History of Litvaks – Jewish heritage in Lithuania

History of Litvaks – Jewish heritage in Lithuania

The Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews, have descended from the Germanic group of Ashkenazi Jews. During the development of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the 14th century, they were granted political and economic privileges in order to attract their migration to Lithuania and to develop trade and crafts in large cities. This led to the growth of the Jewish community in Lithuania, which in its heyday accounted for about 10% of the total population of Lithuania.

The etymology of the word “Litvak”

The Slavic name for the Lithuanian state, Lithuania, is the source of the word “Litvak”. Lithuania in most of the Slavic languages is called Litva and the term Litvak simply evolved to mean Lithuanian Jew. Litvaks were Jews who immigrated to the Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

From the initial wave of migrants from different European countries, a large Jewish community with its own customs, traditions and way of life gradually emerged. This community developed distinctive characteristics that are known historically as “Nusakh Liti” (Lithuanian way of life, way, manner). Based on these traits, Jews from Lithuania were referred to be “sheivet litvakes” (from Yiddish: “tribe of Litvaks”).

Common surnames and famous people

A common surname of many Litvak Jews was simply Litvak (or Litvakov). Also, some surnames originated from the names of the cities with large Jewish communities, like: Vilnius – Vilenski, or Kaunas – Kovner. Additionally, some surnames originated from the professions and crafts such as: butcher – Shochet, Glassblower – Glazer.

Bob Dylan is one of the most famous descendants of Litvaks

Bob Dylan is one of the most famous descendants of Litvaks

Among the famous Lithuanian Jews and their descendants were many scientists, writers, artists, political and religious leaders, as well as Nobel Prize winners. Everyone knows the names of Leonard Cohen – singer-songwriter, poet and novelist from Canada; Bob Dylan – one of the greatest songwriters of all time from the US or David Suchet from the UK– who plays the role of Hercule Poirot in the popular series based on the works of Agatha Christie.

The resettlement of Litvaks

During the 18th century, a growing number of Jews spread across the territory of Lithuania, where they became a significant force in developing the country’s economy, trade, and crafts, and which aided the expansion and development of both old and new cities and towns.

During that period the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vilnius, gradually replaced Brest as Litvaks’ spiritual center. Vilnius’ Jewish population expanded, together with the number of religious scholars living there. Jewish communities were given a considerable degree of political autonomy and had similar status to monks, burghers, and peasants in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a whole.

They had a right to reside among the Christians in their neighborhood and a separate code of laws “Jewish law” was used as the basis for their own self-government. The Jewish communities were allowed to form their autonomous national administration.

At the end of the 18th century (1792–1795), Lithuania was completely annexed by the Russian Empire. The loss of Lithuanian independence also adversely affected Litvak communities. The Russian Empire decided to restrict the migration of Jews and their settlements were limited only to some areas of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, the so-called “strip of settlement”.

This area, which had a high density of Jewish residents compared to other parts of the Russian empire (and many European countries), was sometimes known as “Yiddishland” (“Land of the Jews”).

Jewish community before the WW2

During the WW1 most of Lithuania’s territory turned into a battlefield between the Russian and German Empires. After Russia incited the war and civil war broke out, Vilnius was successively captured by Polish and Soviet-Russian forces numerous times in 1919–1920. Polish and Soviet armies alternately controlled Vilnius on several occasions, while the emerging Lithuanian Republic was also trying to establish control over its historical capital.

However, Lithuania’s success was short-lived and Vilnius was forcibly integrated into Poland in 1922. During this period of fighting between Germany, Russia, Poland and, eventually, Lithuania the Jewish community suffered.

The Lithuanian Jewish community, whose center was in Kaunas, the country’s temporary capital, and its numerous leaders actively participated in the creation, development, and armed defense of the Lithuanian state as well as in diplomatic efforts to have it recognized internationally. Jews made up more than 500 of the volunteers who fought for Lithuania’s freedom during this period.

