A Heroic Librarian in the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’
Stand for Israel | May 15, 2023
Born in Lithuania, but educated in Russia, in 1940 a Christian woman named Ona Simaite moved to Vilnius, long known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” There, Ona took a job as librarian at Vilnius University just as the Lithuanian people faced the looming Nazi invasion, which began the very next year.
Overdue Books in the Vilna Ghetto
A Gentile in what had long been a city friendly to its large Jewish community (Napoleon even called it “the Jerusalem of the north”), Ona used her job as librarian to gain a permit to enter the Vilna Ghetto where the Nazis held the city’s Jews before their deportation and murder. You see, the university library had countless books checked out to Jewish patrons, books which Ona came to the ghetto to collect. But overdue books weren’t Ona’s main reason for entering the ghetto. No, her goal was to save Jewish lives.
Ona’s heroism took many forms. First, she took part in the Paper Brigade, an effort to save the work of Vilna’s Jewish writers, smuggling literary and historic documents out of the ghetto and out of the reach of the Nazis. Ona also acted as the ghetto’s mail carrier, bringing correspondence to and from the Jews cut off from the outside world, despite the threat of death she faced.
The resourceful librarian also smuggled documents into the ghetto. The forged documents she helped create and sneak in saved the lives of countless Lithuanian Jews.
Saving Jewish Lives
But Ona literally saved Jewish lives, too. Her home acted as a temporary shelter for Jews who escaped the ghetto, and a refuge for Jewish children until families could be found who would house them until war’s end.
As the Vilna Ghetto faced liquidation (the term for Nazis sending all the inhabitants to death camps), Ona carried out two acts of heroism for which she would face grave consequences.
First, she provided false documents for a 10-year-old Jewish girl, documents which claimed Ona as the child’s aunt. Then, she smuggled a sick young woman from the ghetto, nursing the girl back to health in her own home and in the library. But when Ona was caught, the Nazis first tortured her, then sent her to a concentration camp. There, the Germans learned of the earlier forged papers and sentenced the aging librarian to death.
Money collected by Ona’s friends saved her life, but the librarian still spent the rest of the war in the infamous Dachau concentration camp.
After liberation, Ona worked as a librarian in Paris, except for three years spent in Israel during the 1950s. And Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, recognized Ona Simaite as Righteous Among the Nations in 1966, four years before this brave Hero of the Holocaust passed away.