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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