The 1922 Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania included a clause stating that all people were treated equally in the eyes of the law. According to a separate provision titled “Rights of National Minorities,” minorities were given a certain degree of autonomy in managing matters related to their national culture, education, charity, and mutual aid, to the extent permitted by the law. To run their affairs, communities elected their representative bodies.

The so-called “honeymoon period”

The “honeymoon period” is referred to in the historiography of Lithuanian Jews as a short period of 1919–1922. Jews had ministers as well as representatives in the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas). The Jewish Kahals (Jewish communities) received extensive privileges under the 1920 law to manage religious affairs, charitable work, social assistance and public education.

Jewish organizations were very successful in accommodating thousands of Jews who had fled Soviet Russia during the period of the civil war there. Lithuanian Jews helped many of them to settle, find work, and to establish a vast network of educational, medical, charitable, social assistance, and cultural organizations.

Unfortunately, the influence of Lithuanian democratic political forces was getting weaker while right-wing parties were growing stronger like in many other European countries at that time. The state’s recognition of Jewish national autonomy, which included all of its organs, was progressively reduced until it was abolished.

This turn towards nationalism also impacted how Jews were portrayed in Seimas and the use of Yiddish in government institutions. The Minister for Jewish Affairs left the government in 1924. The Jewish National Council was abolished. The Jewish communal Kahals were disbanded in March 1926. The rabbis were given control over civil registration duties.

Litvak community in numbers

  • In 1923, a population census was conducted in Lithuania, according to which 2.03 million people lived in the country. Of these, 154 thousand people identified themselves as Jews. Litvaks lived in almost every town and many larger villages.
  • By 1939, the number of Jews in Lithuania had reached its peak of 210,000 due to immigration and the natural growth of the population.
  • From 91% to 95% of the Jewish community remaining at that time in the country (about 195 000 people) were killed during the Second World War. In terms of the share of the community killed during the Holocaust, this figure is the highest Jewish loss in any country in Europe.
    Unfortunately, some Lithuanians influenced by Nazi propaganda also participated in these events. While, at the same time, other Lithuanians were risking their lives by hiding and saving the victims. 918 Lithuanians are recognized by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations. These were people that risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis. This is the highest number per capita in Eastern Europe and the second highest in the world after the Netherlands.
  • Less than 25,000 Lithuanian Jews, were registered in the Soviet census of 1959 after the Shoah. The amount had decreased to 6,000 or less by 1993 mostly due to emigration to the USA and Israel. The community decreased further and as of 2011 had only about 3050 people.

Where do Litvaks live now?

The majority of Litvaks emigrated to the US, but ~15,000 decided to emigrate to South Africa once gold and diamonds were discovered there. Although they were frequently listed as “miners” when immigrating, they were mostly traders in items needed by miners.

Up to 75,000 Lithuanian Jews now live in South Africa. Many South African Litvaks during the last couple of decades migrated to other Anglophone countries (the US, Australia, Canada and the UK).

There were 576 South African-born Jews living in Australia according to the Australian census of 2001; during the next five years, that number had increased by 2% yearly and reached 637. After 2006 immigration to Australia from South Africa increased significantly and according to the 2016 Australian census 12,092 persons identified as South African Jews.

Dual Lithuanian citizenship for Litvaks

Many Litvaks living abroad have a right to restore the citizenship of their ancestors. In accordance with the Lithuanian Citizenship Law, the descendants of Lithuanian citizens before June 15, 1940, and who left the country before March 11, 1990, can restore Lithuanian citizenship without renouncing the main citizenship in their country of residence. This is an opportunity to obtain a Lithuanian (and hence the EU) passport.

Only single Lithuanian citizenship is available to those whose ancestors left for the countries of the former USSR. However, if they were deported then it is possible to claim dual Lithuanian citizenship, as well.

If your ancestors come from Lithuania, then you might be eligible for Lithuanian citizenship. Contact us and our managers and lawyers will explain to you in detail the process of obtaining second European citizenship.

