„An old lady with a limp and an accent, she is invisible to most. Certainly no one recognizes her as the warrior and revolutionary she was, and perhaps this is why she succeeded in a situation that demanded secrecy, courage, and disguise.“ – I’ve read a story about Ona Šimaitė told by Julija Šukys. The story, originally written in English (check Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite), was published in Lithuanian. „We do not know, how many lives she saved. (…) To keep a tally would have been out of caracter for the librarian, and a systematic forgetting of the names and addresses of those she heped was her way of protecting herself and others.”
If she could, I bet she would choose remaining an invisible librarian rather than turning into a hero risking her life and saving the lives of others. But she couldn’t.
Life before the Second World War. The Beginning of the Librarian’s Journey
Ona Šimaitė was born in 1894 in Akmenė, a small town in the North West of Lithuania, then Russian Empire. Her family was quite poor, so her parents left Akmenė for much bigger Riga (Latvia). When Ona was eight she joined her family leaving her home town forever. However, her love and respect for the Jews was instilled in this small town of her childhood.
“A lot of people will talk badly about Jews, but you won’t listen to them. Jews are good people, of course, there are bad ones among them, but goodness determines.” These grandfather’s words had remained with Ona for the rest of her life.
That’s how Akmenė looked like when Ona Šimaitė lived there. Unfortunatelly nobody knows, where exactly their family house was.
She graduated from schoo in Riga, then moved to Moscow and got involved in pedagogy. Ona attended some courses, worked as a teacher of homeless children. When Lithuania gained independence, she returned back and settled in Kaunas in 1922.
She used to work at Jewish school, in the embassy of the Soviet Union before she got her first librarian position in the library of Abel Balosher in 1937.
The library was situated next to the Central Jewish bank in the Liberty Avenue (Laisvės alėja). The building hasn’t survived unfortunatelly, now Tadas Ivanauskas Zoology Museum is built in its’ place (Laisvės al. 106, Kaunas). Before moving to Vilnius Ona Šimaitė used to work in some other libraries in Kaunas.
The Invisible Librarian Became a Brave Savior of Jews
In 1940 Ona Šimaitė started working in the Vilnius University Library. After the Nazis occupied Vilnius in 1941 and forced the city’s Jews into the Great and Small Ghettos, the rector of Vilnius University Mykolas Biržiška together with his brother Vaclovas Biržiška, the director of the university library, decided to delegate Ona Šimaitė and her colleague, another librarian, to collect books previously issiued to Jews.
Collecting of books was, of course, just a formal reason. Ona Šimaite regularly visited ghetto bringing food, clothes, medicines, money and fake documents to the people imprisoned there. She saw how people lived there and she felt shame that it happened to her fellow neighbors and friends.
The both Vilnius ghettos, the Small and the Great, now can hardly remind us the horrow people had to survive back in 1941. I suggest spending an hour or so visiting the memorial plaques in Gaono and Stikliai streets, walking to Mėsinių Street near the monument to the martyrs and fighters of the Vilnius ghetto, visiting the courtyard of Judenrat, passing along Žemaitijos Street to the former ghetto library.
There were those who thought that Ona Šimaitė made a living from helping Jews, but the reality was quite different. She was poor, freezing, sick, always in debt. Out of small university salary she used to buy food for ghetto residents remaining just on bread and potatos herself. Ona Šimaitė never complained, probably she felt she had to redeem the suffering of Jews this way.
As she wrote in her memories, “I’m afraid of winter very much, it will be hungry and cold. Now I only eat twice a week as a human: it happens when I get 200 grams of butter and 350 grams of meat. Other days (I eat) just bread and potatoes. But it’s the third day now that I cannot find potatoes anywhere. Beastliness and drowsiness. Cultural life almost doesn’t exist.” (here and further places from O. Šimaitė’s memories were translated by Litvak Shtetls)
During the war Ona Šimaitė lived in the Savičiaus Street. Not long ago the house was decorated with a memorial plaque, dedicated to Ona Šimaitė (Savičiaus Street, 13, Vilnius).
Concentration Camp was The “Reward” for Helping Jews
It was in this house that Ona Šimaitė hid a rescued girl for a few weeks (she later was moved to… a closet of the university library and survived). From this house Ona was taken by the Gestapo on April 28, 1944, for the reason of Jewish books, forbidden documents, letters, manuscripts found in her room. “All my crimes in Vilnius were committed out of love for Jewish culture and because I could not coldly observe the suffering of the Jews,” Ona Šimaitė wrote in her memories.
Julija Šlekys added: “They interrogated her and tortured her for twelve days, hanging her upside down and burning the soles of her feet. Since she did not reveal what they wanted her to, she was sentenced to death”. Due to Mykolas Biržiška’s efforts the death penalty was replaced with the concentration camps in Dachau and Liudelange. After surviving the concentration camps, she never returned to Lithuania. Ona Šimaitė moved to France.
France, Icchokas Meras and Vytautas Kasiulis
While living in France Ona Šimaitė corresponded with friends who remained in Lithuania, sent them books and tried to promote Lithuanians in France. She supported a young writer, Icchok Meras, a Lithuanian Jew who survived the Holocaust, she read his books, wrote letters to him, encouraging him to create further.
She cherished similar feelings for the works of the artist Vytautas Kasiulis. She compared his paintings on the theme of Jews with the works of M. Chagall and even considered Kasiulis’ works better.
She Chose France Instead of Israel
Tania Vaksman, a Jewish girl rescued by O. Šimaitė in Vilnius in 1953, managed to invite her to Israel. She spent three years in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv. She could stay in Israel and be maintained by the state for the rest of her life, but in 1957 she returned to France. She settled in Paris, in Rue de Courselles Nr. 38, on the top floor building in an 8-floor building.
Ona Šimaitė in her memoirs remembers, that she hasn’t had a worse room in her entire life. “I, a poor clochard, live in an aristocratic district. Up to the 6th floor everything is shiny, clean, carpeted, you can see flowers and a fountain in the yard. And on the 7th and 8th floor is a real scrap-heap. If I had never heard and read about the class differences , I would have seen and felt it while living here.”
“She lived in a tiny room and owned only two dresses, which she alternated on wash days“, Julija Šlekys added. “This mode of behavior continued to the end of her life and even beyond it: she donated her body to medical research upon her death.”
She died in 1970 in an asylum for poor Russian immigrants outside Paris. She was 76.
Modest memory of Ona Šimaitė in Jerusalem and Vilnius
Now the street in Vilnius Old Town leading a steep hillside towards the future Memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations is named after Ona Šimaitė. On March 15, 1966, the Yad Vashem from Israel awarded Ona Šimaitė, one of the first persons from Lithuania, with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations of the World. In 2004, a memorial plaque to Ona Šimaitė was unveiled in Vilnius University (Universiteto str. 3, Vilnius). A tree was planted in honor of O. Šimaitė in the alley of the righteous of Yad Vashem.
More about the Ghettos of Vilnius, the victims, the survivors and the saviors, including Ona Šimaitė, you can learn during my walking tours or virtual tours (for more information please contact me via email@example.com).
You can read more about Ona Šimaitė in English here:
Julija Šukys. Ona Šimaitė and the Vilnius Ghetto: An Unwritten Memoir
Old pictures are from: