Despite the thousands of miles in between them, different lifestyles and geographical platitudes, they realized they belonged to one nation.
Due to hard life at home and tsarist Russification policies, emigration grew, reaching proportions that could rival Irish emigration, the most intense in Europe. Therefore, ever since the beginning of Lithuanian mass migration in 1868, leaders of the national movement regarded expatriation negatively, saying it drained the nation's powers.
Aušra, a newspaper published by Dr. Jonas Basanavičius, printed warnings that if Lithuanians continued to emigrate, the only thing that would remain at home were graves. Dr. Vincas Kudirka, in his publication Varpas, criticized emigration, even though it was a direct result of economic conditions in the country and no one could reverse it.
An intense campaign against emigration was launched by the restless Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas, Lithuanian author and Catholic priest who, after visiting the United States in 1911 and witnessing Lithuanians' hardships, called the country “Mephistopheles' domain.”
The following year, Vaižgantas published a book “Grass Is Greener on the Other Side of the Fence, or Let's Not Abandon Our Homeland” and gave about 40 lectures, arguing that emigration was damaging – that emigrants took away a lot of money, that they suffered great injustice, some of them did not return to Lithuania.
It was soon realized, however, that emigration was a two-way street, that expatriates could give great assistance to the nation tormented by many hardships. Not only were US Lithuanians able to create a cultural milieu for themselves – complete with press, numerous organizations, and political currents – but also help their compatriots at home financially and politically.
During Lithuania's struggle for independence, US Lithuanians would raise funds to publicize the nation's goals, publish literature in various languages, send representatives to conferences in Switzerland where expatriates from the United States and Europe discussed Lithuania's fate, chances for independence, borders of the future state.
When Lithuania became a sovereign state (1918), US Lithuanians supported their motherland not only financially, but also in military and cultural spheres. Thanks to their effort, Lithuania was granted a 1.8-million-dollar loan, while Americans came to set up companies, banks, cooperatives, firms, shops, etc. They would have done even more if it weren't for the disease that Lithuanian clerks inherited from the tsarist regime: bribery, corruption, excessive red-tape bureaucracy. US Lithuanians' contribution was crucial in adopting national currency, the litas, as well as in defending the country during independence wars, preparing for and executing the annexation of Klaipėda (Memelland).
The Lithuanian state, upon achieving some maturity, embraced its expatriates. Between 1926 and 1930, when a new wave of emigration took many people to South America, the government set up diplomatic representations in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay to be able to directly assist Lithuanians in faraway countries. The government also financially supported expatriate publications, primary schools, sent teachers, priests, encouraged cultural activities. Closer affiliation was evidenced in joint plans of US and Lithuanian businessmen and business organizations to bring American capital to Lithuania, to increase exports to the US, to develop tourism.
On 7 February 1932, the Society for Supporting Lithuanians Abroad (SSLA) was set up in Kaunas in order to consolidate the emigrant community and prevent it from losing national consciousness.
Death of heroes
A tragedy jolted the SSLA's even work – death of two pilots, Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas (1933). Their flight over the Atlantic became an undying deed that built a bridge of unity and self-sacrifice between Lithuanians in Lithuania and abroad.
The SSLA suggested to Lithuania's General Consul in New York, Povilas Žadeikis, that the day of Darius and Girėnas death, 17 July, be pronounced America's, and later world's, Lithuanian solidarity day. The SSLA called to forget political arguments on that day, all personal and public variances, all resentments and personal ambitions, to feel personal connection to the nation scattered across all continents. (One more Lithuanian, Feliksas Vaitkus, flew over the Atlantic in May 1935.)
On 11 August 1935, the SSLA held the 1st World Lithuanian Congress, attended by several hundred delegates and over 3,000 guests.
The congress attendees founded a non-partisan World Lithuanian Union that had to unite about a thousand various expatriate organizations, expand the network of schools, encourage trade, set up agricultural colonies abroad.
In 1937, the first issue of the World Lithuanian (Pasaulio lietuvis) magazine devoted to emigrant life, Lithuanian communities in various countries, events, schools for children. US Lithuanian coaches and players (Feliksas Kriaučiūnas, Petras Talzūnas, Pranas Lubinas, etc.) taught how to play good basketball and even helped the Lithuanian national team win European basketball championships in 1937 in Riga and 1939 in Kaunas. Contacts in sports were consistently developed – in 1938, a national olympics in Kaunas invited the most prominent Lithuanian-born athletes from all over the world.
New wave after occupation
But all plans and a rather good start were swept away by the Soviet occupation. The Soviet regime severed all ties and communication with Lithuanians abroad, inflicting great harm to the nation as a whole. Around 70,000 Lithuanians, fleeing Soviet repressions or exiled by Nazis, joined and enriched the expat ranks in the West.
After the Second World War, just like in 1919, the main issues for Lithuanian communities abroad were freedom and reconstitution of the Lithuanian state, Lithuanian education and preservation of language. Historians are still to fully assess the contribution of expat Lithuanians' political activity – raising the occupation issue with Western statesmen, holding conferences, exposing crimes of the Soviet regime, filing the Lithuanian independence case – but it undoubtedly contributed a great deal to regaining independence in 1990.
The national revival of 1988 has proven that despite fifty years of brutal separation, Lithuanians in Lithuania and abroad are still children of one nation, patriots of one motherland, citizens of one state. The emigration continues, there are now Lithuanian communities in Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway.
Migration is often said to be a major challenge to modern nations and states. But movement of people is an inescapable demographic process and its challenges could be seen as opportunities.
Lithuanians are a diaspora nation – because of the globalization, economy, social and political factors, a great part of the Lithuanian nation now lives abroad. In order not to lose touch with those who left, the Lithuanian government initiated a programme in early 2011 called Global Lithuania. Its aim is to encourage foreign-based Lithuanians to get involved in the country's public life.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs coordinates the programme and invited other state institutions to include into their specific activities various initiatives aimed at world's Lithuanians.
The article originally appeared in a 15min supplement "My World" which is a joint project of 15min and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.