How many of us know the story of Lithuanian Ona Šimaitė (1894−1970), honored as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem? Šimaitė risked her life going in and out of the Vilna ghetto bringing messages and supplies to Jewish inmates. She smuggled out and then hid a young scholar facing imminent execution; shortly after, Šimaitė was tortured and deported to Dachau. After the War, she committed herself to perhaps her most loving deed, writing to the families of her massacred friends to share their last messages. Šimaitė was not some well-placed diplomat using privileged connections, she was just a working class woman of enormous integrity. Fascinated by Šimaitė’s life, Šukys explored the archives in Vilnius and visited areas of France where Šimaitė lived after the War. Walking in her footsteps, Šukys meditates on her subject’s obsessive letter-writing, which may have kept her from writing her memoirs, her sexuality, her Catholicism, and some questions her life story poses for feminist thinkers. Using a very personal lens to frame a biography can be engaging, but here, every time Šukys ruminates on Virginia Woolf, or her own parenting dilemmas, the reader wishes she’d given us one more snippet from Šimaitė’s letters. Alas, the book concludes with a detour into Šimaitė’s niece’s possible schizophrenia and the treatment of the mentally ill in the USSR. Still, if Šukys could be enticed to edit a follow-up volume of Šimaitė’s translated letters, readers would come back for more.
Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
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