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Manuscript heritage of Ona Šimaitė at Vilnius University Library

Vilnius University Library has in its holdings a large part of the manuscript heritage, including letters, notes, photos and diaries, that used to belong to Ona Šimaitė, a rescuer of Vilnius Ghetto Jews, the Righteous Among the Nations and a librarian. In 2024, while marking the 130th birth anniversary of Ona Šimaitė, the Library presents a digital overview of the documentary heritage of this exceptional person. The documents bear witness to the strong spirit, courage, modesty and selflessness of this woman and give an insight on her needs: Šimaitė cannot imagine her life without books, theatre, music, art and everyday help for those surrounding her. Her entire life was dedicated to helping others. In the war years, it was help for the Jews and later for the close ones and to all who needed her to send books and parcels, to write reviews, to give friendly emotional support through letters and personal attention.
Ona Šimaitė in her study years

Biography of Ona Šimaitė

Ona was born on 6 January 1894 in Akmenė, in the family of Ona Daujotaitė and Kazys Šimas. She had three siblings: sisters Julija and Liudmila and brother Kazys. Until eight years of age, Ona grew up in her grandparents’ family, later attended a primary school and graduated from a gymnasium in Riga. As the First World War broke out, the family moved to Russia. Ona Šimaitė studied in Moscow and later worked in educational institutions with homeless children. After returning to Lithuania in 1922, she taught in a Jewish school in Kaunas, worked as a translator and librarian in various libraries. Since 1924, Šimaitė studied humanities at Vytautas Magnus University.
Sisters Liudmila, Julija and Ona from the Šimai family. The photo is dedicated to their brother Kazys. Vilnius, 1924
(left) Julija Šimaitė. Vilnius, 1924. (right) Liudmila Šimaitė-Šakalinienė with her husband and daughter Aldona. Kaunas, 1930–1940
Ona Šimaitė’s brother Kazys Šimas. The photo is dedicated to Ona Šimaitė. Vilnius, 1932
Ona Šimaitė with the dolls she has sewn. Kaunas, 1939
At the invitation of VU’s rector Mykolas Biržiška, Šimaitė began her work at Vilnius University Library. In 1940–1944, she worked as a cataloguer, head of Rare Books Department, bibliographer, and secretary of the Lithuanian Studies Seminar.
Vilnius University and the Library before 1940
(left) 1940–1943, the Rector of Vilnius University Mykolas Biržiška. (right) The act issued by Rector of VU Biržiška on 1 August 1941 approving the positions of the Library staff. Ona Šimaitė is appointed to work as the head of the department.
Ona Šimaitė’s identity document. Vilnius, 1942
The plan of Vilnius Ghetto. Memorial plaque in Gaono str. 3, Vilnius. The plaque marks the place of a gate to Vilnius Small Ghetto.
After Germany occupied Lithuania and the occupiers established a ghetto for the Jews in Vilnius in 1941, Ona Šimaitė became a rescuer of the ghetto prisoners. While working at VU Library, with the rector’s approval, she started visiting Vilnius Ghetto on a pretence of retrieving books borrowed from the Library. Actually, Ona Šimaitė would bring in for the prisoners of the ghetto some food, forged documents, or weapons, parcels from other people and at the same time she would take out letters, valuable books and manuscripts from the ghetto. Šimaitė would also look for people who would provide a safe refuge for the Jewish children and she herself would help to hide refugees. In 1943, she saved a Jewish student from the ghetto by carrying her in a sack. She rescued another student by pretending that she is her colleague and leading her through the ghetto gate. Šimaitė offered the student her apartment as a temporary refuge and later hid her in VU Library. For helping the Jews, Šimaitė was arrested by the Gestapo three times. In the spring of 1944 Šimaitė was again arrested, interrogated, tortured and sentenced to death. On the initiative of Rector Biržiška, some VU colleagues managed to bribe German officials and her sentence was commuted from death to Dachau concentration camp. Later Šimaitė was transferred to a concentration camp in France. In 1944, after being released by the Allied troops, she settled in Toulouse.
Identity card issued to Ona Šimaitė by the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944
Certificate issued on 15 February 1946 by the International Committee for Refugees confirming that Ona Šimaitė is a Lithuanian refugee. The certificate was issued as an attachment to other documents that were necessary for travelling to Palestine.
Document for travelling to other countries issued in the Republic of France. 1951
Confirmation issued by the police about the changes of residence in 1948–1951 in Paris
38 Rue de Courcelles, Paris. Ona Šimaitė lived in the attic of this house until 1965
For several years, Ona Šimaitė lived in Israel. In 1956 she returned to France and settled in Paris. She earned money for living by doing laundry, sewing dolls, and working in libraries. From 1965 to the end of her life, Ona Šimaitė lived in a residential care facility for the elderly in Cormeilles (near Paris). After her death in 1970, she bequeathed her body to the medical university in Paris.
(top, left and right) Ona Šimaitė’s life in Israel, 1953–1956
Ona Šimaitė around 1967
(left) Ona Šimaitė in Paris. 1969. (right) Last photo of Ona Šimaitė (author Antanas Liutkus). Paris, 1969
Branch of the tree planted in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations
Ona Šimaitė is the first Lithuanian to receive the title of the Righteous Among the Nations on 15 March 1966. That is why we mark the Day of Rescuers of Lithuanian Jews on 15 March. In 1987, a tree was planted in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, to honour her. The President of the Republic of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus awarded the Cross for the Rescue of the Dying (2002); a memorial plaque to honour Ona Šimaitė was unveiled in Simonas Daukantas Courtyard of Vilnius University (2004); a street in the Old Town of Vilnius was named after her (2015); Akmenė town library was given the name of Ona Šimaitė (2019); a memorial plaque on the house where Ona Šimaitė used to live in Vilnius Savičiaus str. 13 was unveiled (2019); a portrait of Ona Šimaitė painted by Modestas Saukaitis was opened at Vilnius University Library (2020).
Cross for the Rescue of the Dying
Czesław Miłosz Stairs in the street named after Ona Šimaitė. Vilnius, 2023
The Day of Rescuers of Lithuanian Jews. S. Daukantas Courtyard of Vilnius University, 2023. For more photos of the memory day click here
Žibuntas Mikšys around 1970–1980

