Wyman Brent’s adventures in travel

Wyman Brent’s adventures in travel

by: Wyman Brent

You never know exactly what is going to happen when you set out to travel the world. There are times when even heading down the street to your local grocery store can be an adventure. Will you meet someone you know and end up spending more time talking than shopping? Perhaps you will make a new friend while trying to decide which flavor ice cream to purchase.

My big adventure started off by boarding a plane in San Diego to fly to San Francisco where another flight would carry me off across eight time zones to London. Loaded up with books for the long flight and for any downtime in the UK, I was ready to head over to an eventual meeting with a person I truly admire.

Sir Martin Gilbert is the author or editor of seventy-nine books. He is also a professor and lecturer and an all around amazing person. He invited me to visit his home to discuss the Vilnius Jewish Library over a cup of tea. His invitation was extended even before Rebecca Spence wrote an article about the library for the Forward, which is the oldest, and largest U.S. Jewish newspaper based in New York. This was to be an adventure filled with honors. Meeting Sir Martin was the first of many and certainly not the least of them. Imagine being invited by someone to his or her home, someone you truly respect to talk about a project, which until that time seemed a bit quixotic.

Just a couple of days before my birthday, I found myself drinking tea with Sir Martin and his wonderful wife. While there I met the son who was rushing out the door to somewhere. Later I met the daughter who was working in the library building just behind the home. Imagine having a beautiful study loaded with books and your own library as well. That is what I would call heaven on earth. Knowing that Sir Martin is donating one copy each of all his books makes life just that much more heavenly.

Shortly after the meeting in London, it was time to head on over to Tallinn, Estonia. The idea was simply to spend a week there before heading down to Riga, Latvia for another week and then on to Vilnius in Lithuania. Things never quite work out the way you plan…kind of like when you are in the grocery store and end up somehow walking out with something you never knew existed but you just couldn’t resist.

Life at times seems to be made up of signs guiding us in new directions. The sign in this case was posted on the wall of the hostel in Tallinn where I was staying. It said not to leave Tallinn, as the hostel needed volunteers. A sign is a sign and sometimes it is an omen as well. I applied to stay as a volunteer and ending up meeting a true hero.

The hero in this case is Rabbi Shmuel Kot who moved from Israel to Estonia to become the Chief Rabbi of the country. He chose to move to a place with frigid winters and a tiny Jewish population. Tallinn is a lovely city but also one where you can’t go out and expect to meet Orthodox Jews in the shops and walking the streets. It is not a place where you have your choice of which kosher shop to pick up supplies in.

Tallinn is not the place where one raises six Jewish children. However, if Rabbi Kot did not lead the few Jews of Tallinn then who would do it? I ended up meeting with the Rabbi thanks to another person staying at the hostel. He was a young French Jew moving to Tallinn to start a business. He told me about going over to the synagogue to attend Friday night services and asked if I would like to go along. Considering I was in Europe to build the first Jewish library in Lithuania since the war, you can well guess what my answer was to the invite.

First I met one of my heroes in London and now in Tallinn. I already knew about the former before starting the journey and discovered the second along the way. Imagine the honor of sitting and talking with the Rabbi and breaking bread and drinking wine after the services. Imagine being there when the Rabbi shows up a few minutes late for the service with the announcement that he just came from the hospital where a son was born. For some reason, I had brought with me that night two calendars I had bought during the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center annual book fair. The calendars were a gift for the Rabbi. Since I had no way of knowing the date of the birth, the Rabbi said that G-d must have whispered in my ear. The next week I brought a card in which I wrote, “May your children grow up to make a mighty noise which will change the world in a wonderful way.” There is no doubt that this wish or prophecy or what have you will come true.

Finally I will say that it was a pleasure and pleasant surprise to find in Europe such an interest in the idea of the library. The weekly newspaper Baltic Times did a story on the Vilnius Jewish Library, which led to the Israeli Embassy based in Riga, Latvia to contact me. The Baltic Times is sold in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The contact led to new adventures in Vilnius which I will discuss with the next article for the Gantseh Megillah.

Wyman Brent is a non-Jewish man who, out of his love for the Jewish people, has begun a project to build a Jewish library in Vilnius, Lithuania. You may contact Wyman at artistseesred@yahoo.com, for information and to offer support.

So, how will a nice Gentile boy help to restore Jewish learning in Lithuania?

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So, how will a nice Gentile boy help to restore Jewish learning in Lithuania?

