LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 54, No 2 - Summer 2008
Editor of this issue: M. G. Salvėnas
Ona Šimaitė and the Vilnius Ghetto: An Unwritten Memoir
Julija Šukys, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at McGill University and author of Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, 2007 and And I Burned with Shame: The Testimony of Ona Šimaitė, Righteous Among the Nations, 2007.
This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (January 2004) and YIVO, New York (February 2004). I am grateful for the support of Yad Vashem through its postdoctoral research fellowship program, of YIVO through the Immerman-Weinstein Fellowship, and to the Holocaust Educational Foundation for its support through the Peter Hayes Fellowship. I also gratefully acknowledge the help of Sean Gurd, Dan Porat, Brad Hill, Paul Glasser, Shlomo and Merav Tal, Chaja Lifšic, and Icchokas Meras.
In the years between 1941 and 1944, a university librarian in German-occupied Vilnius slipped in and out of the Jewish Ghetto to provide its prisoners with food, clothes and medicine, and to deliver and collect letters, manuscripts and books. She smuggled sleeping children out of the ghetto by carrying them in potato sacs, hid adults in her apartment and in the university library, and assisted the ghetto resistance by providing its members with weapons, food, documents and medicine. We do not know how many lives she saved – she did not keep a tally. What we have instead are individual stories and reminiscences by survivors, anecdotes and letters. In 1966, she was honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, one of the first Lithuanians to receive the distinction. She died in 1970. Her name was Ona Šimaitė.
In 1944, the Gestapo detected Šimaitė’s activities and arrested her. 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, but friends and colleagues from the university community protested on her behalf and succeeded in having the sentence commuted to internment, first in Lithuania, then at the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. She survived Dachau and after the war moved to Paris, where she again worked as a librarian, a vocation she referred to as “the beloved profession.”
Šimaitė never married, but she had an adopted daughter, a Jewish student from Warsaw whom she rescued from the ghetto. Her name was Sala Vaksman, later changed to Tanya Shterntal. According to the story that Tanya herself told in a 1966 letter to Yad Vashem, Tanya met Šimaitė when Šimaitė was asked by the rector of Vilnius University to deliver some money to one of his students in the Vilnius ghetto. Over time, Šimaitė and Tanya grew fond of each other and agreed to try an escape, Šimaitė taking Sala out of the ghetto concealed under her coat. Immediately after, the young girl came down with a severe fever and for the next three weeks had to remain hidden in Šimaitė’s apartment. After she had recovered, she was moved to the university library, where she spent her days inside a cupboard and her nights stretched out on one of the long library tables. Soon, however, even the library became unsafe, for she was discovered by two thieves who had entered the library presumably to steal books or other items to burn, since fuel was at a premium in the city. Šimaitė then found her a place at the Kailis factory, located outside of the Vilnius ghetto walls, but was herself arrested shortly thereafter and the two women would wait years before they met again. The Kailis factory did not survive for long after Šimaitė’s arrest, and its workers were killed or deported. Tanya was rearrested and sent to the Stutthof Concentration Camp, but survived. She then made the long trip by boat from a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany to Eretz, Israel. From 1953 to 1956, Šimaitė joined Tanya in Israel, living not on Tanya’s kibbutz but rather in Petach Tikva, a town located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.1
I never met either of them. Šimaitė died before I was born and Tanya in 2002 of cancer, but it is my interest in Šimaitė’s life and writing that brought me to Jerusalem. When I walk the short distance between Yad Vashem and my tiny studio apartment in Beit Hakerem, I try to imagine how she must have felt in this place. The heat was too much for her – this I know from her diaries – the sun too strong, the language alienating, but she loved the cats of Jerusalem, the art museum in Tel Aviv, and the stark simplicity of life on Kibbutz Reshafim, where she stayed for three months. I have met Tanya’s son Shlomo, a painter, who lives in Tel Aviv and whom I visited twice to talk about Ona Šimaitė. He met her at Kibbutz Reshafim when he was eight years old. He called her Anya and remembers that she liked to have her feet tickled because this soothed the scars that the Gestapo left on her soles. I also asked Shlomo’s daughter, who was acting as our translator, if she might have saved any letters that Šimaitė had written to her grandmother Tanya, for I was basing my project on such documents. She looked at me wide-eyed when I told her that people might be interested in an account of Šimaitė’s life, so ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.