Manuscript heritage of Ona Šimaitė at Vilnius University Library

Žibuntas Mikšys, a graphic artist and a good friend of Ona Šimaitė who lived in Paris, took care of her documentary heritage. Mikšys handed over the major part of the documents to the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace of Stanford University and Kent University Library. The other part he kept in his own house and in the house of the Chairman of the Lithuanian Community in France, priest Jonas Petrošius. In 1966, Mikšys delivered these documents to Vilnius University Library.
Ona Šimaitė’s archive kept by Žibuntas Mikšys. (left) Cover of document folder, 1977. (right) Ona Šimaitė’s bookplate created by Žibuntas Mikšys, 1970
Biography written down by Žibuntas Mikšys on 6 December 1969 in Paris – Ona Šimaitė (as given in her own account)
In 2003, when preparing to celebrate the 110th birth anniversary of Ona Šimaitė, the Library contacted Kent University Library on Šimaitė’s documents for an exhibition. This was an initiative of Rimantas Stankevičius, a researcher of Ona Šimaitė’s heritage. After receiving Mikšys’ approval, Kent University Library offered to transfer the materials they had to Vilnius University Library for permanent keeping. These were Ona Šimaitė’s dairies written between the years 1953 and 1969, letters written by various persons to Šimaitė in 1958–1969, as well as materials collected by her on various cultural topics and other documents. A separate archival unit dedicated to Ona Šimaitė was formed in 2004.

