Solidarity and Silence: the story of Ona Šimaitė, librarian lifesaver [Review]

Ona Šimaitė (pronounced Shim-ay-teh) was a Lithuanian librarian, best known for smuggling food, messages and other contraband into the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust.[1] She also smuggled people, news and books out. She was tortured by the Gestapo after her arrest. Vilnius University raised a bribe to save her from execution; she was deported to Dachau and ended up in a POW camp.

Šimaitė was frequently asked to write her autobiography. On one level, she was willing to write it. But it never happened, postponed by the daily grind of work and task of regular correspondence. She wrote a short account to I.N. Steinberg,[2] and made other passing references, but it was too painful to examine at length. I also suspect it went against the grain to say too much. If preserving information is the task of librarians and archivists, anyone involved in clandestine activities should know how to forget things. Šimaitė certainly did: when she was being deported, she had forgotten so much she was unable to pass word to friends and family when the chance arose. Even after the war, she frequently talked about not getting people in trouble – understandably, given post-war Stalinist repression. Šimaitė was always modest (and reticent) about what she’d done, not referring to saving lives but to ‘my errands’.[3]

Which is where Julija Šukys comes in. Šukys is a Lithuanian-Canadian writer, so has the language skills to tell Šimaitė’s story: “this only makes me wonder if Šimaitė had been born in Germany or France, and if her name had been Anna Strauss or Anne Simard, and if she’d written her diaries and journals in a major Western European language, perhaps someone would have written about her decades ago.” [4] Instead, Šukys wrote Epistolophilia which contains two stories – the life of Ona Šimaitė, and her own journey of uncovering it, from a name in a card catalogue, to the point where her bundle of photocopied letters can’t go as hand luggage any more. These letters give the book its title: ‘epistolophilia’ can mean either a love of writing them or a letter-writing sickness.

These two women live very different lives. Librarianship is ‘the beloved profession’ to Šimaitė, but Šukys (in a moment of doubt) gets ‘a sinking feeling when I realize… she was a cataloger, the lowest of the low.’ [5] Šukys meditates on women’s writing – how it happens and doesn’t happen – partly from her own experience: ‘Only after making a series of unilateral decisions about childcare, home care, and food supply did I begin to claw back writing time and relocate a sense of my former identity.’ [6]

Politically, Šimaitė started out as a Left Socialist Revolutionary. She regarded I.N. Steinberg as her intellectual mentor and engaged with solidarity work for prisoners before the second world war. So, she was a revolutionary and no Stalinist. Her political and personal connections with Jewish comrades (the Lichtensteins, Faivush Trupianski, Gershon Malakiewicz, Mikhail Shur)[7] drew her into her ‘errands’. On the eve of the establishment of the ghetto, Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists held a meeting to consider their response: ‘an insignificant minority among whose voices my own could be counted.’ [8] Šimaitė moved ever-closer to the anarchists. Nine months before she died in Paris, Šimaitė described herself as ‘still becoming an anarchist’.[9] She also wrote to Chicago anarchist Boris Yelensky, addressing him as comrade. [10]

We owe Julija Šukys a debt of gratitude for retrieving Šimaitė’s story. Šimaitė knew how to keep silent, and of course part of that silence comes from trauma. I also think she knew, as a working class female radical, the value of being overlooked, of hiding in plain sight. She recounts one ‘errand’, when she ransoms Gershon Malakiewicz: ‘how dare I pay the ransom of a Jew? […] They hurl insults. […] I play stupid, pretending to be a woman who knows nothing.’ [11] Hopefully this account of Šimaitė’s life will encourage people to think of all the unknowns who did the right thing and never spoke, or never could speak, of it.

Marc Record


1, Vilna (the Yiddish name for it) is at the same time Vilnius (Lithuanian) which was previously Wilno (Polish). In the same way Ona is known as Anna, Anya and Ana.
2, ‘And I burned with shame’: the testimony of Ona Šimaitė, Righteous among the Nations; a letter to Isaac Nachman Steinberg by Julija Šukys. Published by Yad Veshem in 2007.
3, Epistolophilia: writing the life of Ona Šimaitė by Julija Šukys. Published by the University of Nebraska Press, p19.
4, Epistolophilia, p14.
5, Epistolophilia, p8; p164.
6, Epistolophilia, p167.
7, See And I burned with shame’, p.23, p.25.
8, And I burned with shame’, p.53-4.
9, Epistolophilia, p.77, quoting diary 28, April 10, 1969.
10, See Folder 62 of the Yelensky papers in Amsterdam. Copies online at
11, And I burned with shame’, p.35.