Two Important Supporters of the Vilnius Jewish Library: Sonia Pressman Fuentes and Sir Martin John Gilbert

The Vilnius Jewish Library is honored to have received the support of two amazing authors. We want to take time to thank them for their important contribution to the project.

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Sonia Pressman Fuentes is serving an essential role in the creation of the Vilnius Jewish Library. Fuentes is a Jewish American, who co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), and was the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She was kind enough to donate her own memoir, “Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter,” which will certainly occupy a position of prominence in the Vilnius Jewish Library when it opens. Fuentes is also helping to spread the word about the library, and is encouraging others to donate books to the collection.

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The Vilnius Jewish Library is also indebted to Sir Martin John Gilbert, the British historian and the author of over seventy books, including works on the Holocaust and Jewish history.  Gilbert, who is an extremely well respected Jewish author, has generously pledged to donate copies of all 79 books he has written or edited to the library

With the help of these two authors, the Vilnius Jewish Library will one day become a reality. The Library owes them both a huge THANK YOU!

If you are an author who would like to donate your book(s) to the Vilnius Jewish Library collection, and/or if you are willing to support the library in other ways, please contact:

vilniusjewishlibrary@yahoo.com

If you aren’t an author, but would still like to help by donating books or funds to the library, please contact us as well!

Vilnius Jewish Library informational table at the International Association of Yiddish Clubs conference, October 24-27, 2008

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Wyman Brent will be attending the International Association of Yiddish Clubs conference, to be held in La Jolla, California, October 24-27, 2008.  The organizers have been kind enough to let him set up a Vilnius Jewish Library informational table.  If you are in the area, or are planning to attend the conference, come say hello, and learn more about the Vilnius Jewish Library!

Making the Vilnius Jewish Library a reality

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A PASSION FOR BOOKS: Wyman Brent, who has been a voracious reader since a young age, is channeling his love of books, Jewish culture and Lithuania into a project to create a Jewish library in Vilnius.

Making the Vilnius Jewish Library a reality

Jan 09, 2008
By Steve Roman
The Baltic Times

TALLINN – I caught up with Wyman Brent at a hostel in Tallinn’s Old Town just after Christmas. A few days earlier the 45-year-old American had e-mailed the editorial offices of The Baltic Times with a story that was too intriguing to pass up, namely his plan to create something called the Vilnius Jewish Library – not just a small reading room, but a true public library containing over 100,000 Jewish-related books in English, as well as CDs, DVDs and about 20,000 reference books.

For anyone familiar with the history of the Lithuanian capital, the idea will strike a chord. Before World War II, the city was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North,” a great center of Jewish learning and culture. Like many cities in Europe, however, its Jewish population was wiped out during the war. Today the Jewish people living in Vilnius number just a very few thousand and the pre-war Jewish neighborhood in Old Town is simply gone.

“There were more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses in the city,” Brent pointed out when we met. “Now there’s one.”
What truly hooked me into this story wasn’t the history lesson though, but the grand “Why” behind it all. Why would a book-lover living in San Diego devote so much time and energy on a project like this?

“It’s kind of strange because I’m not Jewish and I’m not of Lithuanian descent,” said Brent.

As Brent describes it, it’s not so much a project as a labor of love.

“I’ve always loved libraries, I’ve been volunteering in them for years. I love reading, that’s something my parents gave me, and I’m fascinated with Jewish culture. I fell in love with Lithuania when I went there the first time in 1994. So it was kind of like, I love libraries, I love Jewish culture and I love Lithuania, so let me put this all together into this Jewish library,” explained Brent.
That said, for Brent there’s a more selfless impetus behind the library project.

“I’ve always hated prejudice and discrimination. I’ve never seen the need for intolerance or prejudice of any kind, but I wanted a library that was focused on one subject. For me Jewish culture is so fascinating, and I thought it would be a good way to reintroduce Jewish culture to Lithuania, but at the same time make it appealing to Lithuanians,” he said.

The library, he points out, will not be aimed at Jewish people, but at a wider Lithuanian audience. The hope is that because the materials here will be in English, and because the atmosphere, the resources and the overall presentation will be of such high quality, the library will attract locals who are looking to improve their English. And if they gain some familiarity with Jewish culture and shed some prejudice along the way, all the better.

“I hope to have 100,000 Jewish-related books in English so that when people walk in, they’ll be coming in to learn English, but they’ll be doing it with books that are Jewish in nature. There will be everything from mysteries to the most scholarly religious books to books on the Holocaust to biographies to books on movies and music… So when someone walks in they can find a book literally on any topic.”