At present Ona Šimaitė’s archival unit comprises 643 documents, 218 out of which is an archive of Kęstutis Šimas, the son of Šimaitė’s brother Kazys. Since 2004, Šimaitė’s archive has been supplemented with various materials: audio records, a branch of the tree dedicated to Ona Šimaitė, which grows in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem, a declaration on Vilnius Ghetto documents, personal documents of Ona Šimaitė, letters she wrote and those addressed to her, memoirs about writers Kazys Boruta and Kazys Jakubėnas, notebooks, various notes and press cuttings, photos of Ona Šimaitė and her relatives.
Ona Šimaitė’s dairies written between the years 1953 and 1969

In Ona Šimaitė’s archival unit, the dairies hold a significant place as there are 29 notebooks written by her hand from Kent University Library and 3 diaries handed over by Mikšys. Šimaitė’s diaries cover the years from 1950 to 1969. She wrote them while living in France and Israel in Lithuanian, Russian and French. The last diary entry was made on 1 January 1970:

“For Christmas I had a great joy – a Christmas tree like from a fairy tale [ … ], lots of candy, so many letters and books that were sent to me. I can’t tell when I will be able to say “thank you” at least. This year for some reason so many remembered about me. [ … ] Who will tell all those kind people that I am not capable to write anymore?”

The diaries reveal her diligence, sense of duty, generosity, kind-heartedness and willingness to help others, her insatiable need for literature, music, art, theatre, and traveling.

“1953 22/X Thursday. The night was quite good. I’ve been reading from 6 to 7. Breakfast, dishes, housekeeping, shopping until ten thirty, four letters [written], half an hour for embroidery, lunch, post office, buying a theatre ticket …”

“1956 14/X Sunday. I have nothing and I live only at present, one day at a time. Although my life is difficult, when I step into the world of art, I feel so happy and rich.”

An insert in Ona Šimaitė’s diary
Nazi imprisonment took a toll on her health. She complains of bad health in her diaries, but despite of that she makes an effort to live a normal everyday life and has so many desires:

“1954 8/II Monday. Oh, old age and poor health! Yet my soul is so young and willing to work, study and travel, alas, my strength is ebbing away. It hurts and brings sorrow.”

In 1953–1956 Šimaitė was invited by friends to live in Israel. The diaries from this period evidently express her longing for Paris and its cultural life, dissatisfaction with the hot and rainy climate of Israel, and deteriorating living conditions.

“1954 10/II I have received a theatre newspaper from Paris. So many films, exhibitions, concerts and performances in the daytime. I could have attended all of them despite such appalling living conditions.”

The diaries have numerous entries giving the gist of a book or a performance, sharing experiences, commentaries or critical notes. They have many inserts: cards, theatre programmes, concert calendars, press cuttings on literature, music and art.
Ona Šimaitė’s diary – Chopinic writing book. An inscription and press cuttings on concerts. Paris, 1960
The people who were close with Šimaitė give a testimony on her relationship with music. From the letter of Irena Sabaitytė who with her mother lived together with Ona Šimaitė in one apartment in Subačiaus street (21.12.1969, Vilnius):

“I would like to express gratitude for my rich past as you were the first person who ingrained in me as a child love for music. No matter what concert or performance I'm at, I always remember you.”

Šimaitė particularly loved Frédéric Chopin’s music and attended concerts of various musicians playing Chopin’s pieces. She dedicated the entire notebook for the articles about the composer himself, his biography and commentaries on his concerts she has attended – Žibuntas Mikšys titled this notebook “Chopinic Diary”. The notebook was a calendar dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Frédéric Chopin which was given to Šimaitė as a gift. You may see the calendar in VU Library’s Digital Collections.
Ona Šimaitė’s diary – Chopinic notebook. Paris, 1960
Letters written by her to relatives, friends and acquaintances between the years 1957 and 1969 from France and Israel, as well as letters written to her by various persons and institutions covering the years from 1945 to 1970 in Lithuanian, Russian, French, German and Polish make a significant part of Šimaitė’s archive.

