The Jewish Lady in the Green House

Sugihara monument outside Green House

Sugihara monument outside Green House

The Jewish Lady in the Green House

Featured in The Gantseh Megillah
By: Wyman Brent

How does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice is the answer. How does one get to Vilna? Bus, bus, bus if you are on a budget. Riding a Eurolines bus from Tallinn, Estonia to Vilna in Lithuania took nine and half hours, which was spent staring out the window and reading books and trying to rest. Not much good at napping on buses so fortunately had reading material available. Anyway, what is a librarian without a book close at hand?

An adventure in the U.K. and Estonia had gone even better than could have been expected. The big challenge was almost ten hours down the road in the city remembered by so many as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. One does not try to build a Jewish library in Vilna without going to Vilna. It is said that all roads lead to Rome but my path lay along the road less traveled.

The easy part was arriving in Vilna at 7:30 pm or 1930 as they would write it in Europe. The Vilnius Old Town Hostel was a short walk from the bus station and to be home for the next two months and a week. Finding the place even in the dark was no problem even without having been in Lithuania since December 2002. No doubt it had something to do with having lived in Vilna for so long. Due to the courtesy and philo-Semitism of the owner, a librarian had a free place to rest his head.

I had already spent almost three months living in hostels between the time in London and Tallinn. Now it was time to stay another two in Vilnius. While I appreciated the free bed, a hostel is not a place for quiet contemplation. There are too many people around but it was free and there was work to be done. The hostel was only a short walk from Pylimo Street or Pylimo Gatve as Lithuanians write it.

Why was it nice to be so close to Pylimo Gatve? Pylimo is the street around which much of Jewish life is now centered in Vilna. Pylimo 4 is the home of the Jewish Community Center and of the Righteous Gentiles exhibition hosted by the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. A few meters off of Pylimo is the museum’s Tolerance Center, and the museum’s Green House is just past where Pylimo begins. Pylimo is also home to the Choral Synagogue, the one remaining synagogue in the city.

It turns out that a Shoah survivor would be my entry to all things Jewish in the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Rachel Kostanian is a miracle and not only because she survived the fate of the majority of the Jews. She is one person but does the work of many and this at the age when most people are busy enjoying their retirement. She is the deputy director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum and has her office in the Green House, which has a display, dedicated to the history of Jews in Lithuania and what happened during the war.

As Kermit the frog says, it is not easy being green. The Green House is on a prominent street but difficult to find if you don’t know it is there. Tucked away as it is, you still need to go if you want to experience one of the most dynamic people (Jewish or not) in Vilna today. Ms. Kostanian is both survivor and savior. She is a driving force in the work of the museum and keeping Jewish culture alive.

Keeping anything Jewish going is not the easy task it was in the day of shul and shtetl. Like Rabbi Kot in Tallinn, you have to be in it for the long haul if you are working to revive things Jewish in Lithuania. Rachel Kostanian helped create the beautiful book Vilna Ghetto Posters of which I am privileged to have a signed copy. She also wrote “Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto”. She writes, she gives tours of the museum; she lectures in various countries (I first met her in London), and does many of the administrative tasks needed to keep the Green House going.

This remarkable lady was my introduction to the small but vibrant world of the Jew in the Jerusalem of Lithuania. In the over two months I was in Vilna, a stop at the Green House to speak with Ms. Kostanian was both a necessity and a pleasure. She and the other staff plied me with tea and cookies every time I walked through the door. They were all so friendly and inviting that one could be excused for inventing reasons to go visit them. What better way to spend time than after a walk in the snow to stop and share tea with people you truly admire and respect?

As I said, our first meeting took place in London in November 2007 while she was there to give talks relating to the Holocaust and the ghetto posters of Vilna. Imagine a people living under such circumstances as the Jews during the German occupation still trying to live a life filled with cultural activities. They knew the reality beyond the ghetto barriers and yet it did not stop them from doing everything from running a library to holding concerts and giving plays. They even celebrated the loaning out of the one hundred thousandth book from the ghetto library.

