For the soul of Lithuania: an author's research reveals her grandfather's deplorable secret past

by Walker Price

North Texas Catholic

5/17/2021

cover of The Nazi's Granddaughter
This is the cover of The Nazi's Granddaughter: How I discovered my grandfather was a war criminal

"The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal” by Silvia Foti. Regnery History (Washington, D.C., 2021). 399 pp., $26.99.


"When I found out what my grandfather did, it was devastating."

With all of the hustle and bustle that characterizes modern life, I would venture a guess that many people have never thought much at all about their family history. About the lives of those whose genetic makeup we carry forward through our own time.

Even though the advent of family tree building services and genetic profile tests has in recent years sparked people’s interest in their family’s past, the mantra of our day remains “eyes forward, no looking back.” However, for author Silvia Foti, the past (and her own family’s role in it), has always been an inescapable part of her reality.

Growing up in a community of Lithuanian immigrants in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago, Foti was regaled with heroic stories of her maternal grandfather, Jonas Noreika. She was told of how he bravely resisted both the Russian and German occupations of Lithuania, working at the ground level to restore Lithuania’s longed-for independence. Both her mother and grandmother viewed the passing-down of these tales with a reverence that approached sacrality.

After her mother’s death, Foti set out to accomplish the goal that her mother could not: writing a book about the life and accomplishments of Jonas Noreika. While visiting Lithuania in hopes of facilitating this very same goal, the foundations upon which her image of her grandfather stood began to be disturbed. At first, it was just rumor. Then rumor led to speculation, with speculation ultimately leading to revelation — and horror. The man whom she had been raised to believe was a paragon of virtue and patriotism had in fact collaborated with the Nazi regime, personally signing directives which authorized the extermination of thousands of Lithuanian Jews. And on top of this, the Lithuanian government was continuing to conceal these facts, and sell a whitewashed version of “General Storm” to the public.

The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I discovered my grandfather was a war criminal is unlike any other book I have ever read, in the best way possible. When writing this review, I struggled to decide on what genre or format this book would best fit into. If I had to categorize it as narrowly as possible, I feel that memoir would be the most appropriate. However, Foti incorporates elements of history that make the book as informative as it is engaging.

The tone of The Nazi’s Granddaughter can be extraordinarily suspenseful, which continued to reel me in chapter after chapter. Foti’s effortlessly intimate and highly emotive style makes each line a delight to read, transporting the reader into her thoughts and feelings throughout each and every step of her journey into one of history’s darkest moments. Foti does not shy away from including vivid descriptions of the sheer brutality that is part and parcel of the Holocaust. These intensely painful sections serve not as mere galleries of gore to shock the reader, but as blunt reminders of how far humans can fall, and that there are some places that we must never return to again.

Grandfather and grandmother on first dateGrandfather and grandmother on first date

The author's grandparents on their first date, October 22, 1932 (courtesy Regnery History)

Another aspect of Foti’s book that I believe is critical to a full appreciation of it is the thread of religiosity that has been woven into the narrative. Being a practicing Catholic herself, Foti could not help but feel that there was a certain spiritual significance to her uncovering the true story of her grandfather. During our interview, I asked her how she believed her Catholic faith had aided her throughout the process of writing the book. “I would say it was central in helping me navigate through the complexities of the story,” she responded. “When I found out what my grandfather did, it was devastating.” She elaborated on the official opinion of the Lithuanian government regarding her grandfather, stating: “the cover up to me is a sin as well, on top of the other sin, and I thought I should take a stand and reveal this… Lithuania’s soul is at stake, if a country could have a soul.”

In spite of the frequently oppressive darkness of the story Foti tells, I eventually began to see this book and, consequently, the deeply traumatizing journey Foti undertook in writing it, as a statement of love. Love not only for the people of Lithuania, but for her grandfather. I asked her how she felt about her grandfather today, after finding out the terrible role he played in the Holocaust. Her response was indicative of someone who had just passed through a long, dark tunnel and emerged with a new appreciation for sunlight. “Catholics have the saying, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ I still love him because he’s my grandfather, and that’s never going to stop. But I abhor what he did.”

           

           

Jonas Noreika in uniform

With all of the hustle and bustle that characterizes modern life, I would venture a guess that many people have never thought much at all about their family history.

Published