He’s not Jewish, he’s not Lithuanian and he’s not a librarian, but Wyman Brent, an American from San Diego, is building a Jewish library in Vilna. The library is the melding of Brent’s three loves – books, Lithuania and Jewish culture. It’s sort of the culmination of an odyssey, which has taken him to various parts of the world and through many periods in history.
Hopefully, the library will open its doors in a couple of months, but its official opening is scheduled for October 1, 2009, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Vilna Gaon Museum, which is donating the space.
The 46-year-old self-appointed librarian first came to Lithuania in 1994. “I felt at home. It felt like the place where I belonged.” He had come to Russia to see the country and had read a book called The Hills of Vilnius (Alfonsas Bieliauskas and M. Ryley). So he came to see the city, which was described so beautifully in the book.
Brent isn’t Jewish and to his knowledge, there are no Jews in his centuries-old family tree. What began as a fascination with WWII and the Holocaust led to his traveling to Europe and visiting places of Jewish culture. On a 1993 visit to Prague, he was struck by the contrast between an exhibition of drawings by children from the concentration camps who had been killed, and that of the Jewish cemetery outside where he saw a rabbi walking with his students. And Wyman thought, “It’s wonderful that Judaism is still so very much alive.”
Wyman Brent on Casimir Street in Vilnius, a several-minute walk from Pylimo 4, which is the address of the Vilnius Jewish Library, and the Vilna Gaon Museum housed in the same building.
Of the 600,000 people living in Vilna today only about 4,000 are Jewish. Brent wants to build the library not only for the Jews of Vilna but also for everyone. Vilna already has a Jewish library. It’s small, well hidden and unused, according to Brent. He is very upset because the Turto Bankas is planning to sell off the former Vilna Ghetto Library this April 8, 2009, at 9:00 a.m. “I am absolutely sickened by the thought that this bank will be allowed to sell off what does not legally, ethically or morally belong to it.”
His goal, he says, is to promote tolerance and understanding, an idealistic view he has held since he was a young child. He is also familiarizing himself with the Jewish religion and culture by attending synagogue services and hanging out at the JCC, which is also supporting his project. He doesn’t speak Hebrew yet, nor Lithuanian, for that matter. “I love to read but I hate to study,” he quips dryly.
Wyman Brent visiting with Joseph Levinson, a Shoah survivor who is signing his books for the library. Joseph is editor of Book of Sorrow, which is composed of photos of sites where Jews were killed in Lithuania. He also edited and wrote part of Holocaust in Lithuania.
To date, Wyman has a stock of 4,500 books, 60 CDs and 100 DVDs mostly purchased from his own funds. He estimates that he has already invested over $20,000 to buy and ship books. And he is beginning to feel the burden. He works nights at a youth hostel where he currently lives, and devotes his days to setting up the library.
Brent has a rather broad definition of a “Jewish book.” As long as it was written by a Jew (he doesn’t check their tzitzit), the book is welcome.
Wyman Brent with Rachel Kostanian, Deputy Director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. Photo taken in the Vilnius Jewish Culture and Information Center.
“I have the greatest respect for Jewish history and culture, but if I just stock books relating to history, religion and culture in the library, the fact of the matter is, that only scholars and a handful of people will be reading them.” Brent wants everyone in Vilna and even visitors from around the world to come to enjoy his library. His goal is 100,000 books – and his collection, so far, features books in math, science, humor, sports, and medicine – all in English. “It’s a popular language in Vilna.”
“Although the museum is providing space and paying for a computer, which is great – I’m struggling financially.” Brent is hoping someone will offer him a grant or a stipend to help him pursue his dream of building his bibliotheca. “I’ve always loved libraries, thanks to my parents,” he says. He volunteered for many years at the library in San Diego.
Wyman Brent with Israeli Ambassador Chen Ivri – photo made last year at ceremony honoring Righteous Gentiles.
Brent’s plans for the library include a multi-media center and nightly activities featuring poetry readings, art exhibitions and concerts. “If things go well, I would like to stay here forever, and run the library.”
If you want to take a page from Wyman’s book and contribute to the library, he can be reached by email at: email@example.com, or by phone at 370 5 2625357.
Books can be sent to him at: Wyman Brent, Ausros Vartu 20-15A, Vilnius LT-02100,Lithuania.
The Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum is located at: Pylimo 4 Vilnius (Vilna) Lithuania.