Imagine celebrating someone having borrowed a book during those dark days and nights. Perhaps that is why I am so driven to build a new Jewish library in Vilna. Yes, there are few Jews left in Lithuania. Does that mean forgetting about them? They have dedicated their lives to keeping Jewish culture alive no matter what may face them, just as did the people of the ghetto. Can I do any less than dedicate my life to helping not only keeping the torch alive but also fanning the flame?

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.

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Pictures From Vilnius

Photo of Wyman Brent with Joseph Levinson, a Holocaust survivor who turned 91 three days after the meeting. He lives in Vilna and is the author of “The Book of Sorrow” and “Holocaust in Lithuania“. Wyman visited Mr. Levinson’s home, where he was kind enough to sign both books for the library. The books are in Vilnius at the Green House stored until the library opens. Joseph is a truly remarkable man.

Bust of Vilna Gaon next to the site of the Great Synagogue, which was damaged by Germans and destroyed by Russians after WWII.

Broken headstone from one of the old Jewish cemeteries in Vilnius.

Wyman with Algis Gurevicius, director of the Jewish Culture and Information Center pictured inside the center.

Wyman with Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum Director Markas Zingeris inside the Tolerance Center.

Professor Dovid Katz of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute sharing a meal with Wyman at Double Coffee, which is a Baltic coffee house chain.

Wyman Brent with Rachel Kostanian, deputy director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum pictured inside the Vilnius Jewish Culture and Information Center.

Wyman with Israeli Ambassador Chen Ivri, inside the Uzupis School after the March 12 ceremony honoring righteous Gentiles.

San Diego Jewish Journal: Books for Breakfast

Wyman Brent

BOOKS FOR BREAKFAST

San Diego Jewish Journal

By Jessica Durham

Wyman Brent may not be Jewish, but he has made a Jewish library in Vilnius, Lithuania his life passion

Instead of dishes and cereal boxes, Wyman Brent fills his kitchen shelves with stacks of books. He’s run out of room on his bookshelves, which are groaning with the weight of so many words, and stacks of books cover the floor of the Normal Heights apartment he shares with his roommate. He’s built his collection to about 4,000, 3,000 of which he’s purchased himself, the other 1,000 donated. He says he files them all in memory and rarely buys a duplicate.

His insatiable hunger for books — his goal is to someday have 100,000 — isn’t a case of compulsive hoarding or obsession, however. He’s working toward his life’s goal to open Lithuania’s largest English-as-a-second-language resource library in Vilnius, the nation’s capital. More importantly, though, the Vilnius Jewish Library will be a step in re-establishing the pre-World War II Jewish center of culture and learning that Vilnius once represented, but which was destroyed during the war along with its vast Jewish population, Brent said. Now, Vilnius is home to only 5,000 Jews, down from 100,000 pre-war, one synagogue, down from 105, one daily Jewish newspaper, down from six. In fact, Vilnius was once known as Yerushalayim de Lita — The Jerusalem of Lithuania.

His library, he said, will contain books, DVDs and compact discs written or created only in English by Jews or about Jewish history and culture, though they will be on topics as broad as sports, travel, history, music and biography.

Brent does not hesitate to express his love for Vilnius or the Jewish culture and people, nor is he shy about describing his love of reading and books. He knew Vilnius was special when he visited for the first time in the early 90s during his years-long trip to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to satisfy his lifelong fascination with World War II.

“There’s something magical about Vilnius with the Jewish culture that used to be there,” Brent said. “And for me, that’s the thing. People, Jewish or not, think of Vilnius as a place that was this wonderful center of Jewish culture, a wonderful center of Jewish education and learning Jewish thought. And now they always think of Vilnius as a place that was. The idea with the library is to once again make Vilnius a place that is.”

Brent had the idea to combine his love of books (which had begun during his childhood with his enormous collection of World War II books) with his love of Jewish people and culture (which had branched from the World War II interest) by building the library.

The most surprising part of his endeavor, however, is that he is not Jewish.

Born into a Baptist family in Lynchburg, Va., Brent had never really been exposed to Jewish culture or taken an interest in it before his time in Europe. And before a particular incident in Prague in 1993, he hadn’t felt inspired to somehow help the Jews pick themselves back up after they were pushed down during the war Brent hadn’t even been alive to witness.

