Volume 29, No.2 - Summer 1983
Editor of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1983 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

The Emigrant Experience:

Christian-Albrechts Universität, Kiel

In the summer of 1944 thousands of Lithuanian refugees left their homeland ahead of the advancing Soviet Army and headed West.* The overwhelming majority chose to flee not because they had collaborated with the Germans, and thus feared retribution, but because they had directly experienced the horrors of the first Soviet occupation (1940-41) and did not anticipate that the second occupation would be better. They fled, however, with every hope and intention of returning home after the defeat of Nazi Germany, but by 1951 the majority had emigrated to the Anglo-Saxon countries or to Latin America.

The purpose of this paper is to determine in light of political, socio-economic and psychological factors why, how and when had they arrived at the decision to leave Europe.

At the end of World War II there were approximately 60,000 Lithuanians in Western Europe. From this number nearly 50,000 were refugees who fled in the summer of 1944. The remaining 10,000 consisted of individuals who had been liberated from Nazi concentration camps, those who had repatriated to Germany at the beginning of the war, single young men and women who were forcibly taken to Germany for work, and prisoners of war (most were forcibly conscripted into the German Army). Obviously a considerably larger number of Lithuanians left Lithuania in the second half of 1944 than the number mentioned. Many were trapped by the rapidly advancing Red Army in Poland and East Germany. Their actual number and their fate remain unknown.

The end of hostilities brought a sense of relief to most of the Europeans, but not to the Lithuanian and other Baltic refugees. Because of the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union, their political status was not clear, and many Baits feared and suspected that they were in danger of being forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union. This sense of uncertainty was evident in the Lithuanian refugee publications, as in the following: "The Lithuanians who had suffered so much do not have a free country to return to. Nor is their present position in any way secure, nor is there a guarantee that the Americans and the English will not betray them to a new slavery."1 Such fears were not unfounded. The Lithuanians had seen the fate of numerous Ukrainians and Russians before them. In fulfillment of their agreement with the Russians at Yalta, the Western Allies repatriated (against their will) thousands of these East Europeans in the first months after the surrender of Germany. It is significant that of the Ukrainians who were left in Germany and Austria toward the end of 1945, most were from Galicia, a province of Poland until the fourth partition of that state in September 1939.

Lithuanian fears were assuaged to some extent by British and American official pronouncements which clarified their policy toward the Baltic refugees, which in turn clarified their political status. In the June 30, 1945, BBC broadcast, a British war correspondent stated that "since neither the government of Great Britain nor of the United States have recognized the annexation of Latvia and Lithuania, the Lithuanians and Latvians will not be repatriated, if they themselves do not demand it."2 The same theme was repeated also in Memorandum No. 39 of October 30, 1945, from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces which, in addition to the above, mentioned that forcible repatriation was applicable only to those who were Soviet citizens before September 1, 1939, thus excluding the Baits.3

However, such confidence inspiring pronouncements were not universal because concurrently there were also threatening voices. Typical of such inconsistency of position was the publication of an order by the Land Council of Hofheim in the Würzburg area according to which ". . . all persons irrespective of nationality, who had lived prior to June 4, 1941, in territory which belongs to the Soviet Union or is under its control, have to register in respect to returning to the homeland at the mayor's office, and that applies especially to individuals who had resided to the East of the Demarcation Line running through Poland and to the Baltic States".4 Upon inquiry, the American military authorities explained this incident as a misunderstanding. The Lithuanians, on the other hand, interpreted this as either being a conscious attempt on the part of the local German authorities to get rid of the foreigners, or an act carried out under the influence of the "Eastern" neighbor.5

Nevertheless, the status of the Lithuanian refugees stabilized, and trust in the Western Allies grew. By the end of 1945 the Allies earned sufficient trust among the Lithuanians, so refugees began moving in larger numbers into the Displaced Persons camps. Lithuanian publications, cautious on this subject earlier, were now advising their countrymen to take advantage of the camp facilities since moving into them was no longer dangerous.6

