Historical Background, Influences

Why They Came

Located in Europe on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania is a small nation just northeast of Poland and west of Belarus (and Russia). From 1795 to 1918, most of Lithuania was part of the oppressive czarist Russian Empire.

Reacting to a Lithuanian revolt in 1863, the Russian Empire for decades tried to forcibly substitute Russian Orthodoxy for Lithuanian Roman Catholicism–and attempted to ban the use of the Lithuanian language in speech, institutions of education, book, and newspapers. Thanks to book smugglers operating across the border with German-ruled East Prussia, the language was preserved and a movement of national awakening grew and ultimately succeeded in declaring a modern Lithuanian state in the last days of World War I.

Serfs and Former Serfs

From the 14th Century onward (about the same time ethnic Lithuania was converted from paganism to Christianity), the feudal system had been imposed on the vast majority of the population, mainly by Polish nobles, who along with Polish clergy, imposed Christianity on the Lithuanian tribes. Polish language and culture became high culture, subordinating Lithuanian language and culture much as ethnic Lithuanians were subordinated by feudal bondage or serfdom. Serfdom was, by defination, a form of land bondage: essentially, slavery to the feudal noble in the form of unpaid labor on the lands of his estate.

Serfs were born into bondage, generation after generation, and were subject to whipping, even unto death, at the whim of nobles and their estate managers. Serfs could not leave the estate on which they were born for different work or a better life.

A notable exception to feudal serfdom for Lithuanian commoners applied to Jewish Lithuanians, or Litvaks, who lived in villages or shtetls on land granted to them by the feudal lord. As opposed to ethnic Lithuanian serfs, Litvaks mainly made their living in commerce, money-lending, and the trades, and could move about to cater to the managerial, commercial, and crafts needs of the feudal estates, or on a smaller scale, peddle their wares across the countryside.

Lithuanian serfs were not freed from the mainly Polish nobility until a decree by the Russian czar in 1861. But that declaration, much like the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S., was not accompanied by land reform. In short, freed Lithuanian serfs were not granted their own version of “40 acres and a mule,” so their only resort, if remaining in Lithuania, was to continue to work on post-feudal estates for starvation wages, and to largely remain subject to the rough “justice” of still powerful, neo-feudal lords.

One important thing did change, however: After 1861, former serfs and their descendants could now migrate, even emigrate, to improve their lot. Facing intense poverty, lack of education, illiteracy, and religious repression with the Czar’s closure of their Catholic village churches and church schools and the 1863-onward Lithuanian language ban following the 1863 Polish-Lithuanian uprising against the Russian Empire, as many as 25-30 percent of all Lithuanians left their homeland by the early 1900s. Most found factory and mining work in the United States. (Jewish Lithuanians were subject to pogroms by the Russian Empire after the anarchist murder of a member of the czar’s family, and they, too, left Lithuania in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.)

With both their human dignity and survival threatened in their homeland, young Lithuanians had every reason to leave and few to stay.

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