“I saw an exhibition of art from children from the concentration camps, and of course the children didn’t survive, but the art did,” he said. “It was quite depressing of course, but when I walked out of the building, I walked around the corner and there was an old Jewish cemetery there, and there was this Orthodox rabbi leading a group of his followers, his students, and they’re walking through the cemetery and they’re placing stones, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s still life.’

Jewish resurgence in Vilnius’s Jewish Old Town has been slow-going, Brent said, and the government has yet to return formerly Jewish buildings and property to the community since the city had been caught in the grasp of World War II and the former Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism also exists, though it is not extreme, nor has Brent personally experienced it himself (though he said there was a demonstration in the city while he was there most recently, during his five-month trip from November to April). But despite the fact that the majority of Vilnius’ residents don’t want a Jewish library, Brent has gone around the fact by keeping only books written in English, making it a win-win situation for Jews and Gentiles alike.

Despite the somewhat anti-Semitic nature of the city, Brent said, he’s received nothing but praise and approval for his project. He’s received letters of support from every Jewish museum, organization and institution in Vilnius, and even the Israeli embassy in the region.

“There was no negativity there whatsoever, and even from the Gentiles, there was incredible support,” Brent said. “I was staying for free in Vilnius at a hostile, and it was thanks to the owner, who is a Gentile, liking so much the idea of the library.”

It is this dual support and coming together for a common purpose that is the beginning of what Brent hopes to accomplish in the longer run through his library.

“Lithuania was not built by Catholics,” he said. “It was not built by Jews. Lithuania was built by all Lithuanians working together. With the library, the idea is to show the beauty of Jewish culture, but at the same time not to beat anyone over the head with it. The more your learn about Jewish culture, the more you want to learn, anyway.”

The more support Brent can get, the better, because, he said, he’s not wealthy. He makes his living selling items on eBay and Amazon.com, but he also puts everything he has toward stocking his library, which he hopes to have temporarily opened in 2009 with 10,000 or 15,000 books in time for Vilnius’s year-long status as cultural capital of the European Union, which goes to a different city each year. He hopes to have a permanent location opened on the Jewish New Year in 2010, the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, and he is looking at a particular old building on Pilies Street, which also borders the former Jewish ghetto and contains the city’s sole synagogue and three other Jewish buildings.

Building his collection of books to 100,000 someday may seem a daunting task, but Brent relishes the search and said he looks forward to filling the shelves of the library, of which he plans to be the permanent caretaker.

“It’s hard financially,” Brent said, “but I love the work. If I considered it hard, I wouldn’t do it.” Shipping all his books to the other side of the world, as well as acquiring the building and having the finances to open the library, is the most difficult part, he said. News of Brent’s endeavors has spread, and the number of books being shipped to him by friends worldwide who have pledged to help him reach his goal has grown exponentially, but he still needs financial help.

He has returned to San Diego, where he’s lived for 21 years, to remain in the United States through October, during which time he’ll travel to several U.S. cities to meet with friends who have volunteered their support and have been gathering books. He’ll also attend the 12th annual International Association of Yiddish Clubs conference in San Diego, Oct. 24-27, alongside Sonia Pressman Fuentes, one of the founders of the National Organization for Women and one of the many Jewish authors Brent has befriended who has donated a copy of her book and has capitalized on her extensive networks to get others to donate as well. After the conference, he will return to Lithuania.

Though his grassroots effort has begun to take off and he’s got dedicated book-collectors sending him books from across the United States, Brent needs support on a larger, more established scale. He hopes he can find that in his hometown of San Diego.

“I need the support of the Jewish community here,” he said. “I want to work with a non-profit organization so money isn’t given directly to me. But I always need donations of lots of books, DVDs and CDs. The level of support so far is incredible, but I do need money for shipping and getting the building.”

Brent said he’s always been a sort of wanderer, never the type to stay in one place and, before the idea of the library, he never had what some might consider an average American life with a career and family of his own. With the library, however, he’s found his purpose.

“This library will be my legacy to the world,” he said. “It will live on long after I am gone.”

• To learn more about Wyman Brent and the Vilnius Jewish Library, visit his blog at www.vilniusjewishlibrary.wordpress.com or e-mail him at vilniusjewishlibrary@yahoo.com.