Excerpted from writings by Juratė Krokys Stirbys, November 5, 2015
1. Lithuania is a very small but beautiful nation in northern Eastern Europe. Rolling hills, deep forests, castle-hills called piliakalniai, tons of lakes and rivers, long winters, village poverty contrasted with big city splendor reflecting centuries of architecture and history, a respect for nature, stylish big city people, and food and drink and hospitality as the center of politeness and happiness.
2. Lithuanians are not Slavic or Russian or Polish. Due to a confluence of history combined with impenetrable forests and fierce fighters, Lithuania retained its Baltic identity (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are the only three Baltic countries) and especially its unique language over the centuries. The Lithuanian language is often studied by linguistics students due to its having retained its very ancient roots. There are many similarities to Sanskrit.
3. At one point in the Middle Ages, Lithuania stretched to the Black Sea.
4. Approximately 340,000 Lithuanians died during the Second World War — many were deported by Stalin to Siberia where a large portion died from disease, starvation, and the elements while in forced labor camps. With the Soviets occupying Lithuania, Stalin’s idea was to empty Lithuania of the “intellectuals” and property owners through deportation so that it could be repopulated by Russians. Lithuania was considered a very desirable location with access to the west and a warm water port in the Baltic Sea. A popular NY Times best seller in recent years for teens to read about the deportations and soon to be a movie is Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys.
5. Lots of immigrants left Lithuania during the war because they were trying to avoid death and deportation to Siberia. They thought that they would temporarily go west and then return. But that did not happen. The time after the war for those who stayed was brutal. There was an active partisan war (the underground) fought for about 15 years. The partisans were called banditai (bahn-dih-taeeh) or bandits by the Soviets. These World War II immigrants were called DPs or displaced persons and otherwise called the Second Wave. They spent many years in DP camps which were located in West Germany waiting to be sponsored into other countries. In the DP camps, Lithuanians established schools, theatre groups, went to colleges locally, etc.
6. The First Wave immigrants from Lithuania came for two main reasons: in the 1800s to flee conscription into the czar’s army which meant 25 years of service and usually sure death (yes Lithuania earlier was occupied by Russia), and others later came to earn money in Pennsylvania’s coal fields or the stock yards (see The Jungle by Upton Sinclair where he features a Lithuanian main character and their family as they assimilate).
7. Third Wave immigrants is what we call the Lithuanians who have come from Lithuania since its independence in 1990. This is an interesting mixed group of people: some who have come to find work (under the Soviets everyone had a job to prop up that regime but that fell apart with independence) and many work as non-union roofers, builders, etc., others have come to work in high tech, medicine, etc.
8. There was another in-between Wave who came in the 70s and 80s through marriage or political asylum.
9. Lithuania as we speak is considered one of the most successful economically in the post-Soviet world and Europe, and is the absolutely number one in high tech and connectivity in Europe.
10. To read more about the struggle for independence search for information regarding March 11th and January 13th.
11. The Holocaust did happen in Lithuania although most are averse to talking about it. There were no camps in Lithuania. Jews were either taken to the forest and shot or taken to the camps in Germany and Poland. Some Lithuanians did take part in this horrid Holocaust but a larger part did not. This happened during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania during WW II. Pre-war, Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North and considered a place of intellectual study.
12. Although Lithuania is very progressive in many areas, it is now carefully and slowly working on human and civil rights for LGBT and others. Race is still an issue for many and for others not at all. For a long time gender was also an issue as in women’s rights and for example, few women drove cars. Now, most women do, and the president of the nation is a woman as are many high ranking people.
13. And yes, Lithuanians are champion basketball players, bicyclists, swimmers, weight-lifters, dancers, musicians and singers (for a country of barely 3 million). Another 1 million live all over the world with the largest groups living in the US, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and other countries.