Many correspondents in their letters would invite Šimaitė to come to Lithuania, urged her to write memoirs about the Holocaust and the atrocities she experienced. Her work at Vilnius University Library and her contribution to rescuing the Jews and their property from Vilnius Ghetto and YIVO Institute of Jewish Studies were also mentioned oftentimes. From M. Čilvinaitė's letter written on 7 April 1958:

“I went to Vilnius and we looked for the manuscripts you’ve told me about; however, unfortunately – I am sad and grieved to admit that we did not find anything. Coal is kept in the storeroom under the stairs and I doubt something could have survived there. We also inspected the storeroom by the entrance to the Lithuanian Studies Seminar Room. It's empty there too. In the attic, as you wrote, on the right side, where the roof descends, we searched and searched and did not understand where the tin box could have been buried. [...] We searched with J. Berželionis and the director of the library and returned without any luck as if from the funeral where great human suffering was buried.”

Ona Šimaitė maintained relationship with the Jewish people who had experienced the Nazi occupation. These were people to whom she used to come in Vilnius Ghetto such as Sala (Tania) Wachsman-Sterntal, Shlioma (Solomon) Kovarskij, Dina Abramovicz and Paul Bagriansky, as well as the Holocaust historians Philip Friedman and Dov Levin.
Letter of Dina Abramovicz to Ona Šimaitė. New York, 1964
Letter of Shlioma (Solomon) Kovarskij to Ona Šimaitė. New York, 1963
The letters reveal sensitive, painful experiences of the past and the gratitude of those rescued from the ghetto. Sala Wachsman-Sterntal was among the people saved by Šimaitė. She recounts in one of her letters about escaping from the ghetto:

13.IV 1961 “Today is the anniversary of the tragic years spent in Hitler's hell. Do you remember? Do you remember when you would come to my basement?..... You were a flag at a time when the flags of freedom and humanity were rotting in the mud and dung. Do you remember? Do you remember how I clung to you on a dark night when I left the surrounded ghetto. Didžioji Street was lit up and the Germans were hurrying up to the cinema. Do you remember what you told me? Baby, baby [in the letter that is written in Polish these words are written in Lithuanian], we will be home soon, you are so tired – Baby. I will always be Your Baby."

Another letter also contained some memories:

16.V (the year is not indicated) “Do you remember when the Jews were transferred from the ghetto to the camp and you wanted to follow them. Trupianski, Dimentman and Shuras managed to talk you out of this as you won’t help them and perish yourself.”

Tania and Buka Sterntal in a German camp for displaced persons around 1947
In 1968-II-6 letter to Vladas Žukas, Šimaitė recalls the people from Vilnius University to whom she feels grateful for helping her to hide Sala (Tania) Wachsman-Sterntal:

“…may I ask you to invite University warden Berželionis if he still works at the Uni and tell him big thanks on my behalf. In times of massacre and dehumanisation, professor Mykolas Biržiška appointed me to work in the premises of the Lithuanian Studies Seminar so that I could hide the student S. Wachsman, who stayed there for 4 and a half months. And when I told Berželionis that I was instructed by the “doctor” to sweep the rooms and steps of the seminar, he looked at me sadly, shook both of my hands in a brotherly manner and wished that such exercising would help to improve my "health". He immediately understood what was the matter. And I will never forget this.”

