Following Ann Wisnosky’s account of elders left behind in Lithuania, forcing immigrant families here to rely on neighbors in lieu of parents and grandparents, the piece below hints at the sorrows and difficulties faced by those left behind. In this well-researched article (using Springfield city directories and passport and draft records, among other sources), we see parents hoping to see long-lost children before they die. We also find immigrants in circumstances that make even one, final visit to the homeland next to impossible.
Letters from 1920s Lithuania: A Call to Come Home
By William Cellini, Jr.
Among the millions of European emigrants who came to the U.S. in the early twentieth century, Lithuanians stand out due to the precarious situations forcing them to leave their homeland. Most emigrants of the Catholic faith left to escape religious persecution by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian czarist regime.
Lithuanian men tended to emigrate due to military conscription that began in 1874 under Czar Alexander II. Conscription meant Lithuanian males were obligated to fight for Russia in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and in World War I. Politically, Lithuania was under the Russian Empire and had been since 1795.
As a result, Lithuanians chose to re-make their lives in other parts of Europe and in the Americas with no intention of ever returning to their homeland. However, in February 1918 when an independent Lithuanian nation was declared, Lithuanian-Americans had to make a decision about returning, especially when family members wrote letters pleading for them to come home.
Some of these letters contained entreaties from elderly parents wishing to see their children one last time. Other letters conveyed urgency in business matters that had surfaced since the emigrant left. Lithuanian-Americans who did manage to visit, or return for good in the period following World War I, found a Lithuania free from czarist domination and for the most part, free of Polish insurrection.
Enoch Yakobasky (perhaps born Ignas Jakubauskas) was a Springfield resident who had emigrated from Lithuania to the U.S. in 1893. He initially worked as a coal miner in Pittston, Pennsylvania, where he was a boarder in the home of a Lithuanian family. By 1915, Yakobasky was living in Springfield, listed in the Springfield City Directory as single and a coal miner. He registered for the draft during WWI, but due to his age (birth year listed as 1873), it is doubtful he served in the U.S. military.
In 1921, Enoch received a letter from his parents in Lithuania pleading with him to come back. They wanted nothing more than to “see you while we are alive, you might not find us alive by the next spring.” Yakobasky was 48 years old and unmarried, living at the corner of South 12th and Laurel Streets. His lawyer translated into English the letter from his parents, and a part of their message contains reassurances about life in the newly independent Lithuania.
“As you ask about the Government of Lithuania, we must reply, stating that the newspapers are stating untruth about it, because the poor people and working people are fully defended, they may go wherever they please, no one beats them or puts them in jail without reason.”
Other comments carry a different tone: “The master class is now more oppressed than the poor peoples; you should not mind the papers and should come back home, so many have already done and no harm is done to them…”
Some remarks convey a sense of class struggle while providing evidence of how bad conditions had been for the poor at the time immigrants left. My interpretation of the reference to the reversal of fortune for the “master class” is speculative. However, it may have been tied to events the year prior when Lithuania was embroiled in a war with Poland over control of the regions of Vilnius, Suwałki and Klaipeda.
That war occurred during the same era as the Soviet-Polish War, when the Red Army attempted to use Poland as a conduit for spreading communism into Germany. Lithuania was assisted by the Red Army in its desire to re-incorporate the city of Vilnius into the Lithuanian state. (Lithuania later lost Vilnius to the Poles, and so Kaunas became Lithuania’s provisional capital from 1920 until 1939).
The letter from Enoch’s parents indicates that he has previously promised but failed to visit, and that they are expecting some financial assistance that has not yet arrived. It’s not surprising that Lithuanian immigrants would have made remittances to elderly parents when able, in the long tradition of foreign workers on U.S. soil.
Whether Enoch made the requested visit, and perhaps even remained with his aging parents, is unknown. He does seem to have left Springfield in the 1920s, as he is not listed or located in Springfield’s city directories from 1923 to 1930.
William Grabusky (perhaps Viljamas Grabauskas) was a Lithuanian-American who emigrated to the U.S. in 1906 from the village of Pilviškiai, Marijampolė County. He obtained U.S. citizenship on September 20, 1916 in Springfield, Illinois. Previously, he had resided in Mahanoy City, Penn., where he worked as a coal miner. During WWI, William and his wife, Ellen, lived on Springfield’s north side. On his draft card, he is listed as a ‘”coal digger” with the “Jones & Adams” Mine. That mine was located off Clear Lake Avenue and was an employment hub for many north end miners.
His birth year is listed as 1882. In 1916, he and his wife suffered the death of their infant son, Notbett (Norbert). The funeral was held at St. Vincent de Paul Church, officiated by the Rev. John Czuberkis. In 1921, William’s parents wrote him a letter from Lithuania asking him to visit. From their reply, it seems William had initiated the idea: “Son, as you wanted to come and see us, well if you could come and see us now, because we are old and weak.”
