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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

28 August 2016
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Lithuanian emigration to USA

Text: Egle and Vytautas Dudenas

Alfonsas Eidintas: “Lithuanian Emigration to the United States, 1868-1950. Mokslo ir enciklopediju leidybos institutas. Vilnius 2005. pp 250

This book is based on the author’s research and his doctoral dissertation (1990) and is splendidly translated into English by Thomas A. Michalski, PhD, who initially undertook the project for the benefit of his adult children. The author was a member of the history faculty of Vilnius University, Lithuania’s Ambassador to the US (1993-1997), to Canada (1997-2000), to Israel/South Africa (2002-2005) and Norway (2006-2010). A. Eidintas is an author and co-author of many books.

The book covers the period 1868 through 1940 in detail, providing a great deal of statistics, historical background, the reasons for emigration, the hardships of immigrants, their organizations, and the eventual adaptation of immigrants to their new country. Some attention is also devoted to remigration to Lithuania, primarily during the period 1920-1940. The author devotes only twenty pages to the political emigration between 1944 and 1950. He writes: “As God is my witness, I did not wish to write about perhaps the most painful and meaningless wave of emigration from Lithuania. The topic really should be dealt with in a separate study. It was an emigration that did not develop naturally and possibly never would have occurred had Lithuania developed on its own and not been effected by the brutal actions of its neighbors”.

It is believed that Lithuanian emigration to the United States began in the 17th Century when Alexander Cursius arrived in New Amsterdam (present day New York) in 1659 and became the first Latin School teacher-administrator; he was also a physician. Persons with Lithuanian surnames served under George Washington, and even Thaddeus Kosciuszko wrote that he came “from Lithuania in Poland” and later became Brigadier General and a hero of the American Revolution. There is also evidence that Lithuanians fought in the American Civil War (1861-65) in both armies, the North and the South.

During the 19th Century and in the early part of the 20th Century, the motives for emigrating were largely economic. Other contributing factors were the tsarist policy of russification, the Lithuanian movement toward national identity, failed attempts of the revolutions against the Tsar, and the flight of young men to avoid the unusually lengthy conscription into the army. The biggest migration occurred during the period from 1904 to 1914. Before World War I there were about 300,000 Lithuanian immigrants living in the United States and about 7,000 in Great Britain. Russian law did not recognize emigration, therefore indirect ways had to be found to leave the country. German ports were used, as they had established a structured agency network to recruit emigrants. Most immigrants entered the United States through New York and immediately had to face the difficult task of making a living. They were mainly employed as coalminers, working long hours at low wages under extremely difficult conditions.. By 1915 there were about 90,000 Lithuanians working in Pennsylvania coalmines.

As the coal industry declined, geographic and labor diversification followed: in Baltimore Lithuanians worked mainly as tailors, in Boston as tailors and in the textile mills, in Detroit in the automobile industry, in Pittsburgh and in Cleveland in steel foundries, and in Chicago, in metallurgical factories and in slaughterhouses.

In time, Lithuanian immigrants opened their own small businesses. According to 1910 data, Chicago had about 500 Lithuanian business establishments, including: 180 bars and saloons, 90 grocery stores, 33 barbershops, 17 clothing stores, 14 trucking and taxi companies, 10 print shops, 11 miscellaneous stores, 10 photographers studios, etc. As they prospered, the number of educated and professional Lithuanians increased. By 1916 there were 40 Lithuanian physicians, 10 lawyers, 25 each newspaper editors and publishers, 120 priests and 30 bankers, as well as about 3,000 shopkeepers, 2,500 owners of beer halls, and 10,000 tradesmen and skilled workers.

According to the author, large numbers of Lithuanian emigrants “…contributed greatly to the formation of the Lithuanian nation and to the national liberation movements, especially during the period when the Latin alphabet was prohibited. They influenced Lithuanian culture, determined some of the programs and attitudes of Lithuanian political parties, and affected the economic life of the country”. The Lithuanian Patriotic society alone published a total of 47 books in editions up to 3,000 copies, with 18 of the books dealing directly with questions of Lithuanian history and culture. Of the 18 Lithuanian newspapers published in 1898, 11 were published in the U.S. and seven in East Prussia. In 1914, 19 were published in Lithuania and 20 in the United States.

During World War I, Lithuanian emigration to the US essentially stopped; however, it resumed even after the reestablishment of the Lithuanian state as economic problems remained. The author reports that “From 1920 until June 1940, 102,460 people emigrated from Lithuania. Of this number, 30,869, or 30.l percent of the total settled in the United States; 24,982 or 24.4 percent went to Brazil; 16,794 or 16.3 percent to Argentina;…” It is estimated that between 1868 and 1940, Lithuania lost approximately 500,000 people of Lithuanian ethnic heritage to emigration.