“I don’t want to convert anyone to Judaism, I’m not Jewish. I want people to come in and see with this vast collection of books that Jews are just like everyone else.”

At the moment, the library is still in the development stage, but is gaining momentum. Brent has been working on the project since 2004 and has established relationships with the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum and the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He has also made some headway on the collection, having gathered about 4,000 books so far.

The next key step, Brent says, is securing a location to house the library. It’s his hope that the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture will loan out a premises for the project.

Once that’s secure, he believes, Jewish organizations from around the world will be willing to donate books and other materials.

His goal is to have the library up and running by the Jewish New Year in 2010, which will also be the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Once up and running, the library won’t be so much a place full of dusty shelves and stern, matronly guardians, but an attractive place to spend time.

“I want it to be a place where when you walk in it feels exactly like home,” said Brent. “I want that when people go into the library they can sit on comfortable sofas and have funky tables …they can sit in the window if they want or on the floor, whatever they choose. I want people to feel like they’re in a comfortable cafe or in someone’s flat so they can totally relax.”

The success or impact of the Vilnius Jewish Library project, of course, is going to depend on a lot of factors, including support. But if all goes well, the now-faint echoes of the “Jerusalem of the North” won’t fade forever into silence.

Baptist-raised Lynchburg native seeks to establish Jewish library in Lithuania

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Baptist-raised Lynchburg native seeks to establish Jewish library in Lithuania

By Liz Barry
The News & Advance; Lynchburg, Virginia
January 11, 2008

Wyman Brent might not be Jewish, but he’s fascinated with the religion. He might not be Lithuanian, but he’s in love with the country. And he might not have a college degree, but he’s a voracious reader.

Now the Lynchburg native is combining his three loves into one mission: to establish a Jewish Library in Vilnius, Lithuania. Brent, who now lives in San Diego, is traveling through Europe to garner support for his project.

Brent’s goal is to build a library for 100,000 books that are either written by Jewish authors, or are about Jewish people, history and culture. The project has received support from the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum and Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He is waiting to hear whether the Lithuanian government will provide a rent-free building for the library.

Brent has collected about 4,000 books on his own. If all goes as planned, Brent will open the library on the Jewish New Year of 2010, which coincides with the 65th anniversary to the end of World War II.

“I’m not rich,” Brent said from Estonia in a phone interview. “I think once I get a building, then I believe the books and money will start to flow in from the Jewish community and those who are interested in Jewish culture.”

Born in Lynchburg and raised Baptist, Brent is self-employed. His income comes from selling books, records, CDs and other items on sites like eBay and Amazon.com.

“The first church I remember going to was Jerry Falwell’s church,” said 45-year-old Brent.

Brent is used to people asking why he, an American with a Baptist background, wants to establish a Jewish library in Lithuania.

“It’s a natural question,” he said.

In response, he explains that an interest in WWII led to a fascination with Judaism and later Lithuania. He also notes there hasn’t been a Jewish library in Lithuania since the war.
Before WWII, Lithuania had a substantial Jewish population, Brent said.

“Vilnius was called the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” he said. “There were more than 100 prayer houses and synagogues in the city before the war.”

But during the war, many Jews were killed or fled the country. The Germans seized the Jewish library, although some of the books were saved and eventually shipped to the United States, he said.

People have been receptive to his efforts to create a new Jewish library, he said.

Part of Brent’s goal with the library project is to address anti-Semitism.

“I don’t have a cure-all for everything,” he said. “And I know that by building this library I will not end anti-Semitism. But if I change a few people’s minds, I’m not just talking about a problem, but doing my small part to make a difference.”

For as long as he can remember, Brent has been passionate about social justice.

“I’ve always had a deep-seated hatred of prejudice and intolerance and discrimination of any kind,” he said.

Brent has a vivid memory of watching at TV special about the Ku Klux Klan with his mother as a 10-year-old boy. He remembers seeing an image of Santa Claus wearing a swastika on his arm.

“Even at that early age, it was something that really made me see red,” he said.

Please Donate Books to the Vilnius Jewish Library!

The Vilnius Jewish Library needs books by Jewish authors on any topic, even if it is not Jewish related.  The idea is to show the world that Jews read and think about and write about everything. Books by non-Jewish authors are welcome if they are on Jewish topics such as a biography of Streisand or books about the history of Israel as examples.

As for condition of the books, we request that they be new or in almost new (excellent) condition.  What library starts off opening its doors for the first day with damaged or written in books?  We would prefer hardcover books, unless they were only published in paperback. 

The current list of books already donated or purchased for the project can be viewed here.