Letter of Ona Šimaitė to Vladas Žukas. 1968
Šimaitė’s correspondence reveals a wide range of interests and her social milieu. She corresponds with translators, writers, artists, and editors. The name of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis often appears in her letters. Šimaitė corresponded with bibliographer Vladas Žukas, art critic Andrėjus B. Nakovas, poet Jekaterina Bakunina, museologist Valerija Čiurlionytė–Karužienė, musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis et al. on Čiurlionis’ bibliography and his pieces of art.
Andrėjus B. Nakovas’ letter to Ona Šimaitė. Paris, 1965–1966
Oftentimes correspondents knew each other, as they were colleagues or friends. Anastazija Kašinskaitė, a textologist, and translator Tayda Devėnaitė worked at the “Vaga” Publishing House. They also were friends with artist Lidija Meškaitytė and Šimaitė’s niece Aldutė.
Lidija Meškaitytė and Tayda Devėnaitė in Antšvenčiai (Jurbarkas district), before 1961
When living in Paris, Šimaitė corresponded and socialized with the Lithuanians who lived there, such as diplomat Stasys Antanas Bačkis and his wife Ona Bačkienė, historian of art Jurgis Baltrušaitis (the junior), translator Ona Bagdonaitė–Greimienė, diplomat Stays Lozoraitis and his wife Vincenta Matulaitytė–Lozoraitienė, lawyer and artist Antanas Liutkus (the Bear), priest Jonas Petrošius, and Žibuntas Mikšys.

1964–IV–26 Šimaitė’s letter to Antanas Liutkus, who took care of her in Paris, shows her modesty:

“I was never actually a literary critic. Despite of that I have written many letters about the read books. Some of my reviews were even published in the press. However, I really don't like to decorate myself with someone else’s feathers. Therefore, I am grateful to Raila for writing the truth that I am not a "literary critic" and moreover not a famous one.”

(left) Ona Šimaitė’s letter to Antanas Liutkus. 1964. (middle) Jurgis Baltrušaitis (the junior). (right) Stasys Lozoraitis and Ona Šimaitė in Paris. 196?
Much attention Šimaitė would give to books and reading: “We need not only to have books, but also read them time and again. Besides, we ought to disseminate them and encourage others to read. We all are the children of the book smugglers’ nation” (letter to Vladas Žukas. 1967–XI–30). Therefore, the most common theme of letters was books. She corresponded with her former colleague Marijona Čilvinaite, bibliographer Vladas Žukas, children’s writer Aldona Liobytė, diplomat Juozas Urbšys, bibliophile Romualdas Šalūga, poet Eduardas Astramskas, choreographer Juozas Lingys, lawyer Alfonsas Jakubėnas and others on the subject.
Juozas Lingys’ letter to Ona Šimaitė. Vilnius, 1968
Those writing her letters express their gratitude for the sent publications and ask Šimaitė to send some new ones. In the letter to Vladas Žukas (on 30 November 1967) Šimaitė writes about her search and sending of books: “Everything, what is feasible, will be done from the whole heart”. Thus, journals on literature, art, history, geography, novels by the Lithuanian and foreign authors, memoirs, dictionaries, art albums, poetry selections, and children literature are being sent to others. The correspondence covers the themes of the books that have been recently read, those that are currently being translated or edited, as well as those that are being sent by Šimaitė.
Vytautas Kauneckas. Kulautuva (Kaunas district), 1959
Translator Vytautas Kauneckas had sent several photos depicting him posing beside the publications that were sent by Ona Šimaitė. The photos show the journals “La Nature”, “Scientific American”, “National Geographic”, books “Littérature française” (The French Literature, 2 volumes, 1952), and André Maurois biographic novels. An inscription written by Kauneckas: “Kulautuva, 1959 VI 30. I in my room. Everything you see on the table, dear Ona, have been sent by You.” – can be seen on the other side of the photos.
The Society of Oscar Milosz Fellows’ membership card issued on 11 April 1968 in Paris
At times, it was necessary to pull some tricks so that to send books. For instance, Tomas Venclova wrote that it was owing to Ona Šimaitė that he has for the first time read Czesław Miłosz’s “Native Realm”. She managed to send this book, which was unavailable even in Poland, to Lithuania in separate pages through parcels addressed to friends and relatives. She used some pages of the book as a package for chocolate that she sent. Although sending of the entire book took a year and a half, in the end the trick was a success. The sent pages were put together into the book and would be read by trustworthy readers. The book went from hands to hands and was avidly read and thus it made a considerable impact on many Lithuanian intellectuals of the Soviet period.

