Documentary

Grampa’s Pandora’s Box

VOICES which cannot be ignored. Footage of Jewish children who were murdered, from Michael Kretzmer’s film ‘J’Accuse’.

WHAT POWER DOES a government have in whitewashing filthy sins of the past? When Lithuanian officer Jonas Noreika was killed in 1947 by the KGB, he was revered as a martyr for his country, and the celebrations of his life ran so thick with enthusiasm, that his crimes were airbrushed away. Until recently. J’Accuse is a film which breaks the bureaucratic seals over horrible secrets. It focuses on the meeting of Noreika’s granddaughter, Silvia Foti, and a relative of some of Noreika’s Jewish victims, Grant Gochin and is currently being feted by Jewish film festivals all over the world. You can see it through a private online screening hosted by the SA Jewish Report on 19 January at 8pm.

Picture the scenario. You belong to a prominent family in your community. You were raised with a sense of specialness and feel a little like royalty because you share blood with your beloved grandfather, who is revered unequivocally by the society at large. There are bronze plaques with his likeness on buildings where he lived. Streets and schools are named for him. And you adore him: he’s famous and on so many levels, he is yours.

Now, take a step back and take a glance at history from a perspective other than that with which you’ve been raised. And look at your honourable relative through other eyes. Foti, an American journalist with Lithuanian roots did just this. And instead of a god, she discovered a devil.

Between 13 and 15 July of 1941, close to 2000 Jewish men, women and children, residents of a Lithuanian village called Plungė, were brutally murdered by Lithuanians – people who had lived side-by-side with them for centuries. The Jews’ bodies were ignominiously tossed into a shallow grave in the forest of Kaušėnai. The Lithuanian murderers were not quite Nazis, though in many respects, they were on a par with them. They were perpetrating an act of hate in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust, and in sync with the orgy of bloodshed that was happening all over Europe at the time. Noreika was their leader. And it is in this context that the reality of a neighbour — someone you might formerly have considered a friend — raising a pitchfork against you or raping you and smashing your head in, comes to the fore. This was among the racially-inspired murdering protocol of Lithuanians during the time of the Holocaust.

It’s a powerful and shocking story on any level and one which runs in tandem with many tales of betrayal and violence and lies that operate out of the conventional understanding of war. You’re taught in school that in war the idea of friend and foe is obvious. But what happens when you say ‘political hero’ and I say ‘murderer’? It’s a trope that can be used to explain the double-headed nature of conflict in anything from internecine battles across the planet, to corporate inhouse fights. This is the important kernel of J’Accuse.

The eponymous accusation in question has little to do with the Dreyfus Affair or Emile Zola, from which the phrase ‘J’Accuse!’ arose, in 19th century France. This term has slipped into common parlance. In the context of Kretzmer’s film, the accusation is about Gochin and Foti confronting the Lithuanian government who whitewashed horrors perpetrated on their watch. And made a hero of a man steeped in innocent blood.

Kretzmer’s film is strengthened by its verbal descriptions, but weakened by a tendency in its scripting toward overwriting and under research. Repetition hobbles a sense of pace that a story of this nature demands. It often sinks into a malaise of precious platitudes and lazy documentary film making, and doesn’t even allow the voices of Holocaust specialists to have presence. Neither does it refer to renowned scholars in the field.

What of the initiatives established and developed by former South Africans Abel and Glenda Levitt, also descendants of the hapless Plungyan community, who have been visiting the area for decades, in a bid to reinvest those poisonous seeds of misinformation with ones of education among the Lithuanian youth? What of Holocaust scholars of the ilk of Dovid Katz in Lithuania or Tali Nates in Johannesburg? Looked at casually, it feels as though the producer and voices in this film discovered the underbelly of Holocaust history and injustice themselves.

This is a great pity. The film has a sensationalist headline impact, but sadly lacks skill in how it tells its significant truths.

  • J’Accuse is directed and produced by Michael Kretzmer. It will be privately hosted in a screening on 19 January 2023, in collaboration with the SA Jewish Report. Follow this link to register.

2 replies »

  1. A well written and eloquent review, but the reservations are arbitrary and formulaic; there is no do-it-by-numbers for documentaries, scholars in the field do not “have” to be represented, and everyone who I know who has seen it has found it absolutely compelling and riveting. As for your statement that the Lithuanians were not Nazis, by all accounts they equalled or excelled them in acts of wanton cruelty, sadism and avarice.

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