If the status of Lithuanians in Germany and Austria was becoming "more normal", the same cannot be said about the status of the Baltic refugees in Sweden. Sweden extended diplomatic recognition to the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR and thus considered the Baltic refugees as Soviet citizens. In theory this meant that Sweden could have found grounds to forcibly repatriate all of the approximately 30,000 Baltic refugees, who were present in that country. But in practice, the Swedish authorities made a distinction (in respect to the Baits) between civilian refugees and those who had served in the Wehrmacht, in determining who was to be repatriated. The civilian refugees were allowed to remain in Sweden, but the 167 Baits (150 Latvians, 10 Lithuanians and 7 Estonians) interned together with a much larger number of German soldiers were returned to the Soviet Union, and that only after an intense and protracted pressure from the Soviet Union, which commenced with the end of World War II. 

In June 1945 the Swedish government signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to return the approximately 3,000 German soldiers who were interned in Sweden at the time of the German capitulation. Included in this number were, of course, the above-mentioned Baits. The agreement was implemented (after a delay) on January 23, 1946. This act was a painful blow both to the Baltic and to the Swedish communities. By this time the Baits had been on Swedish soil long enough for both groups to become better acquainted and to grow closer together. Also, the time span between the signing of the agreement and its actual execution was protracted, thus giving ample time for the Baltic and Swedish communities to react, to organize and to protest. The larger part of the Swedish press, and practically every segment of Swedish society, joined the Baits in protesting the decision of the Swedish government. On the issue of forced repatriation a clash developed between the Swedish public and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.7 It is, perhaps, because of the recognition of this fact and out of frustration that the Swedish Foreign Minister Uden, in a heated parliamentary debate in January 1946, allegedly scolded the Baits for being a foreign burden on Sweden, belittled their achievements during the period of independence as well as their present political goals, and recommended "that for their own good [they should] return home and participate in the reconstruction of their homelands."8 On the other hand, the words of the Swedish Minister may also be understood as an example of a lack of orientation in respect to the Baltic refugees and to the actual situation in the Baltic lands. This lack of understanding of the Baltic position was by no means restricted to some of the Swedes; it was shared by other West Europeans and by Americans. The Lithuanians and other Baltic refugees reacted to displays of Western ignorance at times with despair. "Everything looks so hopeless and so dark," complained one Lithuanian commentator, "presently we are being attacked in the press, are being labeled as criminals and so forth, and that is taking place because we do not wish at the present time to return to our homeland".9

Evidence of occasional American disorientation can be seen from the following examples. In early 1946 an official US military publication Neue Zeitung, published for the German public, stated: ". . . most of the refugees from the Baltic States have fled to Germany only because of their sympathy for National Socialism. In addition, the refugees from the Baltic lands are most responsible for the crimes committed, which create hardships for the refugees of other nationalities as well, and cause disturbances among the inhabitants."10 A variant on the same theme was also echoed in the New York Times during the same period. The Baltic refugees were presented to the American public as pro-Nazi collaborators who had fled their lands because they feared retribution, and that those from among the Baits who wish to return to their homelands are silenced through terror and threats, and by the discipline imposed on their countrymen by a peculiar "Gestapo" operating in the refugee camps.11 The cited examples, while understandably disturbing to the Lithuanians and other Baits, do not necessarily represent the general tone found in American and other Western press. The New York Times, which condemned the Baits in one issue, retracted its position and exonerated the Baits in a later issue.12

Such ambivalence, perhaps, is a characteristic of a period of transition, from a time when the Eastern and Western powers were allies to a time when they were becoming adversaries, and the outbursts against the Baits represent a remaining vestige of attitudes and propaganda shared by the necessity of cooperating during the war. Nor should the time period of 1945-1946 be construed essentially as a period of sustained terror for the Lithuanians and other Baits. Except for the first months of uncertainty after the end of hostilities and for the forcible repatriation of the Baltic internees from Sweden, these years can be represented as a period when the refugee position stabilized. Indeed, the latter part of 1945 and 1946 can also be seen as the years of hope for the Lithuanians because in this period the majority of Lithuanian refugees still believed that there was the chance that the political fate of Lithuania was going to be decided favorably, they expected to return to their homeland in the near future.

