Epis­tolophil­ia: Writ­ing the Life of Ona Šimaitė

Juli­ja Šukys

  • Review
By – March 28, 2012

How many of us know the sto­ry of Lithuan­ian Ona Šimaitė (18941970), 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. 

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.

Discussion Questions