A brief history of Lithuanian migration to the US

A brief history of Lithuanian migration to the US

Four waves of emigration from Lithuania have resulted in a rather impressive community of Lithuanian-Americans, whose size, according to some estimates, may be up to 1 million people.

While descendants of Lithuanian emigrants lead lives as full-fledged Americans, Brazilians, Australians, etc, their Lithuanian roots now allow many of them to obtain dual citizenship. In this way, not only do they get the additional benefits of an EU passport holder, but also maintain the connection with their historical roots.

The First wave of emigration from Lithuania to the USA

The period between 1865 and 1915 marked the beginning of the first wave of migration. At the time, the Russian Empire, which had discriminating policies, was economically backward, and purposefully left Lithuania undeveloped.

In addition, the Lithuanians in the Russian Empire were often discriminated against and assimilated. The Lithuanian language was banned, Lithuanian youths could be drafted into the army for 12 years, and colonists from Russia were brought to Lithuania in order to faster assimilate the local population. Russians were also given priority when it came to hiring, and most large enterprises did not belong to Lithuanians.

Thus, during that period Lithuanians emigrated in significant numbers; some 700 000 left, and the majority went to the United States where American Lithuanians would work in the industries and mines to avoid discrimination at home and seek better economic prospects.

Unfortunately, the descendants of the first wave of emigrants (those who left before 1918) are not eligible for Lithuanian citizenship since their ancestors left from the Russian empire and never had Lithuanian citizenship.

The Second Wave – Lithuanian emigration between the First and the Second World Wars

At the time of gaining its independence from the Russian Empire (February 16, 1918), the economy of Lithuania was very weak. This was mainly due to the consequences of the First World War and the destructive activities of both the Russian Empire and Germany.

Therefore even though Lithuania finally gained independence, it was the worsening economy that forced its citizens to emigrate to the country where they could earn money for their families.

In addition, a new phenomenon arose that helped drive the second wave of emigration as Lithuanians were provided with full support for the emigration process and actively advertised new opportunities in the new country.

The change of government in 1926, when a nationalist dictatorship took over the government was an additional factor that forced some people to emigrate. This was especially true for the Litvaks.

As a result, emigration again became a mass phenomenon after a temporary slowdown after independence. During the second wave of emigration, about 100,000 citizens left Lithuania.

Almost 30,000 of emigrants went to the US. More than 40,000 people emigrated to South America – mainly to Brazil, but also to places like Argentina and Uruguay. And up to 10,000 emigrated to Canada during the second wave of emigration from Lithuania.

By 1930, mass emigration from Lithuania to the countries of America had slowed down as a result of the Great Depression of 1929 in the USA.

The good news is that most of the descendants of the second wave of Lithuanian emigrants have the opportunity to restore their Lithuanian citizenship and pass it on to their children. At the same time, they do not have to renounce their currently-held citizenship. This is truly a great opportunity that is not to be missed!

The Exiles – The Third Wave of emigration

The beginning of the Second World War for Lithuania was marked by a short-term occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940, followed by the occupation by Germany, and then again by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Although the first occupation by the Soviet Union was short-lived, it was very brutal. Thousands of Lithuanians were exiled, and many were tortured and brutally murdered.

The occupation by Germany led to the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Jews. While ethnic Lithuanians suffered less from the German occupiers than from the Soviet ones, thousands of them were deported to concentration camps and forced labor in Germany.

Hence, when the Soviets were returning to Lithuania in 1944, the Lithuanians knew what to expect. And those who could, left the country. Up to 100,000 Lithuanians left their homeland to escape the Soviets.

Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were killed during the Soviet occupation. A lot of people were deported. At least 350,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia and other harsh regions of the Soviet Union. 200,000 Lithuanian Poles were expelled to Poland, and over 150,000 Lithuanian Germans were expelled or fled to Germany. Some of these exiles subsequently made their way to the United States.

