Lithuanian migration history | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Lithuanian diaspora

Lithuanians are among the nations that have emigrated the most. Some 2-3 million people may have left Lithuania in the past two centuries, almost as many as there are inhabitants in Lithuania today. Due to intermarriages, some 6 million people worldwide may have at least a single great-great-grandparent from Lithuania by now.

This Lithuanian diaspora did not simply dissipate: it has built massive churches and club palaces, established century-lasting organizations and traditions, and, essentially, became "the other Lithuania" that had to be reckoned with, constantly replenished by new and new waves of emigration. Many of the key Lithuanian feats were achieved by the diaspora, such as publishing the first Lithuanian-language novel or encyclopedia.

Lithuania's sad history of occupations and persecutions is responsible for much of the emigration, but there were numerous waves and groups of emigrants that had different reasons, goals, and life after emigration. Whether you are a descendent of a Lithuanian emigrant or you seek to understand Lithuania and Lithuanians more these articles will help to learn all the whys and hows.

Numbers and locations of Lithuanian diaspora

Few estimations vary as wildly as those of Lithuanian diaspora numbers. That's because there is no clear definition of who is a Lithuanian and different countries use wildly different measures for statistics, including citizenship, birthplace, native language, ancestry, self-declared identity, etc.

Lithuanian diaspora is easiest to understand as a series of Migration Waves. The members of the same Migration Wave and their descendants have more in common with each other (even if living oceans apart) than they do have in common with the Lithuanians from other waves (even if they migrated to the same city). The Waves are described in the paragraph after this one.

The following liberal geographic estimates include people who are either ethnic Lithuanians, descendants of ethnic Lithuanians with exposure to Lithuanian culture, or Lithuanian citizens, irrespective of their language knowledge, place of birth or diaspora participation. They do not include non-Lithuanians who temporarily resided in Lithuania (e.g. during the Soviet occupation) and then emigrated. With limited data for some countries, some of the estimates still have a big margin of error.

A map of Lithuanian diaspora, each square Lithuanian flag representing 50 000 diaspora members and each smaller flag 10 000

A map of Lithuanian diaspora, each square Lithuanian flag representing 50 000 diaspora members and each smaller flag 10 000

Click on the country names on the table to learn more about Lithuanian heritage there.

Country Number of Lithuanians Comments
United States 650 000 Mostly First wave (pre-1915) and Second wave (~1940s). Mostly New England, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
United Kingdom 200 000 Mostly Third wave (post 1990-). Mostly cities.
Brazil 60 000 Mostly interwar migrants (1920s). Mostly Sao Paulo.
Germany 55 000 Mostly Third wave (post-1990)
Norway 50 000 Third wave only (post-2004)
Canada 47 000 Mostly Second wave (~1940s). Mostly Ontario and Montreal.
Argentina 45 000 Mostly interwar migrants (1920s). Mostly Buenos Aires, Beriso, Rosario
Ireland 40 000 Third wave only (post-1990)
Russia 32 000 Mostly Exiles (1940-1953), Soviet-era migrants (1945-1990)
Latvia 30 000 Mostly indigenous communities (near the Lithuanian border), Soviet-era migrants (1945-1990)
Belarus 30 000 Mostly indigenous communities near Lithuanian border, Soviet-era migrants (1945-1990).
Spain 30 000 Third wave only (post-1990)
Denmark 20 000 Third wave only (post-2004)
Sweden 16 000 Third wave only (post-2004)
Poland 15 000 Mostly indigenous communities near the Lithuanian border
Australia 13 000 Mostly Second wave (~1940s). Mostly Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Geelong, Perth.
Uruguay 10 000 Mostly interwar migrants (1920s). Mostly Montevideo.
Kazakhstan 7 000 Mostly Exiles (1940-1953) and Soviet-era migrants (1945-1990). Mostly Karaganda.
Ukraine 7 000 Soviet era migrants (1945-1990) and Third wave
The Netherlands 7 000 Third wave only (post-2004)

The Lithuanian emigration waves

Lithuania's emigration waves were so different from each other that they are the most important groupings of Lithuanian emigrants.

Destinations, periods, ethnicities, professions greatly depend(ed) on the wave with which the person has left Lithuania.

*Indigenous Lithuanians abroad. This part of the Lithuanian diaspora has never emigrated: they live in the same Lithuanian areas and villages their families lived for centuries and millenniums. However, 20th-century politics meant that these villages were not included in the Republic of Lithuania, being awarded to Russia, Poland, Belarus, or Latvia instead.

