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.”