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  • Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė
  • Katherine R. Jolluck (bio)
Julija Šukys . Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012. 217 pp. ISBN 978-0803236325, $24.95.

The central figure of Julija Šukys's new book, Epistolophilia, is Ona Šimaitė, a Lithuanian librarian who was honored as a Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem. Neither an exploration of Šimaitė's activities on behalf of Jews in the Vilna Ghetto, nor a conventional biography, the volume instead is a compilation of excerpts of and reflections upon Šimaite's letters and diaries, written over a period of nearly forty years. The book also presents traces of the lives of individuals whose stories are connected with Šimaitė's—including the author's. The result is an intimate encounter with the ideals, preoccupations, and burdens of a noble yet lonely and impoverished exile, as well as a meditation on women and writing.

Though not well known, Ona Šimaitė, born in Vilnius in 1894, was a true wartime hero. In the years 1941 to 1944 she moved in and out of the Jewish ghetto in her hometown, bringing food, clothing, medicine, and counterfeit documents; she carried out letters, messages, manuscripts, and children. Šimaitė is credited with saving the lives of about one hundred Jews, and of preserving information and documents that would have otherwise perished in the ghetto. The Gestapo arrested Šimaitė in 1944, tortured her, and then sent her to Dachau. After the war she lived as an exile in Paris (with a brief interlude in Israel), working as a dishwasher and housecleaner, trying to fit her writing into her exhausting days, until her death in 1970.

A librarian by training and vocation, Šimaitė was obsessed with saving memories, information, and documents. Šukys thus uses the made-up term "epistolophilia" to connote Šimaitė's love of letters and other forms of written communication. Šimaitė hid and preserved letters and manuscripts she smuggled out of the ghetto. Šukys calculates that after 1945 Šimaitė herself wrote nearly sixty letters each month for decades, keeping up correspondences with family members in Lithuania, Jewish friends who survived the Holocaust and relatives of those who did not, as well as friends and prominent intellectuals on several continents. Unmarried and without children, Šimaitė lived [End Page 522] alone in Paris; her rich correspondence was a critical aspect of her daily existence. Yet she felt it as a burden, one which took away her remaining energy and time, and kept her from other writing projects. She never wrote her memoirs, though numerous friends and acquaintances urged her to do so. And she unfortunately wrote little about her wartime experiences—hence the sparse account of them in this book. The contents of her letters and journals range from the mundane details of her daily existence and complaints about her health, to the tragedies of others, revolutionary ideas, and reflections on literature and art.

Julija Šukys, the author, is a subject of the book as well. A Canadian of Lithuanian descent, Šukys came across some of Šimaitė's manuscripts while doing dissertation research in Vilnius in the year 2000. She then followed Šimaitė's trail, visiting sites and individuals connected with the woman in Lithuania, France, and Israel. Šukys details her own journey to write the life of Šimaitė, describing her research trips and interviews, her questions and doubts, and the interruptions and complications introduced by the birth of her son. These ruminations convey the respect and sympathy the author has for her subject, and her devotion to investigating every trace of Šimaitė's life. Šukys's own difficulties in focusing on her work while caring for her infant son lead her to a greater appreciation of Šimaitė's position: the burdens of daily life for a woman, particularly one who must support herself through manual labor, make writing a nearly impossible vocation. Women, Šukys concludes as she discovers Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, simply lead lives that are too fractured by familial and household obligations to pursue literary work. Further ruminating on the professional limitations placed on women, the author realizes that perhaps Šimaitė became a librarian not out of...


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pp. 522-523
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