Lithuanian Diaspora - A Brief History of WWII Lithuanian Displaced Persons

Lithuanian DPs "acting on Uncle Truman's Cake"

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Map of Lithuania - Location in Europe

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Lithuania is one of the Baltic States, nestled above Poland on the Baltic Sea. It is 65,300 square kilometres in size with the longest border being 724 kilometres and the smallest about 110 kilometres. Lithuania is currently home to roughly 3.3 million souls. It is situated between Germany and the former USSR and has also bordered Poland, Latvia, Prussia and Belarus at various times. Throughout history, Lithuania has been subject to conflict due to its location between the various spheres of influence of dominant nations. In 1940, Lithuania (along with the other Baltic nations, Latvia and Estonia) was annexed by the former USSR. At that time, Nazi Germany had already annexed Poland and was on the march. Incredible mass upheaval, displacement, and death were soon to follow. Prior to World War II, according to the Lithuanian Central Statistics Bureau, the population of Lithuania was approximately 2.9 million people (when Klaipeda and Vilnius are included). It is estimated that Lithuania lost approximately 1 million people as a result of the war. The survivors ended up in many nations across the world as a result of the post-war Lithuanian Diaspora.

Map of Nazi Aggression 1936-1939

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WWII in Eastern Europe and the Aftermath

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

To us in the West, the horrors of World War II are associated with the names of Auschwitz, Iwo Jima and Hiroshima. Without denying the significance of these places, Snyder, an immensely talented historian at Yale University, radically alters our understanding of the mass murder that went on during these years by showing in convincing fashion where and how most victims met their end. Bloodlands overflows with startling facts and revelations…. In a conclusion that should be required reading for all, Snyder addresses the moral questions raised by this murderous history with insight and recognition of the shades of culpability that make it difficult at times to neatly separate victims from perpetrators. He also shines much-needed light on the dangers of ‘competitive martyrology’ of the recent past, as the nations of the bloodlands have tried to claim greatest victim status.

 

Nazi Occupation

The Nazi forces occupied Lithuania from June 1941 through to early 1945. The Lithuanians initially welcomed the Nazi occupation as it meant freedom from the brutally oppressive Soviet regime.

Soviet repression included mass killings, mass deportations to Siberia and the silencing of the press and free speech for Lithuanians. It is not surprising that the Lithuanians welcomed the Germans. The desperation to remove the Soviet domination was so strong that many Lithuanians engaged in their own rebellion against the Soviets simultaneously with the German invasion.

The Lithuanian Nazi sympathy was short-lived in some quarters as a result of the Nazi treatment of Lithuanians. Between 1941 and 1944, the Nazis captured tens of thousands of Lithuanians to work in Germany or to serve the armed forces. Many of these Lithuanians died in concentration camps and prisons. Nazi Germany had several plans concerning Lithuania the end result of which was to have it populated by 80% Germans within 20 years. This meant that the bulk of the Lithuanians would have to be killed or relocated to make way for the incoming German settlers.

Massacre of Lithuanians

General massacre committed by the Bolsheviks in the sugar factory of Panevezys on 26th June 1941 "In the night of July 11-12 1940, more than 2,000 upperclass Lithuanians were seized unexpectedly by the Soviet NKVD in Lithuania.
General massacre committed by the Bolsheviks in the sugar factory of Panevezys on 26th June 1941 "In the night of July 11-12 1940, more than 2,000 upperclass Lithuanians were seized unexpectedly by the Soviet NKVD in Lithuania. | Source

Lithuanian Anti-Nazi Resistance

It was obvious the Nazis regarded the Baltic peoples as an inferior race. The Lithuanian Provisional Government set up prior to the invasion was only allowed to operate by the Nazis for six weeks. It was replaced by a system where the Nazis had control (often through a series of Lithuanian puppets) and took advantage of systems already in place.

The well established local government system in Lithuanian employed passive resistance tactics against their Nazi overlords such as being unhelpful in administration and with logistics. It seems that for the most part more aggressive active resistance to the Germans stemmed from non-ethnic-Lithuanian elements such as the Polish Home Army, escaped Jews, and some Lithuanian elements associated with the Communist Party. The Soviet partisans began operations against the Nazis in 1941 after the invasion.

