Chicago teacher forces Lithuania to confront its Nazi past

"I wasn't investigating this, and if it wasn't my grandfather, I wouldn't have looked into it," Silvia Foti said.

Shonagh Rae / for NBC News
The dominant narrative in Lithuania has long been one of resistance to both the Soviets and the Nazis. Shonagh Rae / for NBC News

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.

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Silvia Foti holds a photograph of her Lithuanian grandfather, Jonas Noreika in her home office in Chicago in January 2019.Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

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."

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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.

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Silvia Foti holds a photograph of her grandfather Jonas Noreika, second right, with his sister Antanina, far left, mother Anelija and sister Ona. Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune via Getty Images

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