Because of the collecting scope of the library and archives, the original impetus for which came from Herbert Hoover's determination to document World War I in hopes that future conflicts could be prevented, many of its materials relate to
episodes of collective violence: the mass deportations and executions under Stalin; the Holocaust; and various wars, large and small. One can't help being struck by the extent of the inhumanity that is recorded in such documents, bringing to mind a line spoken by one of the characters in James Joyce's Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Fortunately, one also encounters examples of individuals and groups who worked to alleviate suffering or help the victims of catastrophes. In preparing materials to show the ambassador of Lithuania on his visit to the archives, I had a chance to look again at a small collection pertaining to a woman who, at great risk to herself, rescued Jews in German-occupied Vilnius during World War II. That the woman, Ona Šimaitė, was also a university librarian made her story even more compelling; she was concerned with preserving not only the printed word but human life.
Using the cover of her profession to visit Jews in the Vilnius ghetto, Šimaitė brought them books and also food, medicine, and clothes. She was able to rescue a number of Jewish children, bringing them out of the ghetto hidden in potato sacks. She also acted as a courier for the underground resistance to the Nazis. Šimaitė paid a high price for her actions: arrested by the Gestapo, she was tortured and eventually sent to the Dachau concentration camp but somehow survived.
After the war, Šimaitė settled in France, where she continued to work as a librarian. Having adopted one of the Jewish children she had saved in Vilnius, she and her daughter eventually moved to Israel. Šimaitė was presented with a medal by the State of Israel in recognition of her rescue efforts. She died in France in 1970.
The Ona Šimaitė papers in the archives contain a small album of photos and clippings, as well as notes she made during the German occupation of Lithuania. It also contains correspondence, including letters written to her by Vytautas Landsbergis in 1968. A musicology student at the time, Landsbergis would later become famous as the leader of the independence movement in Lithuania, serving as the country's first president in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Although Šimaitė’s story was little known outside of Lithuania, a recently scholarly article on her, written by Julija Sukys, can be found in the summer 2008 ( 54, no. 2) issue of the journal, Lituanus.