- A Mind Thinking
lincoln: university of nebraska press, 2012. 217 pages, cloth, $24.95.
lincoln: university of nebraska press, 2017. 176 pages, cloth, $24.95.
Those of us who have followed the work of Julija Šukys have long known what a wonderful writer and rigorous researcher she is. She uncovers previously unexplored archives, finds and secures interviews throughout the world, and uses her fluency in several languages to read her way through the stacks of dozens of libraries; but more than that, she turns her search into a compelling story and braids that story with the story of the lives she’s researching. I know of no one who does this better.
Šukys’s 2012 book, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimatė, is a remarkable work of research, translation, and recovery that tells the story of an unlikely, long-overlooked heroine. Ona Šimatė was unmarried, walked with a limp, and worked off and on as a librarian, what she called “the beloved profession.” It was precisely her quiet ways, orderly habits, and near invisibility that made her heroism possible. Between 1941 and 1944, she smuggled food, messages, clothes, forged documents, medicine, and money into the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, the capital and largest city of her native Lithuania. She saved scores, perhaps hundreds, of Jewish children, sometimes by sedating them and smuggling them past the Gestapo in sacks. In 1944 she was captured and [End Page 209] tortured by the Gestapo for 12 days before being sent to Dachau. She survived and after the war made her way to France and continued carrying what news she had to the families of survivors, trying to connect families displaced by the war, and thereby preserving the culture of her home country. She wrote thousands of letters (sometimes dozens in a day) and a like number of diary pages. She wrote in Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Russian, German, French, and even Hebrew. Finding and curating this material was a formidable task. For over a decade Šukys searched archives in Europe, North America, and Israel for Šimatė’s writing, but more than that, she translated it and preserved it within the narrative frame of this book so that we can hear Šimatė’s voice. Epistolophilia is a study in women’s writing. When asked, Šimatė produced the occasional article, but she demurred whenever she was urged to write a memoir. As Šukys puts it, “When faced with a figure like Šimatė, who fits no categories—not even that of writer!—what do we do? How do we tell her story?” Šimatė’s words were often by necessity coded and hidden, and they were almost always private and personal. She saw herself as a conduit, translator, diarist, letter writer, and friend, not as an author. Epistolophilia shows us that in spite of her reticence she was a writer.
As its subtitle suggests, Epistolophilia is also the story of Julija Šukys’s writing of this book, and that story is also a woman’s story. Šukys moves deftly between a distanced narrative voice that recalls what happened to Ona Šimatė before, during, and after World War II (we learn a lot about history) and more immediate scenes of this or that research trip, often rendered in present tense. She tells us how she conducted an interview, or takes us on a tense drive with her exhausted husband and young son to see just one more archive. This meta-narrative is done conversationally, seamlessly, and with humility, but at the same time we cannot fail to recognize the tremendous work that it took to bring this book together. Prize juries also recognized the magnitude of Šukys’s accomplishment. The book was a finalist for the Mavis Gallant Prize for Nonfiction, long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction, and winner of the 2013 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award in the category of Holocaust Literature.
Epistolophilia seemed the kind of astonishing, decade-in-the-making book that would be hard to follow, let alone top, but Siberian Exile: Blood...