What was the basis for such hopes? First of all, the Atlantic Charter declaration of the Allies during the war had left a deep impression, not only on the Lithuanian refugees, but also on the anti-communist partisans who continued a hopeless struggle in the forests of Lithuania after 1945. One Lithuanian summarized his attitudes and hopes in respect to the Charter in the following terms: "Still in the beginning of the war, the Anglo-Americans announced the so-called Atlantic Declaration. The principles of this declaration are close to us. These principles were accepted by the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference. Presently we expect the implementation . . . We can expect that the Atlantic Declaration will be fully implemented and that it will serve as a beacon in the lives of nations . . . Taking all of this into consideration, neither unfounded optimism nor apathetic pessimism is justifiable in our ranks".13

Lithuanian hopes were encouraged by the fact that the major Western Powers had maintained a policy of not recognizing the annexation of the Baltic States.14 It was expected that in a future Great Power gathering the Baltic question would be raised by the United States or Britain. And so began the period of waiting, from conference to conference. The Paris Conference in 1946 passed without results. The Lithuanian refugee press commented on the lack of results with veiled but increasingly evident pessimism. "The fate of our homeland . . . remains hanging by a thread. It is true, this year [the Baltic question] did not have the courage to appear at the international conference table. It's still not the proper time . . .",15 concluded the commentator. At the Moscow Conference which took place in March 1947, the Baltic question was again not raised. But by this time the attention of the refugees was shifting away from conferences, to the growing possibility of war. Thus war was increasingly considered as the means of regaining independence. As the newspaper Laisvoji Lietuva reasoned: ". . . it is precisely the present, strained international relations that give us more hope to believe that the freedom that Lithuania lost as a result of World War II can be regained as an outcome of World War III".16 

In sum, the period 1946-1947 was for the refugees years of expectations, hope, and finally disillusionment. This disappointment and frustration is evident in the following exposition of the Lithuanian attitudes at the beginning of 1947: "Our people in exile are anxious in respect to the plodding and conciliatory politics of the United States. Our countrymen wish that the United States would take forceful and decisive actions in its relations with the Soviet Union. We cannot understand the Americans; why are they dragging their feet since it seems to us that any form of delay is not useful for the United States, and is useful for Soviet Russia. And the Americans have no understanding for us that every day brings to our nation incalculable losses".17

At the same time that hopes of returning to Lithuania in the near future were being extinguished, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated rapidly, especially in 1948-1949 during the Berlin crisis. The threat of war now seemed more than a distant probability, and the question of emigration for the Lithuanian refugees became very central because now they were faced with the possibility that in the initial stage of the war the Soviet Army might seize large parts of Western Europe. The Lithuanian refugees now faced a paradox: war appeared to be the only means of realizing their political goals, yet security considerations dictated emigration.

Up to this point the political background has been discussed in relation to emigration. But it appears that economic and social aspects were equally important.

Toward the end of 1945 and in the beginning of 1946, the majority of Lithuanian refugees in Germany were transferred to refugee camps, otherwise known as Displaced Persons Camps, which were maintained and administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and from 1947 by its successor — the International Refugee Organization (IRO).

Although the quality of life differed to some extent from camp to camp and zone to zone (in the French zone of occupation most of the refugees continued to live privately until 1948) the camps provided the Lithuanian refugees the opportunity to live compactly, to reestablish a school system (operating according to the school statutes of independent Lithuania) and to revive cultural activities, which were exceptionally intense and diverse. Political activity was, of course, at least formally forbidden.

