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!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • 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.