(Courtesy of Univerisity of Nebraska Press)
Because of its sizeable Jewish population prior to WWII, the Jewish community of Vilnius, Lithuania (now vanished) was once called the “Jerusalem of the North.” Indeed, the United States Holocaust Museum reports that before the war the Jewish population of Lithuania was 160,000.
Yet unlike Western European countries that were liberated, the incorporation of the Baltics into the Soviet Union after the war, brought about further upheaval including massacres, deportations and ongoing strife.
With 90% of the Jews murdered, it was one of the highest victim rates in Europe.
Now, in 2012 two books by University of Nebraska Press have been published that delve into that long, gone world. The first, “We Are Here” is by Ellen Cassedy who, in 2004, set out to learn Yiddish by traveling back to Lithuania. Instead, she discovered a world far beyond simply the lost language of her deceased relatives. She writes, “In my childhood, the Old Country had seemed utterly inaccessible, as if it existed in another dimension, like Atlantis or Narnia.”
Uncovering this history with an intimate, personal and investigative approach, Cassedy explores how the people of this country, Jews and non-Jews, are confronting their marred past and moving onward.
By interviewing locals, uncovering forgotten archives and encountering a strange old man who wants to “speak to a Jew” before he dies, Cassedy assembles and weaves together a historical quilt that provides an important context to a complex narrative. She comes across those who still harbor resentment for the Jews along with many who helped rescue them.
There are numerous points in reading her personal account where one needs to take a breath due to the sadness inherent in it. In particular, one of the most poignant is with the 79-year-old Steponas, who provides her a personal tour of where the killing occurred. Unable for much of it to look her in the eyes, when he finally does he says, “I have shivers walking through these places.” Most readers will get them too.
(Courtesy of Univerisity of Nebraska Press))
The second book is an even more obscure, though no less compelling story of titled "Epistolophilia: Writing The Life of Ona Simaite." In it Julia Sukys gives us the story of a little known heroine (one of Yad Vashem’s honored “Righteous Among the Nations”.) Yet, Ona Simaite is still an unknown to most.
As it turns out, Ona Simaite was a warrior and revolutionary, a gentile, who again and again slipped into the Jewish Ghetto of Vilnius, Lithuania (Vilna Ghetto) carrying in food, medicine, clothes and counterfeit documents to the Jews inside. She would deliver their letters and even carried out sedated children wrapped in sacks to freedom.
While it’s unclear how many lives she actually saved, it’s believed it was in the order of “around one hundred Jewish children from certain starvation in the ghetto.”
Delving deep into Ona’s life, Ms. Sukys discovers and reveals her actions and deeds, based on meticulous research through the thousands of letters and twenty-nine diaries Ona left behind.
However, Sukys also expounds on her frustration as to why the world does not take greater note of her.
She attributes this to several factors. For one, Ona came from a family of domestics. Also, the very language and culture of Lithuania created linguistic hurdles with squiggles and dots and hard to pronounce names. After World War II Ona faded into the Paris population cleaning, ironing and laundering the well to do Parisians. Finally, Ona was a short stocky, plain looking woman who never fit neatly into a category. Sukys writes, “…if her name had been Anna Strauss or Anne Simard and if she’d written her diaries and journals in major Western European language, perhaps someone would have written about her decades ago.”
Sukys is to be commended for providing us with this testament and story of a little known hero. Moreover, the writing is done with care and precision bringing to life a woman who we might have otherwise overlooked.
Both books provide a window into a world that, as painful as it is to return to, is nevertheless part of the story of why we are here.
Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and can be reached at (www.abebuzz.com)