Unlikely Founder of Vilnius Jewish Library

Wyman Brent Is Long-Haired Atheist, Speaks No Lithuanian

Green Light: Wyman Brent (right) completes paperwork for the Vilnius Jewish Library with Petras Zurlys, director of the Lithuanian Librarians’ Association.
Gerda Putnaite
Green Light: Wyman Brent (right) completes paperwork for the Vilnius Jewish Library with Petras Zurlys, director of the Lithuanian Librarians’ Association.

By Paul Berger

Published November 20, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.