The first thing you'll learn when you write a book set in Lithuania, is just how many of your friends have some kind of Lithuanian family connection.
The Lithuanian-American Community organization estimates there are about 800,000 Americans of Lithuanian descent. Some of them are quite famous. Perhaps you’ve heard of
We've even got a Lithuanian-American Revolutionary War hero, Brigadier General Tadeusz Kościuszko (sometimes spelled Thaddeus Kosciuszko). He fought with the Americans, before returning home to fight for the Polish-Lithuanian army against the Russians. It's his name on the NYC subway's Kosciuszko Street Station.
There have been several waves of migration from Lithuania to the U.S. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, migration was more often for economic than political reasons. By World War I, roughly 300,000 Lithuanian immigrants lived in the United States. Large concentrations of Lithuanians settled in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, although the largest group is in Chicago. The Windy City is home to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, located in the West Lawn neighborhood.
During World War II, when Germany and the Soviet Union carved up large chunks of eastern Europe as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (more on that in a future post), Lithuania ended up under the Soviets, who kept control over the country after the war ended. From that point and up until Lithuania declared independence in 1990, emigration was driven more by politics.
Lithuanian-Americans have a special place in American literature as well. If you’ve ever read Upton Sinclair’s great classic, The Jungle, about poverty, exploitation and horrific working conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, then you’ve met a whole community of fictional Lithuanian-American immigrants in the family of Jurgis Rudkus, the novel’s main character.
So the next time you listen to Under the Bridge, enjoy an airplane flight without cigarette smoke or vote in an American election, remember, you have a Lithuanian to thank for that.
Lately I've been making zines. For a limited time, you can see my first zine on exhibit at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Read more.