Malvina Šokelytė Valeikienė is Defending History’s 2018 Person of the Year


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Malvina Šokelytė Valeikienė (1898-1981)

Over the years, Defending History has generally named People of the Year from the ranks of contemporary figures. In 2014, for example, it was Vilna-born Holocaust survivor Prof. Pinchos Fridberg for standing up with intrepid courage about the truth of the Lithuanian Holocaust. For 2015, seven Lithuanian citizens — including Evaldas Balčiūnas, Aleksandras Bosas, Vilma Fiokla Kiurė, Lina Žigelytė, and Alicija Žukauskaitėwere honored for their human rights achievements over the years. One year ago today, in 2017, it was three who stood up against plans of powerful, corrupt forces to humiliate the old Vilna Jewish cemetery with plans for a national convention center: Ruta Bloshtein who launched a petition (that has now garnered 42,000 signatures) and the two principled rabbis, Kalev Krelin and Sholom-Ber Krinsky, who were among the very first to sign it, disregarding serious pressures.

This year, Defending History is proud to honor the 100th anniversary of the inspirational rise of independent, democratic Lithuania in 1918. First, we have launched a new virtual mini-museum of Jewish life in interwar Lithuania to illustrate the unique level of multicultural respect for minorities inherent in the republic’s daily and remarkable Lithuanian-Yiddish interaction.

Now, on 1 January 2018, we follow up by naming as Person of 2018 a hero of the nation’s struggle for independence in the war following upon Lithuania’s 1918 Declaration of Independence who went on during the Lithuanian Holocaust in 1941-1944 to “just do the right thing” and save a Jewish neighbor. It is, frankly, also a bold statement against current tendencies in Eastern Europe to honor those who took part in pro-Nazi activities during the Holocaust. These are no banana republics; they are age-old European nations with untold numbers of true heroes in which all of humanity may rejoice. The message sent when collaborators are glorified is one of noxious adoration of fascism. It is high time for just the opposite.

Malvina Šokelytė Valeikienė (1898-1981) was a lifelong beloved school teacher. She and her husband Matas Valeika lived in Giedraičiai (in northeastern Lithuania, in Yiddish Gédrevitsh) during the war of independence, when she risked her life to lead the rescue and the care of wounded soldiers, both Lithuanian and Polish, in the face of a brutal attack. She is thought to be the first in the history of Lithuania to bear the Red Cross flag (which she sewed herself from a sheet) while saving the wounded. In 1927 she became one of the exceedingly few women to be awarded Lithuania’s military Order of the Cross of Vytis (which she is seen wearing in the photograph).

At her home in Kaunas, during the Holocaust in 1941, Malvina hid a Jewish colleague who was an English teacher. Back in Giedraičiai, her daughter Milda hid her Jewish friend Esfira Gutmanaitė (Fira Gutman) in the attic. Daughter and mother conspired to hide Esfira that summer, and finally, when it became too dangerous, they called on their relative, the famous artist and ethnographer Antanas Jaroševičius to continue the rescue program. Malvina also participated in helping Esfira’s parents, Itsik (Icikas) and Béyle (Beile) Gutman who lived in hiding in a nearby forest. Itsik fell ill and died in 1944. Béyle survived.

Unlike the act of killing many helpless civilians in a moment with an automatic weapon, the rescue of a single person involved vast work, sacrifice and risk for multiple people over three years. Esfira, with the network of help of Malvina and her family and circle, survived the Holocaust. Today, her daughter lives and works in Vilnius.

Malvina Šokelytė Valeikienė’s heroic exploits have yet to appear in English with the notable exception of Molėtai 625 by Vaidotas Žukas (see pages 152-159). In Lithuanian, we have accounts online by the Kaunas City Museum, and the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, and photos by the Molėtai District Museum. Lithuania’s Virtual Electronic Heritage System includes articles in Karys, 1927, no. 20, pages 193194195; and Karys 1937, no. 18, pages 477478479. We refer readers also to the article on Malvina Šokelytė-Valeikienė by Vilius Kavaliauskas in his six volume encyclopedia, Lithuanian War Heroes: Knights of the Vytis Cross (1918-1940).

These sources have been compiled by Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas of Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU). Special thanks to Milda Valeikytė’s daughter Elona Ruzgienė, and to Virginija Bitinienė (Kaunas City Museum), Viktorija Kazlienė (Molėtai Region Museum), and to Danutė Selčinskaja (Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania) for generously sharing advice and information.

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