The living conditions in the first year or so in the camps were reasonably good but in succeeding years they tended to deteriorate, especially from the summer of 1946 onward and through the winter of 1947. Food allotments, which earlier were adequate, were by this time severely reduced. Especially hard hit was the British zone, where officially the daily food ration to unemployed adults was reduced to 1500 calories. Compounding the problem of food shortages was the winter of 1946-47, which was unusually severe for that part of Europe. This, combined with malnutrition, seriously affected the general health of the refugee population. The Lithuanian Red Cross, which maintained a rather detailed statistics on the state of health of the Lithuanian refugees, calculated that in mid-1947 approximately 2,000 Lithuanian D.P.s had tuberculosis.18 And in some camps, for example in Eckernförde, 30% of the children were infected with this disease.19

In addition to the problems of nutrition and health, the supply of clothing and the financial status of the refugees also tended to worsen. Clothing, originally brought by the refugees from Lithuania, were wearing out by 1947-48, and IRO was very slow in providing replacements. Financial savings of the refugees were depleted by this time, and the currency reform of 1948 coincided with a curtailment of employment opportunities for the refugees, thus sharpening their financial difficulties. As the Lithuanian Red Cross reported, "So long as the Reichsmark was nearly worthless, our refugees were forced to work, but now that it is possible to obtain various goods with the Deutsche Mark, the number of employed is being reduced everywhere".20

Protracted living in the camps was not conducive in the long run to normal life. The crowded conditions, lack of privacy, restrictions on free movement, a growing sense of hopelessness and chronic unemployment tended to affect negatively both family and social life. Already from the first days of camp experience the Lithuanian refugee camp publications were consistently critical of some traditional Lithuanian vices, in particular drunkenness. Perhaps more importantly, the later publications suggest a progressive degeneration in the moral character of Lithuanians. A memorandum of the Catholic-oriented Lithuanian Front Activists Convention in 1948 appealed to their countrymen to take note that: "a) the refugee youth is in danger of moral decay, especially in matters of sexual perversion; b) that the morale of the refugees, especially of the youth, is negatively affected by the increasing number of broken families; and c) that the apathy and indifference to social functions and duties is growing among the refugees".21 However, not everyone agreed with such a pessimistic evaluation of the social trend among the Lithuanians. The Lithuanian Catholic clergy, who were, perhaps, in a better position to know the state of morals among the Lithuanians, in one of their reports revealed a very different picture, suggesting that the morals and family life among the Lithuanians were both intact."22

Although there was quite a bit of self-criticism, and often exaggerated, nevertheless there was a practical reason behind it. The refugees felt as if they were living in a zoo and were under constant observation by their keepers. It was assumed, therefore, that bad behavior would not only hurt the Lithuanian political cause, but opportunities for emigration as well. Thus proper behavior was a political act and an investment for the future.

In addition to the above mentioned problems and concerns, on a more subtle level, the Lithuanian refugees were also burdened by feelings of guilt. Juozas Girnius, a Lithuanian philosopher, expressed this dilemma perhaps more elegantly than most: "the abandonment of one's native land always remains a major guilt . . . and this guilt oppresses us! . . . and it will continue to oppress us until we will return to her." But there is a way out. "Shortly said, the guilt in us of having left Lithuania from the national point of view can be absolved only by one thing: the continuing struggle for the freedom of Lithuania".23 In this case Girnius discusses the struggle in the broad sense of the meaning, but if this thought is applied to more narrowly defined practical politics, it becomes clear that concrete political action in behalf of Lithuania in the conditions of a refugee camp is practically impossible. Thus the importance of emigration.

Finally, the question of guilt among the Lithuanians was also connected with the fate of their relatives in Lithuania. By living in the refugee camps, the Lithuanians felt they were endangering them. How can this connection be explained? It should be remembered that the years under discussion were also the years of mass deportations from Lithuania and from the other Baltic States. The concentration of the refugees under a highly controlled environment, the periodic information gathering "screenings", the occasional visits by Soviet officers to the Displaced Persons' camps (the right was guaranteed by agreement), all made the refugees vulnerable to espionage directed against them and their relatives. Consequently, these considerations led many refugees to weigh the possibility of leaving the camps, and Europe altogether.

The question of emigration crystallized by 1948 when the political, economic, and social aspects seem to have converged to a single point, the sum total indicating one solution: emigration. In the press, however, two tendencies continued. As late as 1948 the editorials still raised the unrealistic issue of returning to the homeland, while the other parts of the publications were increasingly filled with practical matters relating to emigration.

