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No More Lies. My Grandfather Was a Nazi

When I was growing up in Chicago during the Cold War, my parents taught me to revere my Lithuanian heritage. We sang Lithuanian songs and recited Lithuanian poems; after Lithuanian school on Saturdays, I would eat Lithuanian-style potato pancakes.

My grandfather, Jonas Noreika, was a particularly important part of my family story: He was the mastermind of a 1945-1946 revolt against the Soviet Union, and was executed. A picture of him in his military uniform hung in our living room. Today, he is a hero not just in my family. He has streets, plaques and a school named after him. He was awarded the Cross of the Vytis, Lithuania’s highest posthumous honor.

On her deathbed in 2000, my mother asked me to take over writing a book about her father. I eagerly agreed. But as I sifted through the material, I came across a document with his signature from 1941 and everything changed. The story of my grandfather was much darker than I had known.

I learned that the man I had believed was a savior who did all he could to rescue Jews during World War II had, in reality, ordered all Jews in his region of Lithuania to be rounded up and sent to a ghetto where they were beaten, starved, tortured, raped and then murdered. More than 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jews died during World War II, many of them killed with the eager collaboration of their neighbors.

Suddenly, I no longer had any idea who my grandfather was, what Lithuania was, and how my own story fit in. How could I reconcile two realities? Was Jonas Noreika a monster who slaughtered thousands of Jews or a hero who fought to save his country from the Communists?

Those questions began a journey that led me to understand the power of the politics of memory and the importance of getting the recounting right, even at great personal cost. I concluded that my grandfather was a man of paradoxes, just as Lithuania — a country caught between the Nazi and Communist occupations during World War II, then trapped behind the Iron Curtain for the next 50 years — is full of contradictions.

Read entire article at New York Times