American Christian building Jewish library in Lithuania

American Christian building Jewish library in Lithuania

From The Canadian Jewish News
Thursday, 12 June 2008

An American Christian of British and Irish descent has embarked on an ambitious project to create a Jewish library in Vilnius (Vilna), whose legendary Jewish community was virtually wiped out by the Nazis in Lithuania.

Wyman Brent, LEFT, a 45-year-old Baptist originally from Lynchburg, Va., is using his own funds to build the library, but his project is backed by a corps of supporters ranging from British historian Sir Martin Gilbert to the co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Sonia Pressman Fuentes.

“I’ve always loved libraries and I’m fascinated with Jewish culture,” said Brent, who hopes to have the library up and running by 2010, the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.

If all goes according to plan, it will have a collection of 100,000 books, CDs and DVDs, and will serve as a venue for concerts, art exhibitions, poetry readings and lectures.

The proposed library will be nothing if not eclectic.

“If the book is by a Jewish author, it can be on any topic, whether it has a Jewish theme or not,” Brent said in an interview from San Diego, Calif., where he currently lives. “If the book is by a non-Jewish author, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, the topic must have some Jewish connection as long as it is not anti-Semitic.”

All books will be in English so as to draw in the greatest possible number of users, he explained.

“It will attract locals who are looking to improve their English. The idea is to make the library the largest source of English language material in Vilnius. The study of English is very popular in Lithuania now that it a member of the European Union.

“And if they gain some familiarity with Jewish culture and shed some prejudice along the way, all the better,” he added. “What better legacy to leave than a place of learning and education dedicated to fighting prejudice and intolerance?”

Brent, who has been working on the project since 2004, has collected 4,000 books so far, mainly at his own expense.

“While I am like Tevye in that I am not a rich man,” he said in a reference to the fabled dairy farmer in Fiddler on the Roof, “it has been a pleasure spending what little money I have in buying books for the library.”

Still other books have come from the Vilnius Jewish community and Hillel, the North American Jewish student organization.

As well, the musician Janis Ian has donated CDs and the painter Judy Chicago has promised artwork once the library opens.

“Sir Martin has agreed to donate a signed copy of each of the 79 books he has written or edited,” Brent noted.

Brent, an online merchant, chose Vilnius as the site of the library after falling in love with the city on his first visit in 1994. He went to Lithuania in the first place because of his fascination with the republics of the former Soviet Union.

“I returned in 1995 and lived there for a full year, both in 1996 and 1997 and 2001 and 2002. This year, I lived in Vilnius for over two months.

“Another reason for choosing Vilna is that it was a centre of Jewish culture and learning [in the first three decades of the 20th century]. There is a good reason it was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. With more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses, and with so many Jewish newspapers, it was a city which spread Jewish thought around the world.”

Brent intends to launch the project by opening a small version of the library next year. “Vilna will be the cultural capital of the European Union in 2009 and thus will be the focus of media attention. It will be a perfect time to open up something Jewish. Then I hope to open up a permanent location in 2010.”

He is being assisted by a Lithuanian Christian, the proprietor of a chain of hostels who believes in his project and is currently looking for a proper site, probably on Pylimo Street, where a synagogue and three Jewish museums are located. “Non-Jewish Lithuanians have voiced interest in and support for the library,” Brent said.

Nevertheless, he pointed out, there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Lithuania today.

Jewish institutions in Vilnius have also rallied behind the project.

“The staff of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum, the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the Jewish Culture and Information Center and the principal of the Jewish school have expressed support. And so has the Israeli Embassy.”

Brent conceived the project after one of his friends wrote an article on Jews in Tijuana, Mexico.

His immersion in Jewish culture per se, however, began when he started reading books about World War II and the Holocaust.

A high school graduate who has been a voracious reader all his life, Brent is an agnostic who respects all faiths and has a special admiration for and affinity with Jewish culture.

“I am not the king of the world and I can never end anti-Semitism, but if I can open a few minds to the beauty of Jewish culture, I will have done my part to make the world a better place.”