Grabusky was 40 years old when he received the letter. His passport paperwork indicates it was the first time he was applying for a travel document. Considering that he had resided in the United States since 1906, his parents must have been very pleased that he was making a visit after a separation of at least 15 years.
Their letter goes on to say, “…Your sisters and brother-in-law would be very glad; as we love to see the sun shine, thats [sic] how we want to see you…”
In a part of his letter to his lawyer, William indicates there are other letters from his family and they, too, could be used for his passport application: “…I will send you the letters they wrote me, and I have the lines marked for you as evidence, as they say ‘we are waiting for you to come home and see us.’ ” Perhaps evidence was needed to obtain a passport quickly; it seems William’s application was signed December 16, 1921 and his departure date was listed as Jan. 20, 1922.
Per information from the U.S. Census and Springfield City Directory, by 1930, William and his wife Helen were living on North 8th Street. He was working as a coal miner and Ellen is listed as a ‘janitress’ at the Lincoln Theater downtown. On March 19, 1932, William died of the complications of pneumonia. His body was buried in the abbey vault at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
According to his obituary, he was survived by his wife and by two sisters in Lithuania, Madeline and Agnes, but no parents. Perhaps he had been able to visit them before they died.
Antanas Senkus emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland. According to his U.S. passport application, he was born in the village of Raguva, Panevėžys County. After his arrival in the U.S., he initially settled in Pennsylvania, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1914. In 1918, Antanas and his wife Marijona (family name, Rusinaukus/Ružinauskas) were listed in the Springfield City Directory living on city’s north side. His recorded occupation is “coal miner” with the “Jones and Adams Company.”
By 1920, the couple is listed as having three children. In 1921, Antanas received a letter from his father in Lithuania asking him to come and visit. “[I] am letting you know, son, that I have been sick and in bed since November 1920, so [I] am asking you, dear son, to be so good as to come home as soon as you possibly can as I want to see you, as it is 20 years since I saw you.”
His father’s letter also contains directions on how to get to their village, “Papilvui” (possibly the village of Papilvis in Kaunas County). The elder Senkus closes his letter saying, “[I] am 66 years old but have no health. Since Christmas, I am not able to walk, only sit down. Please write to me as soon as you receive this letter…Hoping this find [sic] you in good health, we are anxiously waiting.”
There is no record, however, of Antanas making the trip overseas to visit his father and family. He died in 1936 and Marijona died in 1954. Both of them are buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
Emigration Is Forever…
The ease of transatlantic travel in the twenty-first century may obscure the obstacles to even one trip back home by a poor Lithuanian coal miner in the early twentieth century. In reading these letters, it’s important to see beyond the emotional appeal of family reunification to understand the many practical obstacles that often made immigration a one-way trip, rendering it impossible for long-separated parents and adult children to see each other even once after decades of separation.
All three of the men mentioned in this piece were coal miners earning meager wages, at times barely enough to support their families. Coal mining in the early 20th Century was not a full-time or even a year-round occupation, and during the summer, miners normally took odd jobs to maintain an income. In short, they could take no break from the struggle to support themselves (20-28 days just for the two-way transatlantic voyage, not to mention travel to and from an Eastern U.S. port and then a European port and the immigrant’s final destination in Lithuania).
A steamship ticket for a round-trip voyage to Europe, presumably in third-class (steerage), would have cost $80 to $90 in the 1920s. That is about $1,100.00 in today’s dollars, and a significant portion of a coal miner’s annual wages. Many other tickets and travel costs would also have been required.
Consequently, no matter how much parents and children yearned for a reunion, such a trip involved great personal sacrifice. It could only be afforded at the cost of more basic necessities and the very progress the emigrant had hoped to make by leaving his homeland, and had earned with decades of hard and risky labor and painful sacrifice.
Modern digital communications have changed these harsh facts of early twentieth century emigration, allowing Lithuanians scattered across Europe and America today to stay in close touch with their relatives and homeland. First-wave Lithuanian immigrants could rely only on letters (using “scribes” when they were illiterate), and photographs. Photos exaggerating the dignity and success attained in America, and photos of the old homestead and village in Lithuania, by necessity took the place of in-person visitation and became precious keepsakes of long-lost family members.
Sadly, many immigrants’ final “visit” with their long-lost parents took the form of a funeral photograph, with open casket and neighbors and relatives from the village gathered around. In some especially tragic cases, the open-casket photo that crossed the Atlantic was of the unfortunate immigrant who had predeceased his or her elderly parents.
Barkan, E. R. (2013). Immigrants in American history: Arrival, adaptation, and integration. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.
Kasekamp, A. (2010). A history of the Baltic States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Senn, A. E. (1967). The great powers, Lithuania and the Vilna question 1920-1928. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Illinois State Journal, January 1916.
Illinois State Journal, March 1932.
Jefferson’s Directory of the City of Springfield, Illinois. Springfield, 991.: Jefferson’s Printing Co., Springfield, IL. 1918.
Jennings, W., & Conley, P. T. (2013). Aboard the Fabre Line to Providence: Immigration to Rhode Island.