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.
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The new Jewish library is unrelated to the Lithuanian government’s controversial talks with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research over a portion of its prewar library and archives that the government has refused to release.

Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s executive director and CEO (he is no relation to Wyman Brent) is expected in Vilna soon to discuss the establishment of a “YIVO Room” at the Lithuanian National Library. A portion of YIVO’s books and, potentially, some of its prized archives may be put on public display there.

Wyman Brent
ZILVINAS BELIAUSKAS
Wyman Brent

Since Vilnius Jewish Library has none of the baggage of YIVO’s prewar history, it is proving less controversial. The government donated the library space — more than 2,000 square feet of prime real estate in a district dotted by consulates and embassies — and spent about $300,000 renovating it. Gelunas said the library, which contains books mostly in English, is a “political message and a democratic message that Lithuania is opening up.”

The library has been welcomed by Lithuania’s Jewish community, which numbers about 5,000 today compared with a prewar total of more than 200,000 people. Simon Gurevicius, the community’s executive director, said, “We firmly believe this library should serve as a tool to provide more knowledge on Judaism, Jewish people and our way of life, and hope that one day it will inspire translation of some books about Lithuanian Jewish heritage from English into Lithuanian.”

Even Dovid Katz, a longtime critic of the Lithuanian government who divides his time between Lithuania and Britain, welcomed the library, albeit cautiously.

Katz, a Yiddish scholar who has donated books to the library, said the Lithuanian state has a track record of manipulating Jewish projects “for PR and history-revisionism projects.” He said he supports the library “as long as at least one of the principal actual members of staff is from the country’s Jewish community.”

Gelunas said staffing of the library is still unclear. It will be managed by the state-run Adam Mickiewicz Public Library and will have two or three full-time posts. It will be overseen by a board, which will plot the institution’s development and organize events. “Wyman Brent would definitely be chairman” of that board, Gelunas said.

Strangely enough, instead of staying to nurture his creation during its early weeks and months, Brent will hop on a plane with his fiancée, Andrea Oberheiden, to Germany. He plans to flit to and from Vilna over the following year, but the couple’s long-term sights are set on America.

“We’re going to have our life in the United States,” Brent said during a telephone interview from Kiel, Germany, where he lives with Oberheiden, a German citizen. “But I will not put the library behind me.”

It was during the creation of the library that Brent met Oberheiden, a filmmaker who has produced a series of documentaries about singer Al Jolson — “Lithuania’s most famous export,” according to Brent. He wrote to Oberheiden last year, asking if she would donate the films to his library. In the process, he acquired four free DVDs, some CDs and photos of Jolson, and a future bride.

Brent has no regrets that he won’t play a full-time role at the library. He pointed out that he is neither a professional librarian nor a Lithuanian speaker. “I can understand them wanting someone else as overall director of the library,” Brent said.

Brent does dream of a bigger role than chairman, one in which he is a global ambassador for the library, traveling the world to talk about his collection and the significant contribution Jews have made to Lithuanian life and culture. He also intends to keep collecting material for the library.

“I am never going to quit,” he said. “I am going to make sure it continues to follow my vision, my dream.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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