True Lithuania

Interwar Lithuanian emigrants (1920s-1930s)

While 1918 stemmed much of the Lithuanian emigration, it continued for a while, establishing unique Lithuanian communities mostly in Latin America.

Why did Lithuanians emigrate in 1920s and 1930s?

While Lithuania became independent in 1918 and the discriminatory policies of the Russian Empire ceased, the repercussions of that occupation remained for a while: Lithuania was poor, left without industry, and recently damaged in World War 1 and the Wars of independence. Lithuanian economy thus lagged behind the American countries that did not have a recent war or occupation on their soil. Thus, in order to become richer, some Lithuanians continued to emigrate even after independence, although the numbers were much smaller than before World War 1, when reasons for emigration were both economical and political.

Additionally, in 1926, Lithuania suffered a coup when a leftist government was replaced by president Smetona’s rightist regime, this encouraging emigration of numerous leftist Lithuanians.

An advertisement in Lithuania advertising emigration to South America

An advertisement in Lithuania advertising emigration to South America

The interwar emigration almost ceased after 1930, as the economic situation in Lithuania itself improved while America was hit by the global crisis, rendering the economic difference between Lithuania and America too small to be worth the great costs, hassle and risks emigration poised at the time. Moreover, Smetona‘s regime did not turn fascist, as some leftists may have feared, and continued benevolently until being cut short by the Soviet occupation in 1940.

A typical Lithuanian emigration bureau in a Lithuanian city. At this time, emigration became a planned affair with even a Law on Emigration drafted. Lithuanians would typically get a complete service of travelling from Vilnius to a place of emigration, combining trains and ships, and this was a more orderly affair now

A typical Lithuanian emigration bureau in a Lithuanian city. At this time, emigration became a planned affair with even a Law on Emigration drafted. Lithuanians would typically get complete service of traveling from Vilnius to a place of emigration, combining trains and ships, and this was a more orderly affair for interwar emigrants than it was for the First Wave

Special case: Russian Imperial settlers In 1915, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian population were Russian settlers: non-Lithuanian people who came to live in Lithuania because of the policies of the Russian Empire. Some of them were Russian soldiers and officials. Others were regular people who were encouraged to move to Lithuania to dilute the local ethnic majority (they were mostly ethnic Russians or Jews; Russia's Jews were banned from settling in much of the Russian Empire, forcing them to settle in Lithuania and a few other lands).

As the Russian grip of Lithuania was lost, these settlers suddenly found themselves in a strange land. Lithuanian language was to replace Russian in the official sphere (and they mostly spoke no Lithuanian). The jobs for soldiers and officials of the massive empire were suddenly gone. The land was to be redistributed from those Russians who had been given it by the Russian Empire after the Empire took it from Lithuanians.

Given such developments, many of the Russian settlers chose to leave. Because neither they nor their ancestors ever were citizens of any Lithuanian country, they didn't consider themselves Lithuanians or practiced Lithuanian culture, these people are not considered part of the Lithuanian interwar emigration. They are seen as subjects of the Russian Empire and they mostly never emigrated from the Russian Empire: instead, they retreated as their empire retreated from Lithuania.

How many people emigrated from Lithuania in 1918-1940?

Some 100 000.

The emigration began to be thoroughly registered since 1926. In 1926-1930 "minor wave", ~60 000 people left Lithuania.

In comparison, during the entire next decade (1931-1939), only ~10 000 did emigrate.

Some 30 000 may have left Lithuania in 1918-1925.

Special case: Russian Imperial settlers The Russian Imperial settlers who left Lithuania ~1915-1920 are not included in these numbers. Some 70 000 Russians and 70 000 Jews may have left Lithuania at the time.

Where did these people emigrate from Lithuania in 1920s-1930s?

The statistics for 1926-1939 period:

USA (Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, New England) - 30%
Brazil (especially Sao Paulo) – 24%
Argentina (especially Buenos Aires, Rosario, Beriso) – 16%
Canada (especially Delhi area) – 8%
Uruguay (especially Montevideo) – 4%

"Immigrant hotels" were the institutions in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay where immigrants would temporarily live in crowded conditions until employers would pick them up for job. This room is recreated in Sao Paulo museum of immigration

"Immigrant hotels" were the institutions in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay where immigrants would temporarily live in crowded conditions until employers would pick them up for job. This room is recreated in Sao Paulo museum of immigration

While the United States would have still been preferred place to emigrate to, the United States have limited immigration from Eastern Europe, making Lithuanians seek for the „next best thing“ (unless they had relatives in the USA). At the time, Argentina and Uruguay were industrial countries on-par with Europe in terms of economy, and not damaged by World War 1. Brazil seemed attractive for its cheap land. Some of the uneducated migrants actually failed to differentiate different American lands believing all America was as rich.