*Pre-modern emigration (before 1865). Before mid-19th century, migration was only accessible to Lithuania's elite. They left to rule far-away lands of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, left for international noble marriages, missionary duties, or escaped political enemies - yet they were so few in numbers they quickly assimilated in the regions they went to (or assimilated into the local Polish or German communities). Sometimes they left traces in stones - but little traces in local culture.

*First wave (1865-1915). A.k.a. "Grynoriai". At the time Lithuania was ruled by the Russian Empire which enacted discriminatory policies, was economically backward and left Lithuania undeveloped on purpose. Avoiding discrimination and seeking economic opportunities Lithuanians (mostly peasants) thus emigrated in larger numbers than ever before with some 700 000 leaving, most of them to the USA where they would work in the industry and mines. They established entire "colonies" abroad that included Lithuanian churches, club palaces, businesses. Lithuanian language and culture lingered for over a century in some of them, and the heritage still remains in many more.

*Interwar Lithuania emigration (1915-1939). While 1918 Lithuanian independence quenched the anti-Lithuanian discrimination back home and kick-started the economy, Lithuania still had a lot to catch up. Some Lithuanians (~100 000) did not wait and emigrated instead: as the USA was by then effectively closed to immigration, most have chosen South America or Canada, creating smaller versions of "First wave" Lithuanian "colonies" there. This minor wave of emigration was cut short by the 1929 Great Depression that ravaged the western economy more than that of Lithuania. Furthermore, during this period many of the pre-1915 Russian Imperial settlers emigrated to their own countries.

*The Exiles (1940-1953). Considered to be the most tragic part of recent Lithuanian history, they were a part of genocide. Soviets expelled some 350 000 to Russia's most inhospitable lands. Many of them died due to forced labor, malnutrition, and cold, leaving little trace behind them. A smaller number was also expelled to concentration camps by Nazi Germany in the 1941-1944 period.

*Second wave (~1944). A.k.a. "DPs", "Displaced persons", "WW2 refugees", "Soviet Genocide refugees". As Soviet armies invaded in 1944, many Lithuanians knew they were targets of the Soviet Genocide and so fled for their lives, mostly westwards. After several years spent in refugee camps, they would spread across key Western nations (mainly the USA, Canada, and Australia). Numbering at 70 000, the Second Wave was smaller in numbers than the First Wave, it left as big a mark on Lithuanian history because many second-wavers were patriots who would have never left Lithuania in other circumstances, so they worked hard to recreate a piece of Lithuania in their new homelands, keeping the Lithuanian language and culture alive and vehemently campaigning for Lithuania's freedom. Many of them were also intellectuals, launching the Lithuanian-styled arts, architecture, and sciences abroad.

Lithuanians DPs in a ship which moves them from refugee camps in Germany to a new world (left image). They later established cohesive communities, such as the one centered around this new (1950s) Nativity BVM church in Marquette Park, Chicago (right image).

*Emigration from Soviet Lithuania (1945-1990). Emigration from the Soviet Union was nearly banned, making the number of emigrants low despite some of the most horrible living conditions in Lithuanian history. Non-ethnic-Lithuanians, however, were often allowed to emigrate to their titular homelands and some 250 000 of them did (most of Lithuania's Jews emigrated to Israel, many Poles to Poland and Germans to Germany). There were also movie-scenario-like stories of escapes and infiltrations. Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union was allowed (sometimes even encouraged) for all ethnicities, however, few Lithuanians wanted it.

*Modern emigration or the Third wave (1990-). The current and largest wave of Lithuanian emigration. As European Union membership allowed free and uncontrolled emigration to Western Europe, almost a million Lithuanians (over a quarter of the total population) used up the opportunity to leave their Soviet-ravaged homeland for larger salaries of the West. Most of them settled in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, Spain, and Germany. Furthermore, many of the Soviet settlers departed for their historic homelands.

Note: this classification into three waves is the prevalent one in Lithuanian historiography and Lithuanian words such as "antrabangiai", "trečiabangiai" (second-waver, third-waver) are understood in the diaspora. There are alternative classifications, however, e.g. one with five waves, considering Interwar and Soviet migrations as separate waves. However, these migrations are more correctly seen as low-points of emigration from Lithuania between the "waves" (high-points).

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