Julija Šukys, who has just published her book Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite, tells us of the origin of its title:
The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.
The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life)…
With great love and, as Julija puts it, a case of epistolophilia (the book involved research via the archives in three countries), the author has brought to her readers—as the title names it with such beauty—the writing of a life.
Through Epistolophilia, Julija Šukys follows the letters and journals—the “life-writing”—of this woman, Ona Šimaitė (1894–1970). A treasurer of words, Šimaitė carefully collected, preserved, and archived the written record of her life, including thousands of letters, scores of diaries, articles, and press clippings. Journeying through these words, Šukys negotiates with the ghost of Šimaitė, beckoning back to life this quiet and worldly heroine—a giant of Holocaust history (one of Yad Vashem’s honored “Righteous Among the Nations”) and yet so little known. The result is at once a mediated self-portrait and a measured perspective on a remarkable life. It reveals the meaning of life-writing, how women write their lives publicly and privately, and how their words attach them—and us—to life.
…how women write their lives publicly and privately, and how their words attach them—and us—to life. Our words, our lives, the connections which in some cases are critical not only to happiness but to survival itself. In Šukys’ book she tells us, via her own words and those of her subject, the fascinating story of this woman who slipped in an out of the German-occupied ghetto in Vilnius—
…to bring its prisoners food, clothes, medicine, money, and forged documents. She carried letters and messages. In one case, she brought a vial of strychnine for a friend to use if suicide became his only escape. She came out of the ghetto with letters to deliver and manuscripts to hide. In one case she stole away with a Jewish girl, and on others carried out sedated children in sacks. Occasionally she spent the night in the ghetto, sharing a bed with her opera-singing friend on evenings when she attended the ghetto’s concerts, plays, and art exhibits. She supported its most desperate by listening to their fears and responding to their letters—in most cases, the last ones they ever wrote.