Worldwide Lithuania: Our Migration Story


On November 22, the House of Histories in Vilnius will welcome visitors to an exhibition called “A Worldwide Lithuania: Our Migration Story”, curated by the National Museum of Lithuania.

On display until September, 2024, the exhibition includes a statistical history of Lithuanian migration, a summary of which we provide here for our readers.

Mass emigration from Lithuania began in 1868, driven by poverty and hunger. The main destination of emigrants was the United States of America. Research shows that until World War I, up to 600,000 Lithuanians for the US. They had to pay  up to 25 rubles for  their documents and acquire certification from their county that they were debt-free, not criminals, and not escaping conscription. Those first immigrants to the US took on work in factories, railroad construction and coal mines. Wages were low, and newcomers were forced to live four or more to a room. Yet it was important for them to maintain their culture. Up to the end of World War I, there were 34 Lithuanian printing shops publishing 175 different periodicals.The  second wave of emigration arose due to unemployment during the first period of independence. Between 1918 and 1940, about 104,000 Lithuanians left, this time to the south – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

The third wave of emigration was provoked by World War II. Over 5 or 6 decades, the country lost nearly a million citiziens due to repressions, deportation, imprisonment and the Holocaust. Of those, about 60,000 fled in 1944 in fear of the Soviet occupation. The displaced persons’ camps sheltered the country’s intelligensia – priests, teachers, writers, professors, engineers, lawyers and teachers, men and women between the ages of 26 and 35.

Living conditions in the DP camps were harsh, with barely 4 square metres of space per person, two or three families living in one room. Despite their hardships, the Balts established the Baltic University in 1946, attended by about 360 Lithuanians. Once they realized that the occupation of Lithuania was well-established, the refugees had two choices: to return home or travel on.

Between 1948 and 1952, Lithuanians left the German refugee camps, 30,000 to USA, 7,700 to Canada, 3,000 to Great Britain, 5,000 to Australia and 2,000 to Venezuela. About 7,550 remained in Germany.

Some returned to Lithuania, where the Soviets were trying to increase the populations through sovietization. About 180,000 were brought from other Soviet regions between 1945 and 1949, and 170,000 through the 1960’s to the 1980’s, including returning political prisoners and exiles.

The numbers of Poles and Jews decreased, while more Russians, Belorusians and Ukrainians came into the country.

Between 1955 and 1961 Lithuania took in approximately 1300 emigrants from Argentina, Brazil, USA, Canada and Uruguay. Some of them were housed in special quarters built for them in Vilnius, called “Amerikanka”.

The Lithuanians in their occupied country felt like prisoners, hoping only to escape. From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, 26 left by boat, 15 claimed political asylum in foreign countries while travelling as tourists. A few managed to escape by airplane, while Vladas Šakalys became famous for leaving the USSR on foot, walking 600 kilometres to Sweden in 20 days.

Another 320 attempted to escape the Iron Curtain, but were unsuccessful.

Back in 1918 the declaration of independence induced the return of about one-fourth of those who had left. They brought back capital, experience, innovative ideas, information and basketball.

Those in the diaspora supported the newly formed state. Over the first ten years of independence, Lithuanians in the US sent back at least 30 million dollars.

After the “perestroika”, travel became easier, and more relatives came to visit and left gifts of money. In 1990, once the borders opened, another wave of emigration left to see the world, make money, and acquire an education. Yet this was the beginning of a brain-drain. By 2004, when Lithuania joined the European Union, nearly 350,000 emigrants had left, while there had been only 67,000 immigrating. In all, after independence, about 700,000 Lithuanians had left.

In 1990, history began repeating itself. Those who had left in the 1800’s helped indpendent Lithuania establish itself between the world wars, while those who had left in the 20th century rolled up their sleeves to help Lithuania in the 1990’s.

 Over 20 years the charity organization “Lithuanian Mercy Lift“ assisted Lithuania with medicines, general and medical supplies worth nearly 127 million US dollars. An impressive sum considering that during the first few years of independence most people earned about 10 dollars per month. Thousands of containers of cultural artifacts and books published in the diaspora were sent to Lithuanians libraries and other institutions, grants were awarded for studies and internships abroad.

Since 2018 (and especially last year) the numbers of immigrants to Lithuania began increasing, and fewer emigrants left the country. About 50% are returning Lithuanian citizens, while others are immigrants from other countries seeking work. Immigration also grew due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when over 50,000 Ukrainians fled their country.

The exhibition “Worldwide Lithuania” is the first comprehensive display portraying Lithuanian migration processes from the mid-1800’s until present day. It will include a program of related events, tours and educational activities.

PHOTO: Lithuanians Emigrating to South America

TEXT: Worldwide Lithuania: Our Migration Story