Litvaks history – Jewish heritage in Lithuania

Litvaks history – 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 up to 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 immigration 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

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

The resettlement of Litvaks

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

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

They had legal rights for residing 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 a national administration.

Lithuania was completely annexed by the Russian Empire beginning at the end of the 18th century (1792–1795). 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 the provinces 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 WW2

During the WW1 most of the territory of Lithuania was the battlefield between the Russian and German Empires. After Russia excited 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 Russian 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 Republic of Lithuania’s 1922 Constitution 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 amount that was 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 Seimas. The Jewish Kahals (Jewish communities) received extensive privileges under the 1920 law to manage religious affairs, charitable work, social assistance, public education, and the preservation of civil status certificates.

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 to settle and find work, and to establish a vast network of educational, medical, charitable, social-assistance, and cultural institutions.

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

This also impacted how Jews were portrayed in Seimas and the usage of Yiddish in government institutions. The Minister for Jewish Affairs left the government in 1924. The Jewish National Council’s operations were outlawed. The Jewish communal Kahals were disbanded in March 1926. The rabbis were given control over civil registration duties.

Some 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 were 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 Jews remaining at that time in the country (about 195 000 people) were killed during the Second World War. This figure is the highest Jewish loss of any nation during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, some Lithuanians influenced by Nazi propaganda also participated in these events. While at the same time some others were risking their lives by hiding and saving the victims.
  • Less than 25,000 Lithuanian Jews, were counted 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 immigrated to the US, but 15,000 did so once gold and diamonds were discovered in South Africa. Although they were frequently listed as “miners” upon admission, they were mostly traders in items needed by miners.

Up to 75,000 Lithuanian Jews now live in South Africa. South African Litvaks are migrating into the primarily Anglophone countries.

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.

Now the descendants of the emigrated Litvaks can get dual European citizenship

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 acquire second citizenship without renouncing the main citizenship in their country of residence. This opens up a number of prospects and benefits for the holder of an EU passport.

Single Lithuanian citizenship is available to those whose ancestors left to the USSR unless they were deported (in which case they also can have dual citizenship).

If your family history allows you to apply for the status of a Lithuanian citizen, send an application and our managers and lawyers will explain to you in detail the process of obtaining second European citizenship.

A brief history of Lithuanian Americans

A brief history of Lithuanian Americans

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.

It should be noted that in the historiography of Lithuania, only three major waves of emigration are considered. The division into four or five waves needs to be looked into in greater detail.

While the 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 – for themselves and future generations.

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, reigned over Lithuania.

The Lithuanian population in the Russian Empire succumbed to discrimination. The Lithuanian language was banned, Lithuanian youths could be taken into the army for 12 years, and people of Russian nationality were brought to Lithuania’s territory to change the population’s composition. Russians were also given priority when it came to hiring, and most large enterprises also did not belong to Lithuanians.

Thus, 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 and seek economic prospects.

Unfortunately, the descendants of the first wave of emigrants (before 1918) have no chance of obtaining Lithuanian citizenship as deemed by the legislation in force as of 2022.

The Second Wave – Lithuanian emigration between the first and second world wars

By the time of gaining its independence from the Russian Empire (February 16, 1918), the economic condition of Lithuania was in decline. This was mainly due to the consequences of the First World War and the destructive activities of the Russian Empire.

And even though Lithuania finally gained independence, it was the worsening economic factors that pushed its citizens to move to a 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 right-wing forces came to power was also another factor that influenced the formation of the second wave of emigration. This was especially felt by the Litvaks.

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

Almost 30,000 of them 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 people emigrated to Canada during the second wave of emigration from Lithuania.

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

The good news is that almost all 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 existing 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 of the Soviet Union in 1940, then 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. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were expelled, and many were brutally killed. The Russian occupiers were distinguished by extreme cruelty as they committed terrible tortures.

The occupation by Germany led also led to the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Jews. While the local population of Lithuanian nationality suffered less from the German occupiers than from the Soviet ones, thousands of them were deported to concentration camps.

Hence, when the Soviet Union made its return 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 Soviet’s foreign rule.

Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were killed during the Soviet occupation. A lot of people were sent exiled. At least 350,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia and other troubled regions of the Soviet Union. 200,000 Lithuanian Poles were expelled to Poland, and over 150,000 Lithuanian Germans were expelled 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, after which a certain thaw came, the population of Lithuania lost up to a million people – that’s a third of its population! For comparison, during the years of German occupation, losses only amounted to 250,000 people, mostly Lithuanian Jews.

The borders of the Soviet Union were closed. As such, there was no mass emigration but rather there was mass deportation – both within the Soviets and beyond.

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 ongoing, gradually fading away.

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, but only a relatively small number went to the US.

This fourth wave has another feature. This group, who grew up in the Soviet Union, witnessed the decline of the economy and degradation, often do not see the prospects of Lithuania and wanted to break free from it. 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 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.

The current legislation does not provide for the possibility of obtaining dual citizenship for emigrants of this wave. But some of the new immigrants are assisted by their relatives 1-2 generations back, that left before 1940.

lithuanians in america

Facebook’s community for sharing the common experience

Probably, nobody knows exactly how many Lithuanians live in the USA. The largest Lithuanian community in the United States, with a population of up to 1 million, is surely comprised of the four waves of emigration from Lithuania.

There is the Facebook group “USA Lithuanians” where Lithuanian Americans can share their family stories and archived family photos. One can learn more about the home country’s past and exchange information with nearby descent. So many people will be able to see the history of their family. Additionally, through the group, one can also find friends and like-minded people, organize a joint celebration of national holidays.

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 on your own, without having the relevant experience, can be quite difficult. By contacting us, you entrust your business to professionals – the percentage of successful filing for the restoration of 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.