Heroic Librarian: Ona Simaite

Brave Book Lover

Ona Simaite was a Lithuanian librarian who saved Jews including many children during the German occupation, and preserved literary works from the Vilna ghetto before being arrested by the Gestapo.

Born in Akmene, Lithuania in 1894, Ona was educated in Moscow and began working at the library at Vilnius university in 1940. A book lover and intellectual, Ona was excited to be working at the oldest university in northern Europe, in a city teeming with culture. However everything changed in 1941, when the Nazis invaded Lithuania. Immediately they created a squalid ghetto and imprisoned the city’s large Jewish population. Ona was shocked and horrified when her Jewish students and colleagues suddenly disappeared. 

Without a moment of doubt, she began visiting the ghetto frequently, under the pretext of collecting library books. She was shocked at what she saw there. It was hell on earth. Residents were barely alive, many of them starving to death, while others were shot in the streets, or beaten brutally and then sent to concentration camps. Ona spent the rest of the war helping Lithuanian Jews in multiple ways. In her visits to the ghetto, she smuggled food, medicine, supplies, and small firearms. After each visit, she left with documents: letters from ghetto residents to their loved ones, literary journals describing life in the ghetto, and various other important papers.

Ona helped Jews who managed to escape or avoid the ghetto by sheltering them in her own humble apartment, and when she ran out of room she found other hiding places for them. She procured fake documents enabling them to hide their Jewish identity. Saving Jews from the Nazis became the focus of her entire life. With superhuman strength and courage, she smuggled small children out of the ghetto in her big book sack, and found homes for them with people who would keep them hidden and safe. It is unknown exactly how many this mild-mannered librarian saved, because she spoke to no one about her heroic acts. 

In 1944, Ona was arrested by officers of the Gestapo, the notorious German secret police. She was brutally tortured by the sadistic Nazis, and sentenced to death. Miraculously, right before her scheduled execution, the president of Vinius University found out about it and paid a large ransom for her life. The Nazis agreed not to kill her, but they refused to free her, and instead sent to the Dachau concentration camp, and later an internment camp in France. Ona was finally freed when the Allies liberated France in 1945. 

After the war, Ona remained in Paris, living a quiet life as a librarian, in a home full of books. She was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in 1966, and a tree was planted in her honor. Ona died in 1970, leaving behind a trove of her own writing: letters, journals, articles, and diaries. Many of them were published in the book “Epistophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite.” In 2015, Simaite Street in Vilna was named after her.

For saving an unknown number of Jews, in a multitude of ways, over four years, we honor Ona Simaite as this week’s Thursday Hero. 

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