To donate books or funds, please contact: vilniusjewishlibrary@yahoo.com

Wyman Brent Discusses the Vilnius Jewish Library Project

For over [three] years now, I have been working to create a project known as the Vilnius Jewish Library in Lithuania. Lithuania before World War II was a haven for Jewish people. The capital city of Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There were more than 100 synagogues. Now there is only one remaining. You can guess what happened to the rest of them thanks to first the nazis and then the Russians. Unless of course, you don’t believe the Holocaust ever happened. I won’t even go into that.

Anyway, I am not Jewish and I am not of Lithuanian descent. So why is a non-Jew interested in creating an English language library dedicated to all things Jewish in a country not his own? Having traveled extensively throughout Europe, I have seen the results of how the war changed the lives of so many. Cities throughout the continent were destroyed and rebuilt. Yet the cities are still there even if in a changed form.

Certainly the Jews were not the only people to suffer at the hands of the nazis. Millions upon millions were killed in Europe alone. This includes the Gypsies, the Russians, the people of Great Britain, Poland, and many others. The disabled and homosexual were done away with. People with opposing political viewpoints were put to death. Clearly not being Jewish was no guarantee of safety during this time. Even people of other nations fought and died in Europe, including Canadians, Australians, and the Americans.

So much death and destruction in such a relatively short period of time. Yet with all of what the war wrought, you can now find the disabled, the homosexual, the Gypsies. They all live throughout Europe. Whether each individual thrives personally is another story. However, you will not have any trouble finding each over all of Europe. The Russians who lost such massive numbers of people have rebuilt and repopulated decimated areas. These are all as it should be.

What then of the Jews? Why is it so hard to find the synagogues and centres of education which once existed across most of Europe? The Jewish people have certainly not returned and rebuilt in any substantial way since the time of the war. Large numbers emigrated to either Israel or the USA. Even a centre of Jewish culture and education, such as Lithuania, now has an approximate 8,000 Jews out of a total population of 3.6 million. That number used to be more than 200,000.

There will never be a return to the shul (synagogue) and shtetl (village) days of the pre-war period. Those days are long past. So what is the point of a Jewish library in a country with a population composed of about 99.8 percent who are Catholics, Russian Orthodox, or Episcopalians, anything but Jews?

My fondest wish is to promote tolerance and understanding. This is not just for acceptance of a people who are largely gone from Lithuania. Events in Europe and elsewhere prove time and again that sometimes others are despised for either their religion or skin colour or some other equally meaningless reason. Will this ever change? I would love to think so, even if I am not holding my breath in anticipation of that day.

Will the average person be drawn into a library filled to overflowing with books about Jewish life, culture, humour, and much more? I am not that foolish as to think so. The draw of the library will be on many levels. There will be ESL (English as a Second Language) classes available. Many times a week it will be possible to attend poetry readings, music concerts and art exhibitions. Downstairs you will find a cafe unlike any other in Lithuania designed to bring people in. The library will be set up so that when you walk in it feels like home. Look around and you may well see cats running from place to place or sleeping in a corner.

Build it and they will read? The lure of a library unlike any other in Lithuania and perhaps the world will be what draws people inside. Will some only come for the concerts or the kitties? That is a given. How many will enjoy a meal and a conversation in the cafe without ever setting foot in the library? The bet is that it will be a fair number.

Yet some will look beyond the facade and delve into the heart of the building and that is the books. Yes, the books will have a Jewish theme. Yes, there are many others who have suffered throughout the ages. Even so, the understanding which will hopefully be gained of the Jewish people will lead others to apply the same principles of newly-found acceptance to anyone who has ever been discriminated against. Here’s hoping that it is possible to breathe new life into the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

Baptist From Virginia Toils for Jewish Library in Vilnius

Baptist From Virginia Toils for Jewish Library in Vilnius

By Rebecca Spence
The Jewish Daily Forward
Wed. Nov 28, 2007

San Diego — If one longtime San Diego resident fulfills his life’s dream, Vilnius, Lithuania, will once again emerge as a capital of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

But the man in question is a strange candidate for the task: He is neither a Yiddish scholar nor a Holocaust survivor, nor is he a descendant of the Vilna Gaon — the great 18th-century talmudic scholar of Vilna — looking to resurrect an ancestral legacy.

In fact, Wyman Brent isn’t even Jewish.

This unlikely champion of a Jewish renaissance in Vilnius, which in pre-Holocaust days was known as Vilna and served as one of Eastern Europe’s centers of Jewish cultural and intellectual life, is, however, steadfastly committed to realizing his vision. If Brent, who grew up in a Baptist household in Virginia and never earned a college degree, has his way, he will build the Vilnius Jewish Library, a repository for 100,000 books, all in English, that are either written by Jewish authors or explore Jewish themes.