Lithuanian Anti-Soviet Resistance Fighters

Fighters of the Lithuanian anti soviet resistance: Klemensas Sirvys alias "Sakalas", Juozas Luka alias "Skirmantas" with Benediktas Trumpys alias "Rytis".
Fighters of the Lithuanian anti soviet resistance: Klemensas Sirvys alias "Sakalas", Juozas Luka alias "Skirmantas" with Benediktas Trumpys alias "Rytis". | Source

Odyssey of Hope

Odyssey Of Hope
Odyssey Of Hope

The Odyssey of Hope is a straightforward story told in a straightforward manner. Joseph Kazickas doesn't embellish or adorn; he doesn't have to. His story is strong enough and inspirational enough that he need only let it unfold. This is an moving tale of a man and woman (Kazickas and his wife) who struggled to survive the occupation of their homeland by first the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again; and who escaped those horrors to the U.S.

 

Anti-Soviet Resistance

This was an entirely different story to anti-Nazi resistance. The Lithuanians actively and violently resisted the Russian forces, resulting in much death and displacement. The Soviets imprisoned 12,000 Lithuanians prior to the German invasion in 1941. At this time they killed at least 5,000 Lithuanians and deported another 40,000, at least half of whom died.

The bloody and violent resistance to the Soviets both prior to Nazi occupation and after the war by Lithuanian resistance fighters resulted in much loss of life. From 1944 to 1952, up to 30,000 Lithuanian partisans were killed by the Soviets.

Cartoon of Lithuanians Escaping from Stalin

A satirical drawing shows Lithuanians fleeing Stalin's rays. The caption translates, "In our land there is still Big Heat."
A satirical drawing shows Lithuanians fleeing Stalin's rays. The caption translates, "In our land there is still Big Heat." | Source

Escaping from the Soviets

Prior to the Nazi invasion of 1941, an opportunity presented for many Lithuanians to escape Soviet repression. About 40,000 Lithuanians fled into Germany. The status of these people became important when war broke out between Nazi Germany and the USSR in 1941. Those that had been given German citizenship were sent back to Lithuania for re-colonisation and those that had not become German citizens remained in Germany throughout the war, not allowed to leave. They were ill-treated by the Germans.

Also, later on, in 1944, it became appareant the Russians were going to succeed. They were coming to Lithuanain yet again. The Lithuanians were terrified. Many fled the oncoming Soviet re-invasion. Many tried to make it to Sweden, but only a few hundred were successful. German war-ships cut off many of them and they ended up imprisoned or in forced labour or concentration camps. Some few made it to Norway, Denmark, France, Italy and even Yugoslavia. The vast majority of them (about 70,000) successfully made it into Germany, the only nearby nation at the time that had not been taken over by the Soviet forces.

Slave Labour

There was significant resistance to the formation of a Lithuanian SS Legion by Lithuanians. This was particularly intense in 1944. This resistance was one factor in the capture by force of many Lithuanians by the Nazis from their homes and workplaces as slave labourers.  They were made to work for the German military machine.  The work incldued digging trenches in Prussia at the Russian front and many other dangerous roles. As many as 100,000 Lithuanian forced laboureres worked for the Nazis during the war.

The Lithuanian Army Fights the Soviets

The fate of many Refugees

Remains of destroyed column of refugees, their vehicles and other possessions. From: Grossmann D. Der Kampf um Ostpreussen. Stuttgart, 1991
Remains of destroyed column of refugees, their vehicles and other possessions. From: Grossmann D. Der Kampf um Ostpreussen. Stuttgart, 1991 | Source

Fleeing the Front

When the German efforts against the Soviets started going badly and the Russians were pushing the front further and further towards Germany, many Lithuanian forced workers fled the Russian front. As it became clearer that the Nazis were being beaten, they fled into Germany, either through being given evacuation orders or by simply taking matters into their own hands.

Lithuanian DP Camp at Seedorf

UNRRA Food Stores employees at the Lithuanian DP camp in Seedorf.
UNRRA Food Stores employees at the Lithuanian DP camp in Seedorf. | Source

Displaced Persons

DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-51
DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-51

Wyman has written a highly readable account of the movement of diverse ethnic and cultural groups of Europe's displaced persons, 1945-1951. An analysis of the social, economic, and political circumstances within which relocation, resettlement, and repatriation of millions of people occurred, this study is equally a study in diplomacy, in international relations, and in social history. . . . A vivid and compassionate recreation of the events and circumstances within which displaced persons found themselves, of the strategies and means by which people survived or did not, and an account of the major powers in response to an unprecedented human crisis mark this as an important book.