In total, during the period from the beginning of the Soviet occupation until the death of Stalin, Lithuania lost close to a million inhabitants – that’s a third of its population!

During the Soviet occupation the borders of the Soviet Union were closed. As such, there was no mass emigration (but rather mass deportation, especially during the first decade of the occupation).

The descendants of the generation of exiles, in most cases, also have the opportunity to regain their Lithuanian citizenship, retain their connection with their roots, and pass it on to their children.

The Fourth Wave of emigration

The Fourth or Modern wave started approximately in the 1990s and is still continuing, even though it is gradually slowing down.

This wave is considered to be the largest wave of Lithuanian emigration. As European Union membership allowed free emigration to Western Europe almost a million Lithuanians left their homeland looking for a job or to study abroad. However, only a relatively small number went to the US since 1990.

This fourth wave has another feature. This group, who grew up in the Soviet Union and witnessed the collapse of its economy, often did not see the prospects of Lithuania and wanted to leave for a more prosperous country. Even now in the comments on social networks you can see their opinion that Lithuania is a country without a future.

However, as Lithuania develops and becomes an advanced economy (and Lithuania is currently ranked 11th in the ease of doing business ranking), the flow of emigration from the country is steadily declining.

In 2019, the number of immigrants exceeded the number of emigrants. At the same time, one can note not only the influx of foreigners into the country but also the increase in the number of Lithuanians returning to their homeland.

Unfortunately, the current legislation does not provide allow for obtaining dual citizenship for emigrants of this wave.

The renewal of Lithuanian passport in the USA

The renewal of a Lithuanian passport in the USA is firstly a question of freedom of choice. The underlying motivation for renewing a passport is not for traveling but first and foremost – for an opportunity to reconnect with the homeland of ancestors. The opportunity to pass on European citizenship to one’s children also plays a big part in making this choice. The second motivation is to live and work in Europe. The Lithuanian passport provides visa-free access to 185 countries. Thus, the renewal of it has a great number of advantages.

Each interested person is able to renew the Lithuanian passport in the USA. For the renewal or issuance of a dual Lithuanian passport, each applicant must collect the required package of documents and translate them into Lithuanian. If any documents are missing, they must be searched in the archives.

Going through the whole process alone, without relevant experience, can be quite difficult. By contacting us, you entrust your business to professionals – the percentage of successful filing for restoring Lithuanian citizenship with us is more than 99%. After studying your dossier and collecting a package of documents, we can guarantee you the successful completion of the procedure.

We thank Ari Kleit for providing the photo of his father and grandfather

Cost of living in Lithuania

Cost of living in Lithuania

If you are thinking about moving to Lithuania, this article will be useful for you. Perhaps it makes sense to save it in bookmarks or on your page on social networks. After all, you may want to watch it again with your family members.

With safety, education, and healthcare plus increasing business opportunities, the country offers a promising future for students, enterprising expats, and families. But how expensive is Lithuania?

Before moving to the country, it’s crucial to evaluate the question ‘how much money do I need to live in Lithuania?’ Only then will you be able to budget for your needs and your family’s expenses.


Is Lithuania a good place to live?

Is Lithuania a good place to live?

Moving to Europe is a popular choice and for a good reason. With high salaries, rich culture, good social infrastructure, and endless travel opportunities, the EU is a safe and attractive place to move to. But is Lithuania a good place to live?

Living in Lithuania gives you all the advantages a European Union country has to offer. And besides, life in Lithuania has its unique flavor.

If you’re considering a move to Lithuania, you might have some important questions to answer for yourself. For example, which are the best cities in Lithuania to live in? What’s the culture of Lithuania like?
Keep reading to find out how is to live in Lithuania and what are your best options to start your new European life.

By the way, if you seriously think about moving to Lithuania, there is a useful article for you about Lithuanian economics.

We’ll explore the pros and cons, and useful facts about Lithuania for those who want to move. So you can make an informed decision.