with the capital).
But the fine latterday Californian goldrush is frankly not in the same league as the narrative in Lithuania, of those who did the hard work, discovered the truth about Noreika (and so many others), and spoke out on the public record with huge courage and at great personal sacrifice (as in — disemployment and ensuing impoverishment; grave damage to career, income, tranquil life; death threats and unceasing defamation; and nope, no certificates of honor from the local fumbuck town councils for your wall and website).
Among those amazing Lithuanian citizens (who live in Lithuania rather than out on America’s West Coast, and don’t have occasion to consult wealth advisors) are Evaldas Balčiūnas and Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas. Balčiūnas brought Noreika to the world’s attention in 2012, a year after his now classic 2011 piece “Why Does the State Commemorate Murderers?“. He was then harassed for years by kangaroo court cases). Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas (who passionately called on Lithuanian society to reconsider its position and authored the Gochin petition on Noreika to the Vilnius institutions and courts actually curated an online museum on Noreika). No interviews with them in the film. But their original research is freely and extensively used in Kretzmer’s film — without accreditation. Incidentally, this may exacerbate the whiff of superiorism emanating from the film’s bizarre lists of “famous Litvaks.”
Alas, Noreika and many other Holocaust perpetrators are still honored by the state, even in central Vilnius during the city’s current 700 year celebrations (following last year’s Kaunas “Capital of European Culture” events). Hopefully the film, which does reflect Kretzmer’s skills and long experience, will encourage viewers to write (now, not later) to elected officials about the public-space monuments glorifying Holocaust collaborators, and — to be sure to read Sivia Foti’s The Nazi’s Granddaughter (see also DH’s sections: Noreika; Collaborators Glorified; Evaldas Balčiūnas; Andrius Kulikauskas; papers on the wider background).
Full disclosure: Defending History extensively assisted the producer for months (entirely at his request and initiative), providing him with a mass of historical information, images, videos,sources, and materials, amicably and with no dispute of any kind (on the simple understanding that there would be full accreditation to those in the Defending History community who brought these sources to light in recent years). A single day’s seven-hour no-breaks consultation (held in North Wales, UK in mid-November 2021) was on a contract basis (I don’t know if I was being taped or just a director’s amazing memory, but a number of my sentences ended up verbatim in the film narrator’s voice). Months of prior and subsequent assistance were on a voluntary, gratis basis to help the project. The producer chose not to tell us about the already-decided film content (i.e. the two interviews in America) or the identity of his “secret backer” (which is his right, though deceptions can leave a morally sour aftertaste) which would accompany the history he learned on the DH crash course.
After viewing, in spring 2022, a draft version of the film and the unexpected total exclusion of the two Lithuanian heroes at the heart of the actual history, whose work is commandeered (morally speaking: plagiarized), we emailed notification of our grave disappointment and intention to eventually publish a review along these lines (which is our and indeed any viewer’s right). In response, he offered (on 21 April 2022) to elevate me to his Pantheon of Great and Superior Litvaks section of the film, by clear implication in return for — silence. Defending History cannot be bought.
Fast forward to the days after publication of this review, when families of one or more genuine Lithuanian icons-of-truth in the saga report being put under severe pressure by threat of withdrawal of income (spiritual blackmail?) for ongoing Holocaust-History Ghostwriting (whatever happened to What’s My Line?) to decry this review and proclaim themselves to be zero-nobodies from nothingburger-land who deserve no credit in the emerging annals of the history of these issues. Who knows, maybe one can improve one’s situation by proclaiming fealty to emperors of faraway Togo and other kingdoms of the realm. That rich Westerners on glory trips can so manipulate citizens of poorer East European countries, to the point of nullifying their own accomplishments, is cause for some concern and overdue research.
We are thrilled someone may finally have more urgently needed income, though saddened that folks are humiliated yet again, having to dance like bears for some foreign income, itself for research and writing that may not appear with the author’s name (on issues where they were the published pioneers to start with — they are not some research students on hire for some technical archive or translation work). We shall continue to ask that they be accredited for their magnificent contributions of 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, etc, for their research and writing, and for their standing up, publicly, for the truth at home in Lithuania, where it cost them so very much, and that they never again be written out of any glorious America-only, me-only, Jews-and-Americans-only (etc.) narratives that damage the higher cause so needlessly.
Yes, the higher cause is gravely wounded by racist-style efforts that glorify some “Jewish, Litvak, and American superiority” vs. some “inherent Lithuanian evil” (otherwise known as racism, prejudice based on national or regional origin, and so forth).
In the days following publication of this review there have been some ominous emailed threats from the film’s star from California, which have been turned over to the police (sample). A bizarre and ironic curiosity, given the usual provenance of threats and ongoing embittered defamation (and given the curious propensity of someone who never lived in Lithuania to aspire to this painful portion of one’s biography; California bio-borrow mode?). Incidentally, this leaves Mr. Kretzmer with a question for his own legacy. Will he remain silent at such threats from his film star raining on a critic who dared write a critical review of his film?
“We write books, we make films, if we are fortunate, they inspire robust and even rambunctious reviews, inter alia demonstrating the impact of our work. Some reviews we naturally like more and some we like less, it’s part of free and freewheeling discourse in democratic societies. Get over it, man.”