While Vilnius has a museum that exhibits artifacts from the once robust community, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, and a recent effort to rebuild the city’s Great Synagogue is under way, Brent is hoping that his library will not just pay homage to a rich Jewish past but, in fact, also help to re-infuse Vilnius with the Jewish intellectual spirit that was once its hallmark.

For the past three years, Brent, who earns a modest living by selling books, records and other items over the Internet, has been collecting used books with the help of his Italian-born roommate, Carla Remondini, in the hopes that they will someday line the shelves of the library.

“It’s almost an obsession,” Brent, 45, said during an interview in his living room. “I don’t drink, smoke or gamble. I just collect books.”

What is not clear is how Brent will realize his ambitious goal. With no institutional backing and no financial support from the Jewish community, Brent is a one-man show. For now, the modest three-room apartment that he shares with Remondini in San Diego, not far from the Mexican border, serves as the temporary home for the 2,700 books they have collected to date. In the living room, a novel by pop author Danielle Steel rests on a shelf across from biographies of Bette Midler and Tom Stoppard. But in the office, more serious subject matter resides:

Brent’s collection of Holocaust-related books sits on a freestanding bookshelf in the center of the room, the result of not enough wall space to house his many treasures. He even has books crammed into the kitchen cabinets.

Brent and Remondini, who met in 1994 at a train station in Lithuania, scour thrift shops, the Internet and swap meets, all with the intention of building the collection. Brent, who has lived all over Eastern Europe, including a seven-month stint in the Soviet Union during communism’s collapse, explained that the inspiration for his idea actually came three years ago, after Remondini, a nurse who is also not Jewish, penned an article for The Jerusalem Post on the Jews of Tijuana, Mexico.

At that moment, Brent said, “something just crystallized.” He realized that his love of Eastern Europe, and particularly his growing fascination with the Jews of the region, should be translated into the Vilnius Jewish Library, where he hopes to serve as shammes, Yiddish for “caretaker.”

Roughly 4,000 Jews remain in Vilna, and they have kept a low profile in recent years. Aviva Astrinsky, head librarian of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — the New York-based resource center and archive on Ashkenazic Jewry that was originally founded in Vilna in 1925 as a center for the study of Yiddish life in Eastern Europe — cautioned that Brent’s activities could have the unintended consequence of feeding the growing wave of antisemitism that has taken hold there. “It’s not like America, where you flaunt your ethnicity,” she said.

Brent, however, cognizant of such criticisms, has concluded that it will work in his favor that he is not Jewish. And despite her concern, Astrinsky was not entirely dismissive of Brent’s idea. “I don’t think it’s totally preposterous,” she said. “If he can do it, let him do it. She added, however, that she would prefer to see Yiddish books, not English tomes, sent to Vilnius.

Brent, with a crop of shoulder-length black hair and a gaunt face that lends him a somewhat monkish appearance, said that he plans for his library to be different from the existing institutions. He hopes to make the library into a center for all Lithuanians — not just Jews and tourists — that will double as an English-language learning center. What better way to surreptitiously trick Lithuanians into learning about Jewish culture, he said, than to provide them with a vast resource of English reading material. “Even if people aren’t interested in Jewish culture, they can come to learn English, and they’ll be absorbing bits of Jewish history,” he said.

Over the past year, Brent said, he has sent letters to 36 Jewish groups in the San Diego area, seeking support for his project, but has gotten no response. Brent has been working in a vacuum; he is not even on the radar screen of San Diego’s Jewish Federation, or of local synagogues contacted by the Forward.

Now, he is setting out to fulfill his vision by picking up stakes and moving to Vilna. “The realization comes that you can only collect books for so long,” he said. “Perhaps the Jewish community will take me more seriously if I live in Lithuania.”

He left for Vilnius on November 12. Before leaving, he arranged a meeting with Vilna Gaon museum officials, who he hopes can put him in touch with the Lithuanian ministry of culture. Brent already has his sights set on a dilapidated building near the city’s old quarter that he hopes the government will want to lend him for use as the library. If all goes according to plan, he will be living and working in his Jewish books center by September 2010, the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.

On the way to Lithuania, however, Brent is stopping off in London, where in addition to visiting the city’s oldest synagogue, he will meet with Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston’s Churchill’s official biographer. Gilbert has, at least through e-mail correspondence, expressed enthusiasm for the project, Brent said. He has also pledged to donate to the library copies of all 79 books he has written or edited.

Though Brent has yet to corral the big funders he will ultimately need, he is buoyed by Martin’s interest. “If nothing else,” Brent said, “his support gives me strength to carry on.”

Wed. Nov 28, 2007