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Writing the Life of Ona Simaite

Julija Sukys

Publication Year: 2012

The librarian walks the streets of her beloved Paris. An old lady with a limp and an accent, she is invisible to most. Certainly no one recognizes her as the warrior and revolutionary she was, when again and again she slipped into the Jewish ghetto of German-occupied Vilnius to carry food, clothes, medicine, money, and counterfeit documents to its prisoners. Often she left with letters to deliver, manuscripts to hide, and even sedated children swathed in sacks. In 1944 she was captured by the Gestapo, tortured for twelve days, and deported to Dachau.

Through Epistolophilia, Julija Šukys follows the letters and journals—the “life-writing”—of this woman, Ona Šimaitė (1894–1970). A treasurer of words, Šimaitė carefully collected, preserved, and archived the written record of her life, including thousands of letters, scores of diaries, articles, and press clippings. Journeying through these words, Šukys negotiates with the ghost of Šimaitė, beckoning back to life this quiet and worldly heroine—a giant of Holocaust history (one of Yad Vashem’s honored “Righteous Among the Nations”) and yet so little known. The result is at once a mediated self-portrait and a measured perspective on a remarkable life. It reveals the meaning of life-writing, how women write their lives publicly and privately, and how their words attach them—and us—to life.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

i could never have written this book without research and writing grants. I thank the following institutions, all of whom supported my work: the Canada Council for the Arts, Le Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec, the Banff Centre for the Arts, the YIVO Institute for...

A Note on Place Names

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pp. xiii-xv


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p. xvi-xvi

Part One

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1. The Woman in the Park

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pp. 3-9

The year is 2009. I am sitting at my desk at home in Montreal, daydreaming. I let my mind wander. It takes me over the Atlantic and back to the early 1950s. I often travel across time and through imagined spaces like this as I write. It’s the only way I can see her...

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2. Vilnius

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pp. 10-15

In the spring of 2000 I rented a tiny studio apartment in Vilnius, just off the city’s main boulevard. The apartment was all white, with hardwood floors and a loft so close to the ceiling I couldn’t sit up in bed without hitting my head. The builders in the courtyard...

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3. Correspondence

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pp. 16-22

After World War II, Šimaitė corresponded with poets, novelists, friends, admirers, and fellow librarians, writing an average of sixty letters each month. A survey of her correspondents reveals a cast of characters wildly varied in age and experience. They include...

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4. Ona Šimaitė’s Letters to Marijona Čilvinaitė,1957–1958

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pp. 23-28

Dearest Marytė! How much you and your loved ones have suffered! It was difficult to read your remembrances of those terrible war years without tears. What surprises me most about that hell is people’s solidarity in helping others. But you write nothing about what happened to your father. I would...

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5. Caregiving and Letters

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pp. 29-40

In addition to thousands of letters, Šimaitė left twenty-nine diaries covering the period from 1953 to 1970: two record the year of 1953 in Paris; ten document 1953–1956 in Israel; and seventeen cover 1956–1970 in Paris. They record the minutiae of Šimaitė’s life: food...

Part Two

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6. A Childhood Tale

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pp. 43-46

Šimaitė spent her first eight years in the Lithuanian countryside where her grandparents raised her amongst its trees, lakes, gardens, and rivers. In the fields and forests she collected berries, mushrooms, and wove flower wreaths to wear on her head. At home she helped...

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7. Russian Letters

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pp. 47-52

Šimaitė’s silence about the ghetto and the camps in Lithuanian is only one part of the story of her writing. While she wrote very little on the subject in her native language, the situation changes dramatically in her Russian writings...

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8. Everyday Writings

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pp. 53-58

When I told a librarian colleague of my plans to publish both translations of Šimaitė’s writings as well as her story, he exclaimed, “Don’t do that! There isn’t enough there!” Then, several years later, now well into the project, I walked into the Yiddish Institute at...

Part Three

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9. Ghetto

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pp. 61-68

The period that set the course for Šimaitė’s exile, caregiving, chronic pain, letter writing, and journaling began with the year 1940, when she arrived in Vilnius from Kaunas to work at the newly baptized Vilnius University, where Lithuanian now replaced Polish as the...

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10. Mowszowicz

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pp. 69-78

When I am not wandering the streets of Vilnius, I spend my days in the university’s manuscript reading room, sifting through thousands of letters. All around students hunch over fragile Russian books and old Lithuanian texts. It is stuffy and smells of perspiration. The...

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11. Letters to Kazys Jakubėnas, 1941–1943

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pp. 79-87

My dear, sweet Kazys! I got your letter and the French books a very long time ago. Thank you for everything. It’s been a long time since I’ve written to you. But I never forgot you. I know that you are alive. And, in truth, there was never any time to write letters, even though I was getting up at...

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12. Destruction of the Ghetto

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pp. 88-92

The destruction of the Vilna Ghetto was rapid and dizzying. No one knew what to think when mass deportations of ghetto prisoners to Estonia began in August 1943. Many in the ghetto believed it was simply a matter of waiting out the war, and remaining alive...

Part Four

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13. Kazys

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pp. 95-100

In the final months of the German occupation Kazys Jakubėnas wrote a poem called “Paukšteliui” (For Little Bird) for Šimaitė. It begins...

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14. Kazys’s Death

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pp. 101-106

January 1950. Alfonsas returns to the room he shares with his brother. It is late, around midnight but Kazys is nowhere to be found. There is a note from a friend who came by to see his brother at 9:00 p.m., so he has been gone since earlier that evening. Alfonsas...