By Wyman Brent

VILNIUS, Lithuania—How does one get from L in V to V in L?  The L and V happen to be Lynchburg, Virginia.  The V and L refer to Vilnius, Lithuania.  1962 was the year of Camelot and limit less possibilities.  Not that I remember anything about that time as I was in my crib probably sucking my thumb the day Camelot crumbled.  There are days when one can long for being back in the safety of a crib without a care in the world other than when feeding time is.   These days I settle for some quality time with a good book and some relaxing music.

Lynchburg was a good place to be a kid.  It was a real city though not so large that one felt anonymous.  Funny how I can think these things now because of course that is not what goes through a child’s mind at the time.  At the time I would think about being with the other kids and going over to grandma’s house for milk and cookies.  There was summer to look forward to and winter as well.  There was either fun in the sun or throwing snowballs, either way a good time was guaranteed.

Now I live in San Diego, California and far from my family and birthplace.  I was going to say hometown but after having lived in sunny San Diego for twenty years it has become my hometown.  Living in California does not explain how one ends up working to create a Jewish library in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  Neither does it explain how I ended up being the final speaker at a ceremony in Vilnius held May 12, 2008 to honor those who rescued Jews during the war.  Actually, it does but requires some explanation.

The year 1994 saw me heading off to Lithuania for the first time after having previously visited Scandinavia and Russia and Yugoslavia.  The thing about visiting Russia was that it was the Soviet Union at the time and I was staying far from Moscow.  Making a trip north to Moscow and finding books in English required a 24 hour train journey each way.  I was reading good commie and socialist literature along with classics translated into English.  One book I read, though who is to say if it will ever be a classic, was titled, The Hills of Vilnius.  It described Vilnius in such a way that I knew I would have to visit one day.  1994 was that year.

August, 1994 was the month and year I first met a person who not only became my best friend ever and my roommate but also the inspiration for the Vilnius Jewish Library.  The thing is that a Gentile from Italy inspired a Gentile from San Diego to move to Lithuania to create the first real Jewish library in the Baltic countries since the war.  It was the first day ever in Lithuania for both of us.  Three years later and we end up roommates in San Diego.  2004 was the year Carla decided to write an article on Jews in Tijuana, Mexico.

It is funny how things can change your life.  After going with Carla to meet with the rabbi and the members of the synagogue, it just seemed as if something came together in my life.  I have always enjoyed reading thanks to my mother and father.  I fell in love with Vilnius the first time there.  Then the fascination with Jewish culture seemed to grow exponentially after those meetings.  So why not have a non-Jew with an English and Irish background create the first Jewish library in Lithuania since before the war?  It all makes sense when you think about it.  Doesn’t it?

There have been so many meetings and so much warmth from the Jewish community in Vilnius that it overwhelms at time.  How can I express the feeling that knowing my dream (which seemed far out in the beginning) has made so many newfound friends?  To know that the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum and the Jewish Cultural and Information Center not only like the idea but have also written letters expressing their support.  To know that young and old here are taking an interest.  To know that the local media has taken notice with various interviews has been amazing.

Vilnius will be the cultural capital of the European Union for 2009.  That means the city where I now sit shall have a spotlight shined on it for an entire year by every country in the union.  I am asking everyone to work with me to bring the world of Jewish culture back to reality in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

So many of us have either seen or read about what was done during the Shoah.  How many of us have wished something could have been done to avert the worst tragedy ever to befall not only Jews but the world?  How many wish that the life of the shul and shtetl were unchanged?  I wish the same after walking the streets of Vilna and seeing only a few street names and statues to memorialize what was.  Vilna is remembered as a city which was.  I want it to once again be a city which is.

Will you help me to return Jewish education and learning to this once great center?  By all working together, we can open a new place of Jewish learning in 2009 even if it is only a temporary facility.  Then in 2010 on the Jewish New Year, we can open the permanent Vilnius Jewish Library.  The choice is yours.  Will you let those who sought to demolish Jewish culture over 60 years ago win?  I am asking all of us working side by side to rebuild what it took so many to destroy.  I am dedicating the rest of my life to this project.  What are you willing to do?

If you care to help change the world for the better, the library needs books in new or like new condition.  As long as the books are by Jewish authors, it does not matter if the books have a Jewish theme or not.  There is a list of the books the library already has on my website.  The library also needs DVDs and CDs.  Please visit my website and feel free to contact me with any questions.  The other thing you can do is to let everyone know about this project and also to let them know about the wonderful website where you read this story.  I have added it to my favorites and hope you will do the same.

Here are the urls for my websites: https://vilniusjewishlibrary.wordpress.com/ and
vilniusjewishlibrary@yahoo.com

http://www.jewishsightseeing.com/2008-SDJW-quarter2/20080402-jewish-wednesday80.html#brent