Special case: Jews Jews from Lithuania often also went to Palestine (following the Zionist ideas to build a Jewish homeland there; 5% of total emigration) or South Africa (for no particular reason save for the fact that Jews who emigrated before would tell other Jews about the site; 7% of total emigration).

Special case: Russian Imperial settlers Most of the Russian Imperial settlers emigrated to Russia where they were offered citizenship as per Lithuania-Russia treaty.

How did the interwar Lithuanian emigrants live after emigrating?

Depending on the location of emigration, they worked either in the industry (in the cities) or agriculture (Brazilian and Canadian countryside). Over time, some Lithuanians drifted from the villages to the cities.

In the USA, Lithuanians generally joined the older Lithuanian-American communities and parishes, as they were typically invited to the USA by Lithuanians who emigrated earlier and thus came to the cities where communities have already existed.

In Canada and Latin America, however, Lithuanians had to establish new parishes and organizations. Their wages were not as good as those in the USA and so they were unable to build massive churches or clubhouses as in the First wave did in the USA.

Lithuanian buildings thus appeared only in the key cities and were relatively modest. Lithuanian clubs were the main hub of activity where the Lithuanians would meet, sing the Lithuanian songs, celebrate the Lithuanian festivals.

Uruguay Lithuanians celebrate 15th years of establishing their club

Uruguay Lithuanians celebrate 15th anniversary of establishing their club

Numerous Lithuanian emigrants thought about returning to Lithuania after earning enough money. Some were disillusioned with their "new homeland", especially the Lithuanian-Brazilians: Brazil proved to be not richer than Lithuania itself.

The emigrants were supported by the Republic of Lithuania which saw them as a kind of „reserve Lithuania“ where Lithuanian culture could thrive despite dangers in Europe. In order to achieve this, the Republic of Lithuania created Lithuanian schools for the children of these emigrants. That „cultural lifeline“ was quickly lost as Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Lithuanian-Brazilian Union building, originally serving as a Lithuanian school for Sao Paulo Lithuanians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Lithuanian church establishment in Canada and Latin America was also precluded by a fact that a significant part of these emigrants were leftists and thus refused to support church construction works. Lithuanian churches were often funded by the Lithuanians from the USA and most of them were constructed only after World War 2, staffed by priests from the First-wave Lithuanian-American communities or those newly fled from Lithuania during World War 2 (Second (DP) Wave of emigration).

 Buenos Aires Lithuanian church

Buenos Aires Lithuanian church, finally opened in 1942

The leftist-and-poor Lithuanian emigrants in Latin America proved to be a fertile ground for Soviet propaganda: after occupying Lithuania in the 1940s, Soviet Union organized campaigns among the Lithuanian-Argentines, Lithuanian-Uruguayans and Lithuanian-Brazilians encouraging them to „return“ to the „now free“ (i.e. communist) homeland, promising them good and rich life. Some agreed, only to discover the real sad situation of Soviet-occupied Lithuania, have the Soviet promises broken and themselves unable to leave back to Latin America.

Until their deaths, the original Lithuanian emigrants, however, remained divided between a pro-Soviet minority (supported by the Soviet Union) and the anti-Soviet majority (supported by Lithuanian-Americans), with the latter gaining the upper hand as the Soviet brutality became well understood worldwide and the earlier drifting into oblivion. Moreover, the pro-Soviet minority would also bear the brunt of the local governments, who were mostly aligned with the USA in the Cold War and thus would crackdown on communists at times.

Lithuanian anti-Soviet protest in Uruguay

Lithuanian anti-Soviet protest in Uruguay ~1965

Special case: Jews They generally integrated into the local Jewish communities without keeping ties to Lithuania or Lithuanians, especially those who left for Palestine and South Africa. After all, the main idea of emigrating to Palestine was to create a Jewish ethnic homeland there; with Palestine seen as the real motherland for worldwide Jewry, any other lands where they previously lived (including Lithuania) were often seen as merely alien temporary homes.

Some of the Jews who left for Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay, however, kept some ties to Lithuanian organizations there, although only a minority.

Special case: Russian Imperial settlers The former settlers never considered themselves Lithuanian or were attached to Lithuania, so, they quickly integrated into their homelands.

How did the children and grandchildren of the 1920s-1930s Lithuanian emigrants live?

In the rural areas without major Lithuanian concentration, the Lithuanian culture was generally not passed on and dissipated within one or (rarely) two generations. While the original Lithuanian emigrants in that countryside would be visited by Lithuanian missionary priests, for example, their children typically no longer needed that. Mixed families would cut the Lithuanian heritage there altogether.

In the main cities, however, Lithuanians clung around their clubs and churches and often formed Lithuanian families, passing the culture on. The survival of Lithuanian culture was greatly financially supported by the Lithuanian community in the USA after the 1940s, as they saw the then-recent and sizeable Lithuanian community of interwar emigrants as a great reserve force of Lithuanity in the free world.