Although a major figure in the history of the Shoah, Ona Šimaitė is little known outside her native country. Her enormous collection of letters and diaries is scattered across three countries and archived in libraries and a handful of institutions throughout the world. Her native language was Lithuanian, and only a small (though important) portion is in Russian; the bulk is in Lithuanian, a language spoken by approximately 3.5 million people. Thus Šimaitė’s archive is literally illegible for the vast majority of scholars. This uneasy space between languages has led to a neglect of Šimaitė’s story and a gap that my present research attempts to fill.
Much of her correspondence before, during, and after the war centers on the exchange of books. She corresponded with fellow librarians, poets, novelists, friends, admirers and strangers, writing an average of sixty letters each month. These people comprise an impressive, colorful cast of characters, wildly varied in age and experience. A hasty portrait of a handful of her correspondents include the then musicology student Vytautas Landsbergis (Lithuania’s first post-Soviet president); Tayda Devėnaitė, head of the Soviet Lithuanian literary publishing house; Šimaitė’s relatives in Lithuania; the translators Vytautas Kauneckas and Juozas Urbšys; the poets Kazys Boruta, Kazys Jakubėnas and Salomėja Nėris; and survivors of the Holocaust in Israel, Poland, North America, South America and France, including Dr. Marc Dworzetski, who was gathering testimony about the Vilnius ghetto in the late 1940s and 1950s. Of perhaps greatest significance, for my purposes, is her correspondence with Icchokas Meras, a child survivor and the author of the 1968 Lithuanian novel about the Vilnius ghetto.
The most affectionate and intimate letters of Šimaitė’s entire collection are found in the prewar and wartime correspondence with the leftist poet Kazys Jakubėnas. Jakubėnas began as a dissident in prewar Lithuania under Smetona and continued during the Nazi and Soviet eras, writing subversive songs and surreptitiously releasing them into the populace like anonymous butterflies, in order to rouse people to action against oppressive authorities. During the Nazi occupation, Jakubėnas was one of Šimaitė’s primary and most productive contacts in the smuggling and procurement of documents and cash needed for bribes or fines. He survived the Nazis, but in 1950 was imprisoned by Soviet authorities for his verses and executed extrajudicially by the KGB.2
The death of Jakubėnas was a loss from which Šimaitė never recovered. In her correspondence with the poet’s brother Alfonsas, Šimaitė often reiterated her promise to write a short memoir about him. But, like her own story, this one too remained unwritten. The following excerpt from a 1964 letter to a young novelist hints at the depth of her wound with regard to the loss of her friend:
And when you mentioned Kazys Jakubėnas, you gave me a real scare. I know much, but I can’t write, or something else happens. I don’t know why this is so. And now I just get scared. Would it not be better to put an end to it all and just put up a large cross? Nowadays even letter writing is too much for me.3
Šimaitė’s longest correspondence is with Vytautas Kau-neckas, a Vilnius translator best known perhaps for his Lithuanian translation of St-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship revolving around the sending of a multivolume Larousse dictionary from France to Soviet Lithuania, an exchange that involved a complicated accounting system measured in books sent, duty paid and rubles delivered to Šimaitė’s relatives in Lithuania. Several times Šimaitė tried to break off the correspondence because of accounting disputes and general fatigue from the pressure of the growing pile of unanswered letters on her desk. Her translator friend, she complained, suffered from a dictionary-collecting syndrome, never getting enough of them and requiring more and more while she herself had become the enabler of his addiction:
You may be angry and offended or not, but I maintain my earlier opinion – you suffer from a dictionary mania. And I blame myself for my own madness of sending you those dictionaries and enabling your illness.4
The Kauneckas correspondence is occasionally quite funny, but we learn from her correspondence with Juozas Urbšys, with whom she also exchanged books, that he was a broken man. His sentence to a labor camp in Siberia, because of his writing, remained a traumatic experience that was at the heart of his physical and, according to Šimaitė, psychological troubles later in life.
After the war, Šimaitė’s main concern was to secure locations for texts about the destruction of the Litvaks and their culture. She worked tirelessly to send copies of Icchokas Meras’s novels to the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris, to the Ghetto Fighters’ House, and the Jewish National and University Library in Israel. She was equally concerned to ensure that American and Israeli publications and other books she personally valued found their way into libraries in Soviet Lithuania. When some of these publications, to her astonishment, were seized by Soviet customs as contraband, she learned first-hand about the government’s anti-Semitic policies and the ins and outs of Soviet censorship.
Šimaite’s Lithuanian correspondence and diaries are remarkable in that they rarely mention the events in Nazi-occupied Vilnius that so decisively stamped her life, or the actions with which she saved the lives of others. There are only masked and obscure references: she refers to “my errands” and to “those people” but to nothing concrete and to no one by name. During the war, the justified fear of spies and betrayal explains the need for silence and repression of crucial aspects of her experience and a systematic forgetting of names and addresses was the best way to protect herself and others. At the urging of friends, however, she had secretly begun to write her memoirs, hiding her notes and diaries in her apartment. Before her arrest, she also hid some two hundred letters written to her by ghetto prisoners in a Vilnius University stairwell. After the war, while in Paris, Šimaitė sent her close friend and fellow librarian Marijona Čilvinaitė to the University Library to look for the documents she had hidden there and was devastated by the news that nothing had been found.5 Her own notes and diaries were also gone. Nothing surfaced to this day and the fate of the hidden materials remains a mystery.
An instinct to archive was bred into her and she was fastidious about ascertaining that her letters and articles be safeguarded in the archives. In one letter to her librarian friend, she referred to “every scrap of printed matter” as a ”treasure.”6 Yet even after the war she avoided writing of that time. The notes and letters that have survived contain few clues about the events that have secured Ona Šimaitė a place in historical recollection.7
Throughout Šimaitė’s postwar correspondence there is evidence of numerous requests for her to write her memoirs, not least in one of her most interesting epistolary relationships with Marijona Čilvinaitė, whom she sent to search for the hidden Vilnius documents mentioned above. After reestablishing contact with Šimaitė in the late 1950s, Čilvinaitė began to collect Ona’s letters, depositing them in the manuscript department at the national library in Kaunas (later the library was transferred to Vilnius). Čilvinaitė again and again asked her friend to write about her experiences in the Vilnius ghetto and her internment in Dachau. I quote from Čilvinaitė’s letter written to Šimaitė on New Year’s Eve, 1958:
You write that I experienced a lot during the war. True, but you can’t compare my experiences with the tortures you suffered over the murder of innocent, totally innocent people. If you’ve [written] anything, I’d really like you to send me something about your arrest, interrogation, torture in the concentration camps, and so on. Not for idle curiosity’s sake, but for the knowledge of how evil a scourge raged through Europe in the 20th century.8
Later in that same letter Čilvinaitė asked about the fate of a Jewish girl who used to come to her house and who was beaten one day when caught smuggling flour and applesauce into the ghetto for her mother. Šimaitė’s response to Čilvinaitė’s letter is extraordinary in that she talks about her own internment in Dachau, very briefly but in some detail. Thus far, it is the only explicit mention of her concentration camp experience I have found:
My Dear Marytė, Folklore9, the suffering endured was immeasurable. Everyone had his or her share in those murderous times. It’s always easier for me to suffer personally than to see others suffer, whom I can’t help. The girl you mentioned in your letter, like an uncountable number of other people, died. Perhaps one day I will write about my arrest, interrogation, and experiences in the concentration camp. As long as I’m alive, I’ll not forget how, after 10 or 11 hours of hard work, they laid the little Roma children on trestles and whipped them. It is too horrible to remember. Sometimes I’d like to believe that it wasn’t real, just a horrible dream. Together with me they transported Roma men to the camp, young men, strong like oak trees. But after three months they were invalids, and walked with sticks. As soon as they could no longer walk home, a black truck drove up and they disappeared without a trace. Or again, that horrible “aufstehen,” when the guards beat on the doors with clubs at 3:30 in the morning [...]. I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to write my memoirs. [...]. When I get a place in the home for the elderly I’ll start re-writing that manuscript [that was lost in Vilnius], so that some sort of image shall remain. I’d like that memoir-work to be preserved in the archive.10
From Šimaitė’s correspondence emerges a remarkable life story, yet its author remained unable to write it herself. By 1960, despite her good intentions and promises, Ona Šimaitė had not yet managed to produce even a small piece of her memoir. Time and energy eventually ran out and for whatever reasons she never completed the coveted memoir. But this is not to say that she left us without an inheritance.
Ona Šimaitė left behind an impressive archive of her life’s writing: thousands of letters, scores of postwar notebooks, various articles and countless press clippings. Faced with this massive record, the researcher is faced with the inevitable question: how to read this proliferation of papers? What clues can we find in the mountain of documents as to how to proceed in our interpretation of this intriguing yet frustrating collection of personal writings? For my research, answers to these questions lie first in the postwar diaries and, second, in the correspondence with the Jewish-Lithuanian author Icchokas Meras. Lastly, her correspondence tells a remarkable story, one that challenges a number of common assumptions in scholarly thinking about memory, the importance of writing as a life-structuring practice, and the literariness of private texts.
The Unwritten Memoir
Not all of Šimaitė’s writings have found their way into archives. Before my arrival in Jerusalem, I knew that, in addition to documents already archived at Yad Vashem, there existed a collection of Šimaitė letters in private hands: letters written between 1960 and 1965 to the young Jewish-Lithuanian writer Icchokas Meras, the major part of my research in Israel. The original letters are still in boxes somewhere in the author’s house in greater Tel Aviv, and they may never be retrieved. But in a moment of foresight, in the late 1960s, an employee at Yad Vashem, Chaja Lifšic, after retrieving a set of letters from a then doctoral candidate Dov Levin, now an eminent historian, who had used them as research materials for his dissertation, copied the originals before returning them to Meras. And so, almost forty years after their conception, copies of Šimaitė’s letters to Meras found their way into my hands and at last into the archives at Yad Vashem, where they will be available to future researchers.
This collection of letters is a very exciting find because it provides a missing link on both Šimaitė and the writer Meras, the author who was the subject of my dissertation. In 2000, I began to work on Šimaitė’s life-writing, a term used in literary studies to designate private writing – letters and diaries, for example – that were not originally written as literature but which literary scholars can and do treat as such. I did not know at the time that there was a connection between her and Meras. I had gone to Vilnius to work on the manuscripts of Meras’s Soviet-era novels and spent some of my time there looking for documents for a University of Toronto research project on the Vilnius ghetto. In the course of my investigation, I came across a collection of hundreds of wartime and postwar letters written by Ona Šimaitė to a host of correspondents and discovered that Meras’s novel Lygiosios trunka akimirką (translated into English as Stalemate), was, at least in part, a product of this correspondence. The following paragraph, taken from a 1998 article in the newspaper Lietuvos Aidas, provided me with the first evidence of a relationship that would prove to be central to my understanding of Šimaitė’s process of writing and remembrance:
Ona Šimaitė, then residing in Paris, a beautiful human being, aristocrat of the spirit, encouraged [Meras] to write this novel. Šimaitė’s friends working at the publishing house Vaga had sent her a copy of I. Meras’s Yellow Patch [a book of short stories]. Having read the book, Šimaitė wrote its author a letter. The writer never met her, but the two communicated through letters. O. Šimaitė convinced him that he had to write about the everyday heroism of the Jews in the ghetto, and told him stories about it. Meras used one of these in his novel.11
The novel in question, Stalemate, which was originally published in 1968 and republished in 1998 and 2005, is structured around a fateful game of chess that the young narrator, Izia (Izaokas), must play against the Vilnius ghetto commandant. The boy must force a stalemate in the game in order to save himself and the rest of the ghetto children. The episode in this novel that Meras seems to have used from Šimaitė’s letters is the fate of Liuba Levicka, the famous opera singer affectionately called “the nightingale of the ghetto,” who gave concerts there, and who was beaten almost to death after she was caught smuggling a small bag of peas.12 After a brief period of imprisonment at Lukiškės, she was taken to Paneriai and killed. In Meras’s novel, Liuba Levicka’s Doppelgänger is named Ina Lipmanaitė, but the details of the historical singer’s death are easily recognizable in the fictional character’s story.
In addition to the stories she told him through her letters, Šimaitė continually encouraged Meras to write about his community, about the family he had lost, and about the dignity of the people in the Vilnius ghetto. In pushing him to write, it seems to me that Šimaitė vicariously undertook the writing of her own memoir; that is, she wrote her memoir through Meras by providing him with plot, character, and inspiration. The novel, perhaps like every good book, is a collective endeavor, written by many hands and conceived by multiple imaginations. This correspondence between Šimaitė and the young author Icchokas Meras is extraordinary, because Šimaitė was so reluctant to write about her own experiences in the ghetto and Dachau.13 The Meras correspondence gives us a glimpse into her past. For in her letters to Meras, Šimaitė wrote more frankly about her wartime experiences than to anyone she correspondet with in her native tongue. She did so with a purpose – the letters are didactic. On one occasion, she corrected the young author’s assertion that “everyone suffered equally under fascism”:
I will never agree that during the time of Nazi fascism everyone’s situation was the same. No. For the Jewish population it was by far most terrible, most barbaric. Take one example. There were two librarians living and working in Vilnius – Ona Šimaitė and Dina Abramowicz.14 I stayed at the University Library. Nobody evicted me from my place. I didn’t have to wear a yellow patch. No one forced me into the ghetto. With Dina Abramowicz it was the opposite. She lost her job at the Children’s Library. She had to wear a patch. She had to leave her apartment, move from there to the ghetto. And so on, and so on. [...] It was bad for everyone then, but for sure Jews suffered most.15
Šimaitė’s letters to Meras include discussions about fear in the face of death, about the difficulty of assigning blame for inaction, and about what she calls “crystals of humanity” to be found in terrible times. Other letters are literary, discussing the construction of characters and their motivations in Meras’s writing, and still others consider international political developments, like the Algerian War and the Eichmann trial. Šimaitė rejected capital punishment, even in Eichmann’s case. In a 1963 letter she shared her thoughts on Eichmann’s death sentence: “I will never justify the use of the death penalty,” she wrote. “Not even for a cannibal like Eichmann. But I am not sorry for him, of course”.16
I can imagine that Meras never realized how rare such discussions were in her letters and what a great gift she had given him with her stories. But Meras too gave Šimaitė a gift: that of a secondhand memoir, of the kind she loved most – literary and imaginative. The kind she never wrote herself.
Meanwhile, back in Lithuania, in expectations of the long-awaited memoir, a virtual literary machine had begun to function all with the purpose of extracting it from her in any form. We learn from a response by Čilvinaitė to the editor Tayda Devėnaitė that the latter hoped to publish the memoir as a book:
I don’t know what to tell you about Ona Šimaitė’s memoirs because she hasn’t sent them to me, even though I’ve asked her time and time again to write them and send them, or to write them piecemeal in letters, but she hasn’t done this either. We could ask her together, maybe that way we could succeed in getting something from her, since she knows [...] so much about the German occupation, the Vilnius ghetto and other places17.
However, even the combined efforts of Devėnaitė and Čilvinaitė remained fruitless, as were requests from eminent strangers. In her Paris journals, Šimaitė makes repeated reference to regular requests and encouragements to document what she experienced and witnessed. Typical is the following entry:
April 10,  Wednesday [...] I received an interesting letter from Vilnius. A woman from the Literary Institute working on the publication of the works of S. Nėris is asking me to write my memoirs. I would very much like to write a few words. It’s just that there’s so little time. [...] I barely managed to write 2 letters.18
Epistolophilia, the Letter-Writing Syndrome
Twenty-nine Šimaitė journals covering the period from 1953 to 1970 exist: two journals record the year of 1953 in Paris; ten documents 1953–1956 in Israel; sixteen cover 1956–1970 in Paris.19 They record the minutiae of Šimaitė’s everyday life: food and money shortages, laundry, and the drudgery of work are constant themes. But above all, the journals record Šimaitė’s compulsive letter writing. A good example can be found in Journal 17 from the year 1957. The very first entry in the journal starts with a quotation that Šimaitė identifies as an Arabic proverb: “Work for this world as if you had to live here forever, and for the next as if you had to die tomorrow:”20
April 6, Saturday. Survived 6 days of this month. Daily problems and the work I do to earn a bite of bread prevent me from living according to the wise Arabic proverb. The doctors have forbidden physical exertion, yet the laundry and the ironing must be done every week. Work in the library archives has become impossible, too technical. And after a hard day of work – there is the cook swearing and screaming at me for taking a piece of buttered bread for my supper. Don’t I earn my meals with this backbreaking work – laundering, ironing? And now again [...].
I wrote letters to both Aldutės [her nieces], and to both my sisters, and today I finally answered that letter, saying I couldn’t take part in the [discussion in the] press, since it’s difficult for me to even answer a normal letter in time. But in those 6 days I wrote 14 letters.21
While Šimaitė did not leave any lists of names and addresses of the people she helped, she kept meticulous count of how many letters she had written and to whom. The margins of her journals are filled with numbers that represent a tally of letters written on any given day. The following is an extreme example, in which Šimaitė prepared sixty-seven letters for the post in a single day:
Last Tuesday – September 24  was a very productive day. I wrote all the letters I had planned to my relatives. Of course, I wasn’t able to write to everyone. [Here she lists off the most important recipients as well as the letters she regrets not having had time to write.] [...] In all I prepared 67 letters and packages and took them to the post office. Of course, I should have done more, but I wasn’t able.22
The second example, written approximately two months before her death, gives only the month of November as an indication as to when it was written:
1961-IV-17. I’ve been sick since October 17 [...]. With one exception my heaviest memory will be each and every one of my present and past confrontations with these so-called nurses. They call me names, or give me such harsh orders, and yesterday they threw awful accusations at me. They outdo even Hitler’s Gestapo – which didn’t order me around like this or kept blaming me [...] Yesterday I wrote 3 letters dealing with very difficult [...] matters. [...] Last month I received 66 letters and packages, and wrote 67 + one package to my relatives.23
Šimaitė’s comparison of the nurses with the Gestapo is striking in its hyperbole but it illustrates her difficult relationship with caregivers. As she wrote to Meras in 1965, “I am of the opinion that every person must know how to take care of him-or-herself. Only in extraordinary circumstances, when it is impossible to help oneself, should one approach others.”24
Šimaitė herself, of course, was an extreme and perennial caregiver. If people were in pain, she took it upon herself to look after them. Her life in Paris was one of great simplicity and even poverty. She lived in a tiny room and owned only two dresses, which she alternated on wash days. Tanya, her adopted daughter, sent her clothes and a monthly box of oranges from Israel. Only later, as Tanya’s son recounted to me, did she realize that Šimaitė did not keep any of these items for herself but distributed them among her friends and neighbors.25 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.
The following is the final entry in Ona Šimaitė’s journal. It is written in ballpoint pen, sixteen days before her death, in a slanted and scratchy script that no longer sits on top of the lines but flows directly over them. This passage illustrates how, even on her deathbed, Šimaitė’s caregiving habit retained a firm hold on her conscience, and it hints at the wound that both this altruistic behavior and her continual letter-writing may have concealed:
January 1, 1970.
I think I’ve never had such a bad year. Last month was terrible. Illnesses, hard battle between life and death. [...] And there’s so much blood-drenched suffering everywhere in the world… And then my relatives. In the morning all I want is to sleep in. But I have to get up, go out, help the Estonian woman. I won’t abandon her. What sins have I committed to have her sent to me here to Cormeilles? Psychologically and physically I am totally exhausted. And dirty. I can’t even wash my hair or bathe.
Christmas brought great joy – I got a lovely fir tree as a gift [...], lots of candy, an unending stream of letters and books. I don’t even know when I’ll be able to say thank you. For some reason, an extraordinary number of people thought of me this year.
Sometimes it takes me two or three days to write a single letter. And [in the meantime] more and more obligations pile up. Sometimes one makes mistakes trying to help. I’ve stopped cleaning up [the] Boruta and Čiurlionis [texts]. And all this cuts me like a knife, tears my soul apart.
Who will tell all those good people that I don’t have the strength to write.26
In Šimaitė’s mind, caring for her needy Estonian neighbor is transformed into a kind of penance. Similarly, it appears that her obsessive letter writing was some kind of penance for an unnamed past sin, the letters counted off like the beads of a rosary. Although she was an atheist, in this regard the vestiges of her Lithuanian Catholic roots are plain to see. Likewise, remember her criticizing her friend Kauneckas for his “dictionary mania”? Wasn’t she herself suffering from a mania, a “textual mania”? Her problem in not writing her memoirs was thus not writer’s block, it was an excess of letter writing, a kind of letter-writing sickness – epistolophilia – which precluded any other kind of writing. Such letter writing was a studied avoidance of the kind Sigmund Freud talks about when describing his patients who won’t heal. In “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,” Freud tries to account for the fact that some of his patients were getting worse with treatment. He describes their compulsive repetition of symptoms as replacing the impulse to remember. The compulsion to repeat gradually enters every activity and relationship in the patient’s life, so that the symptoms of the illness (that is, whatever the patient repeats) eventually become a kind of ambivalent refuge:
His illness must no longer seem to him contemptible, but must become an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for its existence and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived. The way is thus paved from the beginning for a reconciliation with the repressed material which is coming to expression in his symptoms, while at the same time place is found for a tolerance for the state of being ill.27
In Šimaitė’s case, her compulsive letter writing might well displace or replace the remembering that writing a memoir would necessitate. Thus letter writing, as Freud rightly points out, is simultaneously a refuge and an enemy. Like any addiction, letter writing for Šimaitė represented both the poison and the medication that numbs the pain associated with it.
“You must tell your story,” Šimaitė was told time and time again. It may have been too much to ask of her. “Who will tell all those good people that I don’t have the strength to write?” she asked. The answer to this question is with the researcher, the archivist, the young novelist – to all of whom, in different ways, she addressed her letters.
The Writing Archive
We have established what Šimaitė did not produce in her lifetime – she did not produce a memoir about herself, or about her beloved friend Kazys Jakubėnas, or about the ghetto, or Dachau. We have also established what she produced instead: a massive collection of letters and journals. But from a different perspective, once we have come to accept that Šimaitė was unable to leave us the inheritance we would have liked, we can begin to see the richness of the legacy that she did bequeath. And for me, this is the most exciting challenge of Šimaitė’s archive: to stop reading it for what it does not contain, and to begin examining what it does.
In her letters to Icchokas Meras, Šimaitė went out of her way to convince Meras that she was not a writer. She wanted him to write the story of the Vilnius Ghetto in her stead. A few examples:
May 17, 1961: Sometimes I regret that I am not a writer. Because I saw and felt the heroism with which almost every single person in the Vilnius Ghetto lived each day. Sometimes it hurts me that I cannot and do not know how to express it in writing.28
And on August 15, 1961:
[ C]omrade Meras, just do not try to convince yourself that I am a writer. I have never been one, and never will. True, twice in my life I wished to be a great writer, to tell how everyone in the Vilnius Ghetto was without knowing it a hero in his or her everyday life. Your [short story] “The Boy” confirms this. And now that Eichmann is on trial, when they dare to blame the victims, why they didn’t protest, fight back, why did they went where they were told [...], this, my friend, this is what makes me sick at heart. This is when I wish I were a good writer and could write so as to touch the depths of people’s souls, would make everyone see it. But I feel so powerless.29
On November 30, 1965:
These days many beautiful words are sounded, many heroes honored, but nothing is ever said about the quiet, little, true heroes. Except for you, you showed it so well, knew how to tell it. But I cannot tell you all I feel. For I am not a writer.30
Should we accept Šimaitė at her word? To answer this question, I return in my memory to the words of a beloved teacher at the University of Toronto, J. Edward Chamberlin (Come Back to Me, My Language and If this is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?) whose class “The Language of Poetry” took me far outside my comfort zone and turned out to be a defining experience by fundamentally changing the ways in which I approach texts, authorship and language. The first thing that students have to learn in Ted Chamberlin’s classes is that authors are rarely the best judges of their own works. Riffing on a line from Yeats, Professor Chamberlin’s favorite question in that context was: “Who do you believe: the dancer or the dance?” Or, alternately, “the teller or the tale?” None of us were entirely sure what it meant, but my view is that he was asking whether we should believe the text or what its author says about it. Even if Šimaitė herself says she is not a writer, her textual legacy proves otherwise. We must, in this case, believe the dance, not the dancer. Despite her claims to the contrary, Šimaitė was a writer – and a great one, because writing and life for Šimaitė were inextricably and, sometimes painfully, intertwined. She lived through writing, in writing and for writing. She had very few “real” friends (with whom she met face to face), but a huge number of “paper” friends, particularly near the end of her life. She considered her diary-keeping a means of conversing with herself, and letter-writing was her primary mode of conversing with others. After the war, she found herself severely limited by sickness and chronic pain (which she called a “gift from the Gestapo”). In later years walking up and down the stairs of her apartment building or making the trip to the metro station had become a major undertaking that required days of psychological preparation. But through writing she lived a rich and complex life. Hers, I would argue, was a paper life. Reading, writing, and research were her life’s blood and breath:
November 30, 1965. The past 6 months were extraordinarily hard with all the troubles they brought. But my best, brightest ray of sunshine was that I could read, receive, and send out all sorts of material about [the poet-composer-painter] Čiurlionis. Don’t laugh, my dear friend Meras, but I felt 20 years younger, or even more. This gave me the strength to struggle and bear all hardships. I would like so much for the world to learn about Čiurlionis, for his music to be played, and for his other works to become known through reproductions and in print.31
Šimaitė was what Klaus Hurlebusch has called a “psycho-genetic” writer, like Paul Valéry or Montaigne, or even Marcel Proust.32 These are writers who wrote to write and who wrote to live, as opposed to “work-genetic” writers who write to finish a product.
Šimaitė lived a writing life and left us with its compelling record. Her texts tell of a solitary life in exile, of how a woman continues living after torture, loss, and sorrow. She stood at the center of an international constellation of characters – it was a global existence avant la lettre, “before the letter,” but also a global existence “through the letter.” The lives of her friends were plagued by despair, sickness, murder, imprisonment, forced labor and deportation, and many of these life stories would be lost were it not for Šimaitė’s correspondence. To use an image from Deleuze and Guattari, this correspondence is rhizomorphous (like an iris or an ant colony), spreading, splitting off and multiplying from within.33 One letter begets a response, which causes another letter to be written, which results in the addition of a new correspondent, which requires more letter-writing. Even a lapse in letter-writing produces letters – notes of concern for the silent one, which in turn produce guilt on her part, which in turn necessitates the writing of an apology, then a response to the apology, and so on and so on. This is why Šimaitė’s story contains so many other stories within it, like that of the editor Tayda Devėnaitė, whose suicide devastated and confused Šimaitė. And like that of Kazys Jakubėnas who, like so many other dissident Soviet writers, was erased from history after his execution. But Šimaitė’s letters to Jakubėnas (we do not have his responses) bear witness to his life, to the fact that he did exist, that he was much-loved, and to the authorities dangerous enough to deserve an extrajudicial killing. Although Šimaitė could never bring herself to complete a text about her friend, the small collection of letters written to him accomplishes the work of memory.
I have no doubt that Šimaitė would have considered her writings unfit for publication and without literary merit – but then, so did Kafka. But unlike Kafka, who bequeathed his writings to Max Brod so they could be destroyed, Šimaitė – the eternal librarian – conscientiously ensured the survival of her manuscripts by allowing, and even asking, for them to be archived. This gesture, I think, shows an uncharacteristic trust in future caregivers, like me, who come into her archive and tend to her legacy. I undertake the task willingly, and will care for her literary body with dignity and respect, not just to tell the story she didn’t have the strength to write but also to retell the one she did.