By Meredith Wood Bahuriak
What we learn from our predecessors, we leave for some successor to follow. In Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite, author Julija Sukys dances with the ghost of Ona Simaite in order to remember and honor not just the Holocaust, but Simaite’s life, thoughts, views, and actions. As Sukys unravels the biography of Simaite, she struggles to understand the story she desperately seeks to find.
A treasurer of words, Simaite carefully collected, preserved and archived a written record of her life including thousands of letters, scores of diaries, articles, and press clippings. A librarian at Vilna University, she used her position to aid and rescue Jews with the excuse of retrieving overdue library books from Jewish students as an entry into the Vilna ghetto.
From 1941-1944 Simaite slipped into the Jewish Ghetto of German-occupied Vilnius to bring its prisoners food, clothes, medicine, money, and forged documents. She came out of the ghetto with letters to deliver and manuscripts to hide, carried sedated children in sacks, and stole away with a Jewish girl.
Arrested and tortured in 1944 by the Gestapo for providing aid to Jewish Holocaust victims, Simaite refers to herself as a martyr to the letter. The problem in completing her memoirs was not writers block but rather an excess of writing – a kind of letter-writing sickness – an epistolophilia – that precluded any other kind of writing.
Following Simaite’s paper trail around the world for nearly a decade, Juljia Sukys presents a memoir more reflective of her own relationship with Simaite as a mentor than as an objective criticism of Simaite herself. A startling paradox that while Simaite died at 76 before completing her memoirs, Sukys is able to capture Simaite’s story while successfully writing an unexpected memoir of her own.
Sukys utilizes the first person in order to clarify her interest in Simaite’s life, beyond the ghetto and Dachu. “Simaite’s stories have led me to consider questions of self-sacrifice, creativity, and the feminine.” Simaite challenges Sukys to interpret her archival research as a conversation – Sukys hears Simaite speaking to her through diaries and letters and responds by writing – a correspondence that inextricably brings Sukys closer to an understanding of Simaite’s life.
As Sukys and Simaite circumnavigate the globe together, Sukys questions whether it is death that draws women to libraries and to become librarians, or writers. Libraries operate on a “harem” model, “where men lead and women facilitate their work, toiling at their sides.” Simaite, who works as a cataloguer – the lowest of the low – forces Sukys to ask herself to what extent does she refuse to experience the things she does not like. Sukys confesses her bias and adheres to the ethical code of writing an objective account of Simaite’s work. Simaite and Sukys reference the librarian as the “beloved profession” and “keepers of the human soul,” respectively. Sukys is led to the revelation, “When a library is burned, so are we.” This sentiment drives Sukys to reconstruct Simaite as library, life, writer, woman.
In “Profession for Women,” Virginia Woolfe coins the phrase “Killing the Angel in the House,” as a term used to reference the occupation and responsibility of women writers to move past a repressive, Victorian, ideal in the early 20th century – a direct response to the poem “Angel in the House,” by Coventry Patmore in 1854. On June 8, 1955 the Angel took its toll on Simaite with memories unwritten, “My spirit is suffering from my inability to work […] the desire to strive is dying. My soul is starting to die!”
Though Sukys interprets the archival signs Simaite leaves (letters, journals, clippings, articles) and fills in the gaps to the best of her ability, she cannot document Simaite or her story in its entirety. Admitting to her own invention, Sukys confesses, “Because I do not want to lie to my reader, or to betray my friend Simaite, I cannot erase myself.”
Sukys relays the feminist ideology that women write their lives in relationship to others, searching for reason behind the lack of memoir and literary text and questioning themes of silence. Sukys and Simaite are part of a larger project led by Virginia Woolfe, “a rethinking of women’s lives and of how to write them […].” In order for a woman to write, Woolfe suggests that she must have private space (a room of one’s own), money, and connected time (which only money can buy). “Woolfe points to a much simpler explanation for the lack of memoirs: poverty,” whereas Simaite avoids and is unable to face the past.
In addition to thousands of letters, Simaite left twenty-nine diaries covering the period from 1953 to 1970. These correspondences tell a remarkable story in which Sukys humbly recognizes the impact of her work, challenging a number of common assumptions in scholarly thinking about memory, the importance of writing as life-structuring practice, the significance of silence in a body of work, and the literacy of private and female texts.
In Diary 29, Simaite writes, “Who will tell all those good people that I don’t have the strength to write?” Sukys is that person, “She [Simaite] appears to have written it for posterity, for someone like me, who Simaite knew or hoped would one day sift through her papers.” Simaite inspires Sukys to complete what she set out to do; in writing Epistolophilia, Sukys depicts a divine relationship through an enlightening memoir.