Ona Šimaitė sent various publications to libraries as well. Many letters of appreciation sent by the National Library of France, Polish libraries in Paris, the Jewish National and University Library of Jerusalem, and the State Republican Library of Lithuania in Kaunas (currently Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania) can be found in her archive.
Letter of appreciation for the delivered books from the National Library of France. Paris, 17 November 1964
Šimaitė used to send not only books to her relatives and friends, but also cards, post stamps, drawing paper and brushes, stationery, medicines, fabrics for sewing clothes, and seeds of plants – everything they would ask and she could get or buy. Therefore, even when living very modestly, she was always short of money.

On 10 March 1961, in his letter to Šimaitė Tadas Ivanauskas writes:

“[ … ] and I remember from my childhood that my father would always get seeds from him. However, this connection severed in 1938. So please, understand that this beautiful packet of seeds has awakened in me some romantic thoughts reminding me of my early days. I thank You so much. Those seeds will be enough for me.”

Letter of Tadas Ivanauskas, a Lithuanian naturalist and zoologist, to Ona Šimaitė. Kaunas, 10.03.1961
Vilnius University Library has the largest part of Ona Šimaitė’s manuscript heritage. Other archival documents are kept in Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, Kent University Library, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace of Stanford University and other institutions.

The documentary heritage of Ona Šimaitė can significantly contribute to the research of her biography and personality. Therefore, the documents are waiting for upcoming researchers. Fragments of Ona Šimaitė’s archive that is kept at Vilnius University Library are available through VU Library Digital Collections.

Introduction of the archive by Evelina Padrėzaitė and Nijolė Bulotaitė.

Language editor: Eglė Kirilauskaitė. Translator: Kristina Gudavičienė.

Martynas Baldauskas, Rita Jankauskaitė, Donatas Jarutis, Elona Malaiškienė and Viktorija Rybakova, colleagues of the Vilnius University Library's Communication and Information Office, Digital Library, Documental Heritage Preservation and Manuscripts Divisions were engaged in the various stages of the preparatory process.

Ona Šimaitė’s archive that is kept at Vilnius University Library was collected with the help of Žibuntas Mikšys and Kazys Šimas and supplemented owing to the efforts of Šimaitė’s documentary heritage researcher Rimantas Stankevičius. Vilnius University Library expresses its gratitude for cherishing the memory of Ona Šimaitė.

The language of quotations from letters and diaries has not been corrected.

Vilnius University Library, 2024


Rukšėnas, Algis. Lietuvos žydų gelbėtoja Ona Šimaitė: būdingos mintys iš jos gyvenimo ir palikto dienoraščio [A Rescuer of the Lithuanian Jews Ona Šimaitė: Characteristic Thoughts from Her Life and the Diary She Left]. Tėviškės žiburiai, Nr. 44(1187), 1972, p. 3.

Stankevičius, Rimantas. Nepadariusi tautai gėdos: Onos Šimaitės gyvenimo fragmentai [Not Bringing Shame to the Nation: Fragments of Ona Šimaitė's Life]. Vilnius: Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos tyrimo centras, 2021.

Šulgienė, Nijolė. Knygos bičiulę Oną Šimaitę prisimenant [In Memory of Onas Šimaitė, a Friend of the Book]. Tarp knygų, Gegužė, 2004, p. 25–29.

Venclova, Tomas. Vilniaus vardai [Names of Vilnius], Vilnius: R. Paknio leidykla, 2017, p.336.

Exhibition dedicated to Ona Šimaitė displayed in the foyer of the Faculty of Philology of Vilnius University to mark the Day of Rescuers of Lithuanian Jews in VU’s Simonas Daukantas Courtyard on 15 March 2023.