The author concludes that: “During 50 long years of Soviet occupation, the emigration continued to work for the benefit of Lithuania. It represented Lithuanian culture to the free world, maintained what was left of the Lithuanian diplomatic service abroad, and steadfastly championed the Lithuanian cause in the West. The elderly immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, along with post-World War II political refugees, supported enthusiastically the reestablishment of Lithuanian independence, declared on March 11, 1990. The refugees were for the most part unwilling political émigrés born or raised during the period of Lithuanian independence. They fled death and deportation in Europe and found refuse in the long and well-established Lithuanian communities abroad, especially in the United States and Canada, where they were able to rebuild their lives on the shoulders of those who had come before them.”

The 1944-1950 Political Emigration

Members of the 1944-50 wave of emigration more appropriately describe themselves as refugees and victims of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of September 1939. According to this agreement and its secret protocols, Lithuania fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, however, Germans in Lithuania and people of German extraction were allowed to leave for the Third Reich. German records indicate that approximately 50,000 people exercised this privilege.

Soon after the Soviet Troops entered Lithuania in June of 1940, the country was forced to join the USSR as a Soviet Republic. The implementation of Stalinist terror and repressions followed. The USSR security services decided to cleanse Lithuania of “socially foreign and counter revolutionary elements” by compiling a list of 28,619 people for arrest and exile. By June 14, 1941 mass deportations began; included among the deportees were members of political parties, government administrators and civil servants, military officers, estate owners, manufacturers, teachers, physicians and members of their families, the clergy, and many others, a total of up to 30,000.

Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and within three days occupied Lithuania. Initially, the Nazi terror was directed against Soviet activists and Jews. A quarter of a million Lithuanian Jews perished during the years of Nazi genocide. The Nazis began to ship off mainly young people to work in Germany. It is estimated that 75,000 Lithuanians were deported to work in Germany. Documents indicate that by October 1944 there were 300,000 Lithuanians in Germany, including approximately 101,000 who lived in East Prussia.

Following the Allied victory in May of 1945, approximately 60,000 Lithuanians lived in the American, British and French zones, with the bulk located in displaced persons (DP) camps organized by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) which provided the refugees with housing, food, clothing and other basic necessities. Among the Lithuanian refugees, by one count, there were 227 priests, 130 seminarians, 400 engineers, 300 physicians and 350 jurists. Although living conditions were at poverty level, educational and cultural activities thrived; there were 71 kindergartens, 112 primary schools, 14 junior high schools and 20 high schools. An estimated 1,000 qualified teachers were employed in these schools. Approximately 2000 Lithuanians were enrolled in German universities between 1944 and 1948. Cultural activities in DP camps included the publication of newspapers and books, choruses, artists and theatre groups, sports teams.

As immigration started, American Lithuanians (through ALT-Council of Lithuanian Americans, and BALF-United Lithuanian Relief Fund of America) worked diligently to provide refugees with the necessary documents which facilitated their emigration to the United States. A total of 30,000 Lithuanians emigrated to the U.S., 7,700 to Canada, 3,000 to Great Britain, 5,000 to Australia, and 2,000 to Venezuela. The peak emigration years were 1948 and 1949. Over 7,000 Lithuanians remained in Germany.

Even though the old Lithuanian emigration provided DPs with substantial material and political assistance while they lived in the camps, and upon their arrival to the US received them hospitably;. The new immigrants did not naturally blend into the existing Lithuanian-American society or into organizations. This is partially attributed to their refugee mentality and the hardships which they faced in getting established in the new country. As new arrivals and their families went through the process of assimilation and americanization, a good level of cooperation was achieved between the earlier and later immigrant generations. According to the 1980 US census, there were 743,000 people of Lithuanian descent.

Mr. Eidintas writes: “With the proclamation of the Act of March 11, 1990, reestablishing Lithuanian independence, Lithuanian immigrants and their descendants throughout the world united in their efforts to strengthen and support their ancestral homeland. They provided financial support, initiated charitable and religious aid, and intensified their already considerable public relations and lobbying efforts for recognition of an independent Lithuanian state free of entanglements with the then-floundering Soviet Union.”

A number of Lithuanian-Americans moved to Lithuania after 1990 and became deeply involved in the process of rebuilding the country. Among them, four became members of parliament (Seimas), one was named minister, two deputy ministers, four were appointed ambassadors, three were named to high-ranking military posts including Commander of the country’s Armed Forces. Numerous individuals worked in governmental administration, including advisors to the President.

The person who drew the greatest interest over these years was Valdas Adamkus, an American-Lithuanian, who was elected president of Lithuania in 1998 and for a second term of office in 2004.

Category : Lithuania in the world
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                    My name is Dennis Milam. My mothers parents immigrated to New York, and then on to Chicago Illinois.
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