The war in letters, libraries and hidden notebooks
Vilnius, the contemporary capital of Lithuania, is far north of Warsaw and inland from the Baltic Sea. Known among Jews as Vilna before the Second World War, the life and death of its wartime ghetto is a story less well known than that of the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz. Julija Šukys’ Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šímaite., provides an unusual avenue to recovering Vilna’s particular fate under German occupation.
Ona Šímaite., likely unknown to most readers, was living not far from Vilna’s ghetto in the fall of 1941. Until her arrest by the Gestapo in April, 1944, she undertook complicated clandestine activities, including the smuggling of necessities into the ghetto, sneaking those incarcerated inside into hiding in the occupied city, as well as substantial efforts to hide documentation of the ghetto outside its environs, in the hope that this material would survive the war if its authors did not. In this, she shared goals with the secret ghetto archivists of Lodz and Warsaw, who buried their work inside milk containers and tin boxes.
Šímaite.’s arrest led first to torture, then to a short term at Dachau, and transport to a work camp in German-occupied France. The population of the Vilna Ghetto was decimated by a series of transports of thousands of Jews to the forested suburbs of Vilna known as Ponary, where they were murdered in pits.
Clandestine activity took many forms during the existence of the Vilna Ghetto. It included efforts by the poet Avrom Sutzkever to preserve the archive and library belonging to YIVO, the Vilna-based institute for the study of Yiddish language and contemporary Jewish culture. And under the poet Abba Kovner the ghetto harboured a resistance movement that later joined with Soviet-led partisans in the surrounding forests.
Šukys’ portrait of Ona Šímaite. depicts a patchwork of periods and locales, which include postwar life in France and Israel, her letter writing to Lithuanians she would never see again, and her mission, based upon wartime promises, to inform “friends and family of Vilna dead” about the ghetto experience of their loved ones. Epistolophilia, the unusual word that characterizes this latter commitment, refers to Šímaite.’s seeming compulsion to write letters, at all costs, sometimes as many as fourteen a day. One must, she informed a niece by post, “write a letter as if saying a prayer: concentrated, and with bells ringing.”
The most remarkable of Šímaite.’s recollections of the Vilna Ghetto appear in letters she wrote immediately after the war to Hirsz Abramowicz, who was traveling in America at the war’s outbreak, leaving him safely stranded while his wife and daughter were trapped in the ghetto. Having attained permission to enter the ghetto under the made-up project of recovering unreturned university library books, Šímaite. encountered Dina and Anna Abramowicz “in a single tiny room together with the entire Schreiber family and with the Zhazdik girls, who were much loved by the family (in all, 9 people). The furniture consisted of 1 bed, 1 table, 2 chairs. During the day all the bedding and belongings were piled into one corner.” Šímaite. informs Abramowicz that his wife “dedicated every free moment to reading.” Her “favorite book in the ghetto was a volume of Bialik’s poetry. She also read a great deal about black Americans . . . .”
Such reports on what her acquaintances in the ghetto read reflect Šímaite.’s reverence for books, for the libraries that protected them and the librarians who dedicated themselves to such work.
Šukys tells us that during the Ponary massacres, when the killings were at their height, there was a notable upsurge in borrowings from the ghetto’s lending libraries. Demand was high for “semi-trashy” books; while from serious literature, those in the shadow of the mass killings chose to read War and Peace, Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Emile Zola’s War and Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian genocide. This latter choice reflects readers’ deep appreciation of the historical events that were unfolding around them.
Šímaite. devoted herself to the ghetto’s record keepers. Among these was Herman Kruk, who was ordered by the Nazis to choose rare books from Jewish libraries, which would be sent back to collections in Germany. He and Šímaite. chose texts to hide from the Germans, while he filled 39 notebooks with depictions of life in the ghetto. Secreting these out of the ghetto, Šímaite. stashed them “in a metal box under two floorboards in the university library’s attic.” Kruk was murdered, but after the war, with Šímaite.’s directions, the notebooks were found.
Epistolophilia is informed by Šukys’ interest in Šímaite.’s troubled family life, her seeming celibacy, her inability or unwillingness to compose a memoir of the war years, her troubled postwar life in France, and, her short stay in the 1950s in Israel. Throughout the postwar years she refused awards and honours for her activities in Vilna. Notably though, in 1966, Yad Vashem designated her among its Righteous Among the Gentiles.
Norman Ravvin’s recent books include the novel, The Joyful Child (Gaspereau) and Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein, co-edited with Sherry Simon (McGill-Queen’s).