 

What was it like for DPs in Germany during and after the War?

The Lithuanian DPs were for the most part healthy people (the Nazis would not have taken the unhealthy ones). They were a mixure of farmers, tradespeople and educated professionals. They referred to themselves as "Dievo Pauksteliai" meaning 'God's little birds'.

As displaced persons they lived in DP camps in appalling conditions without enough food and basic necessities. Many of the camps used after the war were old prisoner of war camps. Many families lived together in one room, separating their spaces with blankets as privacy shields. They were given some food, footwear and clothing. The food ration they received was not enough to sustain health, being only 2000 calories per day (a normal requirement is up to 4,000 calories). The food they were given was also of a poor quality, lacking nutritional value. Conditions such as anaemia, tuberclusosis, malnutrition and dental problems were common.

A quirky aspect of DP camp life was that each camp issued its own money. This money could be used at the camp PX (supply store). During the war, DPs were moved around to the various places where their work was needed. 

After the war, the Allies, particularly the Americans, accused the Lithuanians of being Nazi sympathisers, not understanding why many Lithuanians did not wish to return to Lithuania. Suspicion and mistrust was high in the camps that held Lithuanian DPs. If they returned to Lithuania, not only would they have been under Soviet rule, but conditions in war-torn Lithuania were worse than in the camps. There was also the fear that they would be killed or deported to Siberia (not unrealistic given that they had expressed disapproval of Stalin's Soviet regime by fleeing). Eventually the Allies began to soften their approach and opened their gates to received thousand of Lithuanian post-war refugees as immigrants.

Map DP Camps post WW2

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Displaced Persons

White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life
White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life

Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

 

Where did the Lithuanian DPs ultimately go?

Many Lithuanians went to the United States. A survey demonstrated that approximately 30,000 Lithuanian DPs went to US cities in the East and the Midwest. Approximately 20% of all Lithuanian refugees settled in Chicago.

Other Western nations including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada opened their arms to Lithuanian refugees. Many Lithuanian Jewish survivors went to Palestine as well as to the Western nations.

The stories of their re-settlement in new nations are fascinating tales of hope. Many Lithuanians became successful or paved the way for the success of their children in their new homes. They have achieved dreams and hopes which were never possible in war-torn Lithuania and have left behind old prejudices and attitudes.

© 2011 Mel Jay

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Comments 8 comments

nextstopjupiter profile image

nextstopjupiter 4 years ago from here, there and everywhere

One of the most famous Lithuanians who fled the country in 1944 was Valdas Adamkus, who returned to his home country in the late 1990s to become the president of Lithuania, another one was Jonas Mekas who became one of the leading avant garde filmmakers in New York. Thanks for this interesting hub!


Mel Jay profile image

Mel Jay 3 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks for the useful info NSJ - appreciated, Mel


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 2 years ago

Thank you for sharing history that is not well known or often discussed. Upvoted and shared!


al mac 23 months ago

Wow...Had no idea Charles Bronson Lithuanian! Shoulda greeted him labas when I had the chance.


Ben 14 months ago

The other great diaspora Lithuanian was George (Jurgis) Maciunas, one of the founders of the Fluxus movement.


Janina Katilius-Stepp 13 months ago

My grandmother was placed in one of the camps and my grandfather was a criminal officer who was killed 5 days after going into battle...never knowing my grandmother was pregnant with my mother...she fled during the war to America with the aid of a man who ran the black market there.


Mel Jay profile image

Mel Jay 13 months ago from Australia Author

OMG that's so sad - I'm glad she got out.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 13 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Very nice article, Mel Jay. The Baltic states have had a very rough time of it, between the Nazis and the Soviets.

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    Sources

    • Focus Migration Website - http://focus-migration.hwwi.de
    • An OSS Report of Wartime Populations Changes in the Baltic, Litanus, Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol 27, No 3, Fall 1981 - http://www.lituanus.org/1981_3/81_3_07.htm
    • Lithuanians in DP Camps - excerpt from notes made by Juozas Pasilaitis, published by Patria Tübingen, printed by J.F. Steinkopt, Stuttgart Germany, actual date not given but late in 1947 - http://www.dpcamps.org/lithuania.html
    • Lithuania, Stepping Westward, Thomas Lane (2001), Routledge, New York.
    • South Australian Lithuanian History, (2008) - http://salithohistory.blogspot.com/2008/03/displaced-persons-gods-little-birds.html

     

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