THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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By Frank Passic, Albion, Michigan.
When Lithuania came under Russian control in 1795, the Russians did all they could to “Russify” the Lithuanians, but they were continually met with stiff opposition. During the last half of the 19th Century, oppression increased as parochial schools were closed and Lithuanian printed matter was forbidden. Repressive measures were forced upon the people by the Czar, adding to the misery of the Lithuanian nation which already suffered from famine and mass unemployment.
As a result, thousands of Lithuanians fled their homeland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries prior to World War I. Emigration to America eventually totaled 635,000 individuals, approximately 20 percent of the population of Lithuania! Lithuanians arrived at Ellis Island impoverished, penniless, and unable to speak the English language but full of hope – the hope of freedom, a new life and unlimited opportunity.
Helping the Lithuanian immigrant was the Brooklyn Chapter of the Lithuanian Alliance of America, which gave aid to those at Ellis Island. The Brooklyn Lithuanian-American Citizens Club held a special conference in May of 1911 to plan a strategy for helping those who were scheduled for deportation back to Lithuania. The No. 4 issue of Tevyne (1896) stated, “At present, masses of Lithuanian emigrants are arriving in New York. Every ship from Hamburg brings tens and hundreds of Lithuanians. Many are sent back and the Alliance’s Brooklyn Chapter is working its hardest for the good of those poor peoples…”
In general, the immigrants stayed in New York only briefly, then moved westward to Pennsylvania, where they found employment building railroads and working the coal mines. Numerous Lithuanian organizations, newspapers, and societies were organized in Pennsylvania. These served as the prelude to those that were to be established later in Chicago as Lithuanian immigrants moved westward. Many Chicago societies were actually branches of those that were first established in Pennsylvania.
The first group of Lithuanians came to Chicago in 1870, when eighteen men arrived with a railroad crew. Because of its central location with industry and development, Chicago became the goal of the thousands of impoverished Lithuanian immigrants seeking a new life. Groups of Lithuanians came in 1880 and 1885, with the first colony being established on the North side of the city. After that, the influx of Lithuanians to Chicago grew at an enormous rate. It is estimated that between 1880 and 1914 more than 47,000 Lithuanians settled in the city, congregating in the Bridgeport and Town of Lake districts. By 1923, the Lithuanian population had grown to over 90,000, confirming the fact that Chicago contained the largest Lithuanian population of any city in the world, even more than Kaunas, Lithuania.
According to one story, the Bridgeport section, where many Lithuanians settled, was supposedly named after a Lithuanian immigrant from Tilsit (East Prussia/ Lithuanian Minor) named Ansas Portas. Portas owned land on the south side of the Chicago River at a bridge crossing, and people referred to the area as the “bridge to Portas,” which was later changed to Bridgeport. The Bridgeport section served as the nucleus of the Lithuanian community from the early years of immigration to Chicago through the era of World War I.
Due to the difficulty they had in obtaining jobs, Lithuanian immigrants began to settle around the stockyards where work was available in the slaughterhouses and steel mills. By World War I, approximately 25 percent of the ethnic work force in the industries was Lithuanian, and it is estimated that a total of 100,000 Lithuanians worked in the stockyards in Chicago during their existence. The grim and horrible conditions Lithuanian workers faced there were the theme of the classic novel, The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair.
The Lithuanian contribution to the city of Chicago is significant in several ways. First, it provided the city with an added labor base upon which the city’s industries grew and prospered. Second it accelerated the building of ethnic neighborhoods, adding to the distinctive variety found in the city’s cultural life. Third, it spurred the formation of new businesses and more affluence.
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