For example, the Lithuanian-Americans would provide scholarships for Latin America’s Lithuanian children to join the February 16th Lithuanian boarding school in West Germany. There, Lithuanians from all over the free non-communist world studied and, being unable to converse in any other single language, they had to quickly learn Lithuanian.

Materials and collections of the main Lihuanian-Argentine newspaper Argentinos lietuvių balsas, now preserved at the Lithuanian farmstead in Patagonia

Materials and collections of the main Lihuanian-Argentine newspaper Argentinos lietuvių balsas, now preserved at the Lithuanian farmstead in Patagonia

These pupils of February 16th Lithuanian boarding school would become the core of the Lithuanian clubs later on, ensuring the survival of the Lithuanian language and culture there. However, the ranks of such clubs grew scarcer as other immigrant children and grandchildren would form mixed families and leave.

Yet, unlike in the USA, mixed families not necessarily broke the chain of Lithuanian culture transmission in Latin America: indeed, some of the Lithuanian-speaking youth of the Latin America’s Lithuanian clubs are only 1/4th or 1/8th Lithuanian. That is because while the USA is a melting pot of different immigrant groups and a “mixed family offspring” typically has 4 or 8 different ethnicities, unable to share affinity among all of them, in Latin America such person would often be of 3/4th or 7/8th “local blood” (with no memory of immigration), making the Lithuanian history a unique and interesting part of heritage with no (or few) other similar alternatives. Furthermore, a relative richness of the countries matters: while for the Americans, roots from Eastern Europe means roots in a country much poorer and less significant than their new homeland, for Latin Americans, roots anywhere in Europe are roots in a richer and "more influential" area of the world.

Lithuanian folk dancers rehearsing in the Lithuanian Center of Argentina

Young Lithuanian folk dancers rehearsing in the Lithuanian Center of Argentina (2018). This is the grandsons and granddaughters (or even great grandsons / great granddaughters) of the original immigrants

Unlike most other Lithuanian communities, the Interwar Lithuanian communities in Latin America were never replenished by significant new waves of immigration after the 1940s as by the time Third Wave of Lithuanian migration began after 1990 Latin America was too poor to attract any new immigrants. In fact, vice-versa happened: after Lithuania became independent in 1990 and after it became richer than most Latin American countries ~2000, some of the “most culturally Lithuanian” children and grandchildren of the original 1920s-1930s immigrants opted for re-emigration to Lithuania.

After Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, many of non-Lithuanian-speaking Latin Americans who had a single Lithuanian ancestor also began seeking to restore Lithuanian citizenship, however, typically only to emigrate to other EU-members, mainly Spain (for Argentines) or Portugal (for Brazilians), that are already far more culturally acceptable to them than Lithuania.

Members of the Lithuanian club Mindaugas of Beriso, Argentina, in 2019

Members of the Lithuanian club Mindaugas of Beriso, Argentina, in 2019. Almost no Lithuania-born members are left but traditionally they still consider themselves to be 'immigrant clubs'

Special case: Jews The children of Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to South Africa and Israel typically had no relation to Lithuania anymore, as at the time ethnicity was considered more important than nationality and thus they saw more common ground with Jews from elsewhere than with Catholic Lithuanians.

Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, however, sometimes became more interested in their roots. They see these roots as Lithuanian, as the concept of ethnicity is not well understood in America and it is citizenship (nationality) that is held as important; and, having left Lithuania mostly in the 1920s, their Jewish forefathers were Lithuanian citizens.

The interest grew after the 1990 independence and 2004 when Lithuania joined the European Union. Thousands of these Jews restored Lithuanian citizenship although nearly all of them do not plan to move to Lithuania: instead, they use this citizenship as a gateway into the European Union.

What heritage have the interwar Lithuanian emigrants left behind?

The key cities where they immigrated to (Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rosario) have Lithuanian churches and clubs operating, while Beriso has only clubs.

Bas-relief of club Mindaugas depicts the first Lithuanian Christian king Mindaugas with a cross and a sword

Bas-relief of club Mindaugas depicts the first Lithuanian Christian king Mindaugas with a cross and a sword in club Mindaugas of Beriso, Argentina

The churches are greatly Lithuanian in design but typically hold no Lithuanian mass anymore, despite still often being more or less a center for Lithuanian communities. The clubs, on the other hand, still organize many Lithuanian activities and in some of them, the Lithuanian language still survives well.

A fragment of a stained glass window in Montevideo Lithuanian church

A fragment of a stained glass window in Montevideo Lithuanian church

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Diaspora 3 Comments
Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very interesting article, and helpful for me in understanding the immigration decisions of my ancestors who came to the US in the early 1900s, and some to Argentina in the 1920s.

  2. One question regarding this excellent article: is a better copy of the advertisement “Baltijos Lloydas” available in digital form? I would like to use it in my own family history writing.


Cancel reply

No trackbacks yet.