‘Checkmate’ as chess table returns to Jewish hands
“At this Jewish table, the murders of our families were planned,” says activist Grant Gochin, who has campaigned relentlessly for Lithuania to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust. “The table was stolen from a Jewish family by murderers and thieves and the main murderer is Lithuania’s national hero. SS officers played chess at this table. After 80 years, it’s back in Jewish hands.”
Gochin, who is an ex-South African and lives in California, bought the table from the descendants of Jonas Noreika, a notorious Nazi collaborator who played a major role in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry. Noreika worked in the shtetls where many South African Jewish families come from. They were at the mercy of his cruelty, which he exercised with brutality and efficiency. There were almost no survivors.
Gochin says that when the table was finally in his possession, he wanted to cry. “It’s a simple chess table, but it acknowledges and memorialises the Jewish families taken away from us. It shows that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they do turn.”
Announcing the news on Facebook that he had bought the table, Gochin wrote, “This chess table was owned by Leibas and Rocha Orlanskis. It was in their home on Vaizganto 11, in Plunge, Lithuania. The Jews were thrown out of their homes and all possessions were stolen by Lithuanians. The genocidal Lithuanian murderer, Jonas Noreika, took possession of this house and acquired the furnishings in 1941, including this chess table. He played chess on this table with his SS buddies.
“The murders of countless Jews were discussed at this table, including presumably those of my own relatives. Eighty years since this table was stolen from its Jewish owners, I have now purchased it back from relatives of the Noreika family. It now belongs to me. The table will go to a museum where its story can be told, as an artefact of genocide. Life is an extraordinary journey. I’m profoundly moved by the circle of history.”
Gochin told the SA Jewish Report that the Orlanskis had been a prominent Jewish family whose home was opposite the town’s shul. The house was callously taken by Noreika and his family, where he also stole all of their possessions. Importantly, his ownership of the table and takeover of the Jewish house places him firmly at the site of the annihilation of Plunge’s Jews.
He was just one of many Lithuanians who took Jewish homes and property. From the house, he had a front row seat to the Jews being imprisoned in their own synagogue in horrific conditions before being taken to their deaths.
“I’m angry that they murdered our families but are still using their possessions,” he says. “We have nothing tangible from the victims. They were murdered and their property was plundered. Lithuanians took over their houses and held auctions to sell their possessions, pocketing the proceeds. Who knows how many Jewish items remain in Lithuania? The country has never come clean about the scale of atrocity and robbery.”
The Orlanskis may have escaped to Siberia and survived the Shoah, but most of Plunge’s residents weren’t so lucky. They were murdered in mass graves in a forest outside the town in late June and July of 1941 – exactly 80 years ago.
“Noreika took the table with him as he moved a number of times. He was apparently a great chess player, and it was a prized possession. He wasn’t just a murderer, but a thief,” says Gochin.
In her book The Nazi’s Granddaughter, which exposes Noreika’s heinous deeds, his granddaughter, Sylvia Foti, writes about how she first came across the chess table when researching his life in Lithuania. Relatives “recalled the fine furniture [at the house in Plunge], especially a round table engraved with a chess pattern”. She was told that “uncle Jonas loved to play chess. Everyone who visited admired that chess table and the handsome chess pieces sitting on top.” She goes on to describe her horror at finding out that he took over the house of Jews right by the shul where they were imprisoned.
“Yes, it’s ironic that the table is now in the possession of a Jew,” says Gochin. “It shows how history has been inverted, and Lithuania honours its murderers as national heroes.”
While we can never bring our families back, Gochin wanted to turn the tide of history and own the table as a symbol of what was lost, and stand up to Lithuania’s Holocaust denial. “Noreika still has relatives in Lithuania who were in possession of this table. I had a local friend go in and offer in excess of the value of the table.”
He did it “because this table is evidence of a crime, and evidence needs to be preserved. It’s now in a safe place [in Lithuania]. I’m looking for a final custodian that will protect it from anyone who wouldn’t want it to exist.” He says it’s unlikely he will transport it all the way to South Africa, but he would consider a museum or educational institution in Lithuania “to teach Lithuanians what their grandparents did”, or in the United States (US).
For him, it’s a bittersweet moment of victory in a long and thankless fight. “At the end of the day, it’s evidence. They [Lithuania] have lied so much, that the most miniscule piece of evidence is a victory. The table represents how even the most simple of things were stolen. The plunder and rape was so complete, that this one tangible piece allows us to identify history. So yes, it’s a victory – against the Lithuanians that did the murdering, and against today’s Lithuanians that deny these crimes.”
While he has allowed himself a triumphant moment, his battle is far from over. Gochin has spent the past 25 years documenting and restoring signs of Jewish life in Lithuania. He has restored more than 50 abandoned and neglected Jewish cemeteries, and has written a book about his family’s history in Lithuania. He works tirelessly to expose Holocaust revisionism within the Lithuanian government.
It entails spending countless hours combating fake news in all spheres, lobbying governments and institutions, writing hard-hitting opinion pieces, giving talks, and shining a light on Lithuania’s Holocaust crimes wherever he can. He has made such a nuisance of himself, he doubts he will ever be allowed back into Lithuania. It’s therefore unlikely that he will see and touch the table in person unless he brings it to the US.
However, he remains focused, dedicated and motivated. “Think of your grandparents being victimised that way. When it’s your family, you can’t stop. You can’t stand by. I’m not able to.”