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15. Alfonsas’s Theory

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pp. 107-108

Here is what Alfonsas believes happened.
On the evening of January 7, 1950, Kazys was in mid-translation of the bank pamphlet when an agent arrived to bring him to the Ministry. He gave Kazys a phone number to call for a building pass. Kazys noted the number on the translation, perhaps hoping to...

Part Five

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16. Catholicism, Sex, and Sin

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pp. 111-118

Šimaitė’s worldview consisted of a curious blend of anarchism and Catholicism. While her diaries record that she had little patience for government and bureaucracy, for an anarchist, she carried a lot of self-doubt, self-judgment, and even self-hatred. In this respect...

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17. Mothering

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pp. 119-124

With no husband or discernable lover in her life, it should come as no surprise that Šimaitė was never a biological mother. What may be surprising is how she nonetheless mothered in her life...

Part Six

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18. Ludelange

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pp. 127-129

Ludelange appears on no map, and when we arrive there, it becomes clear why. It’s tiny. The village is one of three that made up the commune of Tressange. The woman at our hotel’s front desk marks it on a map for us, but only after we’ve found its location for her...

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19. Freedom

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pp. 130-134

In 1945 the Allies began implementing a short-lived policy of forcibly returning Soviet citizens. Since Lithuania was now under Soviet occupation, Šimaitė found herself in danger of being deported to the USSR. The possibility frightened her. She believed she would...

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20. Toulouse

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pp. 135-140

Sean tells me that Roman cities like Toulouse are often red. The Romans produced bricks on site, then built with them. “Think of Bath,” he says. “Those red brick ruins in the lush hills of southwest England.” But beyond Toulouse the land is green and gold. The...

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21. Letters to New York

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pp. 141-148

Mr. Abramowicz!
I don’t know how quickly my letter will reach you, since I remember neither your new address, nor your daughter’s in Paris, which was given to me before ghettoization by your wife. I hope that this letter reaches you, as I promised...

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22. La Courtine

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pp. 149-152

Sebastian is six months old when we decide to travel from Toulouse to see Le Camp de la Courtine, where Šimaitė was interned after Ludelange. She has been slipping away from me over these past months. Despite my best intentions, fatigue and the demands of a...

Part Seven

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23. The Ghetto Library

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pp. 155-162

Herman Kruk lives at Number 6 Strashun Street, where the Judenrat and morgue are located. Carpenters build coffins in the courtyard outside his apartment. On May 19, 1942, this slight man, with dark hair and almond eyes, turns forty-five in the ghetto. “I shall get no...

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24. Librarians

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pp. 163-164

Librarians care for our memories and our histories. They catalog the dreams we never knew we had, do not let us forget the transgressions of the past, and safeguard our stories of love, loss, and redemption. They are keepers of the human soul. This is why we...

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25. Writing a Woman’s Life

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pp. 165-168

Why have women traditionally written so little when compared with men? And what needs to change in women’s lives in order to make writing possible? Why have women been so absent from literary history? The answer, Virginia Woolf tells us in A Room of One’s Own, lies in the conditions of women’s lives. Women raise children...

Part Eight

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26. Aldutė

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pp. 171-175

The final piece: Šimaitė’s family letters.
When I went to Vilnius in 2006 Šimaitė’s nephew Kęstutis gave me permission to look at the family’s collection at the university archives. When he was a boy, Šimaitė had tromped around Paris for days looking for the “cowboy pants” he was dying for. Šimaitė...

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27. Family Letters

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pp. 176-179

On October 1, 1956 Šimaitė’s sister Julija writes her a letter. It is the first word that the librarian has received from her family since her 1944 arrest in Vilnius. In it Julija delivers the blow that all is not well at home...

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28. Soviet Schizophrenia

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pp. 180-185

When I started to read about schizophrenia and its treatment in the USSR, I immediately found myself confronted by a couple of thorny issues. The first was the diagnosis and definition of schizophrenia itself. What Soviet psychiatrists considered to be schizophrenia...

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29. Death in Vilnius

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pp. 186-194

Stories within stories. Šimaitė’s life story contains the traces of other lives, perhaps as every life story does. She herself understood this. Šimaitė believed that some of these stories were in danger of dying with her, and so she ensured that her Paris correspondence...

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30. Paris 1968

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pp. 195-198

The city is up in arms. The songs that echo through the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter littered with pamphlets remind Šimaitė of her student days in revolutionary Moscow. But now Šimaitė feels too old for revolution. She is no more than a spectator this time around and can only lend silent support to the youth around her...

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31. Single and Crazy

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pp. 199-202

The spinster and the madwoman: each a stereotype of womanhood (for this is what women are: hysterical, mad, lonely), and, at the same time, not at all what women are supposed to be (self-effacing, nurturing, suppressing of their anger, selfless). While Šimaitė the...

Part Nine

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32. Cormeilles

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pp. 205-207

Šimaitė spent her final years in an old age home that the Russian community established for its exiles in the suburb of Cormeillesen- Parisis, located a short train trip from Paris. Though necessary, the move resulted in a near total loss of independence, and marked...

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33. October

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p. 208-208

It is autumn in Montreal. The leaves are turning for the first time in my son’s life, and we take long walks to admire their colors. As we move under the rustling branches, I feel that we are not alone. Out of the corner of my eye I see the flash of a black hem disappear...


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pp. 209-212

Works Cited

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pp. 213-217

E-ISBN-13: 9780803240308
E-ISBN-10: 0803240309
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803236325

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 27 illustrations, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2012