Once the issue of emigration was opened to discussion, the question raised dealt with topics such as where to and under which conditions should the Lithuanians emigrate. Understandably the question of emigration was a very painful one since merely its discussion symbolized the recognition that it will be impossible to return to Lithuania in the near future. The assimilation of previous generations of Lithuanian emigrants was also a factor to be seriously considered. In order to minimize national losses because of assimilation, it was generally agreed that the Lithuanian refugees should emigrate whenever possible as a group and to destinations traditionally favored by Lithuanians.24

Eventually, the direction that Lithuanian emigration took was determined by the immigration policies of several countries. The doors to Latin America, Canada, and Australia opened a bit earlier, but the United States soon followed suit after the passage of the Displaced Persons Act. Within a relatively short span of time between 1948-1951 the majority of the Lithuanian refugees had left Europe, with about half of the total group of 60,000 settling in the United States, thus at least partially realizing the goal of emigrating on a group basis.


* Research for this paper was made possible by a University of Minnesota Immigration History Grant-in-Aid Research. I would like to express my appreciation to Rudolph H. Vecoli, Director; Joe Dwyer, Curator; Lynn Schweitzer, Mike Karni, Sandy Keith and other members of the staff of the University of Minnesota Immigration History Center for their help and courtesy. This paper was presented at the Eight Conference on Baltic Studies, University of Minnesota, July 17-19, 1982.
1 Lietuvių Sąjungos Würtenbergo Apygardos Biuletenis (Würtenberg), No. 5 (May 19, 1945), p. 2.
2 Tautinio Lietuvių Komiteto Würtenbergo Biuletenis, No. 3 (June 6,1945), p. 1.
3 Eltos Biuletenis, No. 7 (20) (March 31, 1947), p. 3.
4 Lietuvių Žinynas (Würzburg), No. 3 (August 2, 1945), p. 1.
5 Ibid., p. 2.
6 Tautinio Lietuvių Komiteto Würtenbergo Biuletenis, op. cit., p. 2.
7 For coverage of the Swedish events, see Apžvalga, Lietuvių Informacinis Kultūrinis Leidinys (Nürtingen), Nos. 3, 6, 12 (1945) and Lietuvių Žinios (Kopenhagen), No. 6 (December 1, 1945), pp. 1-6
8 Dienos Naujienos (Mühldorf) (January 15, 1946), p. 3.
9 Dienos Naujienos, No. 13 (February 16, 1946), editorial.
10 Quoted in Apžvalga, No. 7 (January 10, 1946), p. 1.
11 Ibid., p. 1.
12 Ibid., p. 2.
13 ). Surgaila, "Kas bus toliau", Alguvos Baras (Kempten), No. 1 (1945), p. 19.
14 It is interesting that in the fall of 1946, the Republican party was introducing its "policy of liberation" which understandably produced a positive response among Lithuanians. For a brief discussion of Lithuanian attitudes, see Mūsų Žinios (Salzburg), No. 48, (November 23, 1946), pp. 1-2.
15 Aidai, Dienos informacija (München), December 31, 1946, p. 1.
16 Laisvoji Lietuva (Memmingen), No. 17 (April 30, 1947), p. 2.
17 Laisvoji Lietuva, No. 11 (January 1, 1947), p. 5.
18 Lietuvos Raudonojo Kryžiaus Biuletenis (Reutlingen), No. 5, (September 10, 1947), p. 6.
19 Lietuvos Raudonojo Kryžiaus Draugijos Skyrių Atstovų Suvažiavimo Darbai (Augsburg, September 10-11, 1947), p. 66.
20 Lietuvos Raudonojo Kryžiaus Biuletenis, No. 8 (July 1, 1948), p. 16.
21 Į Laisvę, March 3, 1952 [?], p. 2.
22 See Auka, Biuletenis kunigams (Kirchheim Tecke, Germany), No. 1 (1947), pp. 3-4.
23 Juozas Girnius, "Kas pateisina tėvynės palikimo kaltę," Tėviškės Garsas (Schweinfurt), August 7, 1947, p. 3.
24 For recommendations in respect to emigration for Lithuanians, see Eltos Biuletenis, No. 4 (March 1, 1947), pp. 2-3.