Wyman Brent’s Speech at the Opening of the Vilnius Jewish Public Library


by Wyman Brent


Hello Everyone. Thank you for being here today.

No nation has ever become great by embracing racism, prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and xenophobia. Such a country can only shrink within itself. Its people become small and bitter. No flower ever bloomed brighter nor smelled sweeter after having been dusted with hatred. Such a flower and such a people can only fade away.

A nation can only thrive when it realizes that wisdom does not stop at it own borders.

The Vilnius Jewish Public Library would not be opening today if I had kept my own counsel. Many over the past seven years have contributed greatly to the success of this project. Some did so by donating material or by spreading the word of the work being done to create a new center dedicated to promoting tolerance, understanding, and ultimately acceptance. Others helped by offering words of wisdom that helped to increase the vision of what was possible, and to enhance and expand the library’s mission, capabilities, and goals.

A victory for humanity, whether large or small, requires taking steps. Those steps are rarely perfect and the same can be said of victory. There will be roadblocks, obstacles, barriers, missteps, and stumbles. Yet that does not make the goal any less worthy. An imperfect achievement is still an achievement. If one waits for perfection, one could be waiting a very long time.

Is this the right time for the Vilnius Jewish Library? It is not for me to say. All I can tell you is that the work was done with what was available under imperfect conditions in order to turn a dream into the reality which you see before you today. Many helped in various ways. I do not believe that any of them labored under the illusion that this center of Jewish life and culture would become utopia. Yet they gave of their time, energy, wisdom, and money.

There are many to thank and it is not possible to thank them all now. Here are some of those who helped. I do not intend to in any way deny the other equally phenomenal people who gave so generously. Here are a few names in no particular order.

  • Actor/ director/ photographer Leonard Nimoy and an incredible human and humanitarian.
  • Singer, songwriter Janis Ian who has given so much to the world with her music.
  • Another singer, songwriter named Cindy Paley who is simply super.
  • Architect Richard Meier who gave the world The Getty Center and so much more.
  • Rabbi Jonathan Slater
  • Professor Dovid Katz
  • National Yiddish Book Center for its donation and for keeping Yiddish alive.
  • Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, D.C.
  • Jewish Contemporary Museum of San Francisco
  • Author Shura Saul
  • Author Jodi Picoult
  • Author Rosally Saltsman
  • Rusty Mike Radio inIsrael
  • The Jewish Quarterly
  • Michael and Arnold Hanna-Fein
  • Cathy, Murray, and Wesley Gladstein. Wesley happens to have been born in Lithuania.
  • The Forward newspaper
  • Sir Martin and Esther Gilbert who are a truly incredible pair of people.
  • Cornell UniversityLibrary.
  • Paulius Brazlauskis and Oldtown Hostel which gave me a place to rest my head.
  • Rendsburg Jewish Museum.
  • Berlin Holocaust Memorial.

Ivan Wilzig whose father Siggi Wilzig was found “guilty” of simply being Jewish. Siggi went to Auschwitz. It made no difference that the family had a 500 year history in Germany. Siggi survived the hatred. It was a miracle as he lost 59 of his relatives murdered simply for being Jewish. Siggi not only lived but managed to thrive when he reached the USA. His first job in the USA was shoveling snow. His last was as president and CEO of a bank which grew in stature and strength as he led the way. His son Ivan obtained a law degree and he and his brother Alan went to work with their father. Ivan is now a successful and entertaining recording artist. Alan is out there racing cars and racing them quite well. Mother Naomi created and runs an art museum in Miami. All Siggi Wilzig and his family ever wanted was just to live their lives. Look at what can happen when people are simply allowed to be themselves. Look at what can happen when people are not allowed to be themselves.

Yad Vashem which has done so much to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

Thus I am brought to my dear friend Rachel Kostanian who keeps the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum’s Green House running. The Green House is a place where the light burns bright as it does its part to make all people aware that the Holocaust was a tragedy for all citizens of Lithuania. Rachel represents the best in keeping the flame of Jewish culture alive. She succeeds despites the odds and she is an inspiration for me and for others.

Finally I must give thanks to Andrea Oberheiden who is here today. She is a documentary film maker and so much more. I first became aware of Andrea while doing research on the incredible entertainer Al Jolson. Al Jolson was not only a Jew but also a Litvak, one who is counted as a Lithuanian Jew. He was born in 1886 in the town of Seredžius here in Lithuania. He went on to amazing success in vaudeville, Broadway, film, and music. Jolson was the star of The Jazz Singer which was the first full length sound film. Think of the fact that a Lithuanian citizen made history and achieved success on a truly epic scale. Andrea so admires his talent that she has created several documentaries related to his life. She is the one I thank for putting me into touch with the International Al Jolson Society with members in many nations. They work without tiring as they promote the name of a man who was born here in this nation. Thanks to Andrea’s help and thanks to the Jolson Society, the library will have an incredible collection of Jolson material to share with everyone who walks through the doors. Andrea also arranged donations from many sources in Germany and Austria.

Before the donations, I discovered Andrea’s website and then had the good fortune and the pleasure to discover the person behind the camera. The creator of documentaries is also working on a film about the library. More than that, we have decided to build a life together. Two gentiles who happen to have an abiding respect and admiration for Jewish culture.

One must put their feet on the path toward a worthy goal. “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” is the way the educator Horace Mann put it. Today the Minister of Culture Arūnas Gelūnas, Petras Zurlys and the Lithuanian Librarians’ Association, Parliament members Petras Austrevičius and Emanuelis Zingeris, Aage Myhre, and my dear friend Žilvinas Beliauskas have won a victory for humanity. I ask that each of you here today join us on the path as we move imperfectly forward toward continued victory.

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