Wyman Brent may be about the most unlikely person you could find to establish a new Jewish library in the Baltic nation of Lithuania.
Brent is neither a scholar nor an intellectual. He doesn’t speak Lithuanian and isn’t even Jewish. He is a wiry, soft-spoken, long-haired atheist from California; the type of man who signs off his emails with a Horace Mann epigram: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Yet Brent’s quixotic dream is set to be realized on December 16, when the Lithuanian minister of culture and guests will gather in the heart of Vilna’s old town for the official opening of the Vilnius Jewish Library.
The library “will be unlike anything seen around the world, because this will be a library that will celebrate all culture created by Jews, not just Jewish culture,” Brent told The Forward.
He added, “I really wanted to show people the breadth and depth of Jewish life and culture, and I think that’s the best way to do it.”
Brent has spent $50,000 of his own money and seven years building up his curious collection, mostly buying used books, CDs and DVDs in stores and online. In 2008, he shipped his collection — about 4,500 items packed in 165 boxes — from San Diego to Vilna.
Because of limited funds, Brent has relied on donations to make up about one-fifth of the library.
Brent’s only criterion has been that the subject matter must be created by Jews or focused on them. As a result, the collection is Jewish in the widest possible sense of the word.
Brent, 48, gets as excited about a donation of concert DVDs, music CDs and books from singer Janis Ian as he does about historian Martin Gilbert’s promise to donate a signed copy of each of his works. He is as proud of “a beautiful architectural drawing” donated by Richard Meier as he is of a limited-edition photograph sent by Leonard Nimoy.
There are more cerebral entries, too. Although Brent is an atheist, he says he has found “great wisdom” in books by scholars Adin Steinsaltz and Jacob Neusner. He also talks excitedly about more mainstream icons — Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Steven Spielberg.
It is no accident that Brent chose to push for a library in Vilna. The city, once known as “the Jerusalem of the North,” was the intellectual center of East European Jewish life and culture for centuries, until it was snuffed out by the Nazis. About 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust, often with the help of Lithuanian collaborators, many of whom equated Jews with Communists.
Twenty years after Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union, there remains a tension between Jews who say that the country has whitewashed its Holocaust past and Lithuanians who say the horrors perpetrated by the Soviet regime during the war and afterward have not been fully recognized.
Arunas Gelunas, the Lithuanian minister of culture, admitted that Lithuania has sent “mixed messages” about its willingness to own up to Lithuania’s part in the Holocaust. But he said there are now “more signs than ever before that Lithuania is… deciding to accept the fact of its collaboration with the Nazis.”
Gelunas stressed that his government has made a great effort this year to show its commitment to Lithuania’s Jewish past and future. He cited the government making 2011 the Year of Remembrance for Holocaust Victims and, following years of negotiations, the Lithuanian Parliament agreeing to a $53 million restitution deal for Jewish communal properties that were seized during the war.