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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

LITHUANIANS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

LITHUANIANS. The settlement of Lithuanians in Cleveland follows historical patterns similar to those of other East European nations. The first wave of immigrants came here at the turn of the century (1890-1910), and the second wave--more appropriately termed political refugees--arrived in the wake of World War II (1948-50), after the USSR had forcibly annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940. Early Lithuanians, the first of whom are recorded here in 1871, were absorbed as cheap labor into thriving local industries. They concentrated around St. Clair and Oregon Ave. (now Rockwell) and ranged eastward to about E. 71st St. between Oregon and Cedar avenues. The overwhelming Catholic sentiments of the early community were evidenced in the establishment in 1895 of ST. GEORGE'S LITHUANIAN CHURCH, which was housed at several locations until a cornerstone was laid in 1921 for the present structure at E. 67th St. and Superior Ave. In 1995 St. George's celebrated its 100th anniversary. The church was the center of social, civic, and community activity. Although the laissez faire system of the time exploited many immigrants, it also offered opportunities for success, and by the first decade of the 20th century, about 50 business establishments--many of them taverns that also served as informal community centers--boasted Lithuanian ownership. That was at a period when little more than 1,000 Lithuanians lived here. Successful entrepreneurs became natural community leaders and established institutional anchors for the further coalescence of the Lithuanian community--especially in the face of negative attitudes from the indigenous population. In 1906 civic and business leaders established the Lithuanian Bldg. & Loan Assn. ("the Lithuanians' bank"), which evolved after World War II into the Superior Savings & Loan Assn. Another core institution was the Lithuanian Hall Society, which bought a building in 1920 at E. 69th St. and Superior Ave. and which, as the Lithuanian Hall, became a center for the nurturing of cultural, civic, and artistic expressions of the Lithuanian heritage. Another mainstay of the community was the newspaper DIRVA (est. 1915). It was one of several publications current in the first part of the century but is the only one surviving to this day. Among the early organizations were benevolent groups such as the St. George's Society (est. 1885). Other self-help groups sprang up as well, but eventually merged into the Lithuanian Alliance of America and the American-Lithuanian Roman Catholic Alliance, with posts in major cities. Other organizations, manifesting a need and a desire by the immigrants to maintain their culture and heightened by a national reawakening in Lithuania itself, which led to the independence of the country in 1918, thrived in the interwar period. By 1930, when approx. 10,000-12,000 Lithuanians lived in Cleveland, there were more than 15 civic, cultural, religious, sports, artistic, and political organizations centered, here, and local chapters of more than 20 national organizations. The Lovers of the Homeland Society (Tevynes Myletoju Draugija) and the Knights of Lithuania (Lietuvos Vyciai) were among prominent groups in the early period of immigration. They were social and service organizations, with the Knights of Lithuania active to this day. The growing community expanded eastward over the years, and by 1929 a second parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, was founded in the Collinwood area. A cornerstone for the present church was laid in 1952 at Neff Rd. and Sable Ave., and the church, school, and hall were completed in the early 1960s. Cohesiveness, thrift, diligence, and recognition of educational values were evident traits noted by observers of the Lithuanian immigrants, as were their long-standing contributions to the community by the establishment of the Lithuanian Cultural Gardens in ROCKEFELLER PARK.

The second wave of immigrants came after World War II, when approx. 4,000 Lithuanian refugees settled here. This influx comprised mainly educated, professional levels of society and included the last president of the Lithuanian Republic, ANTANAS SMETONA†, who came here during the war and perished in a fire in 1944. Postwar refugees maintained a deep-seated feeling that their country would soon be freed from Soviet domination and that their stay here was temporary. For that reason, they tended to form their own organizations centered around institutions transferred here from the Old Country or formed anew, rather than join organizations established by the early immigrants, who had become not only acculturated to American ways but assimilated as well. Some established institutions, such as St. George's and Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishes and the newspaper Dirva, were rejuvenated as a result of the new arrivals. Other organizations that had their roots in the homeland and were now forbidden under Soviet rule proliferated. Thus, the scouting movement, university fraternities, religious organizations, professional societies, the Army Reserve of the Lithuanian Republic (Ramove), the former national guard (Siauliai), and other groups quickly reestablished themselves here and wherever other Lithuanian immigrants found themselves in the free world.

An all-encompassing cultural, educational, civic, and social organization, the Lithuanian-American Community of the USA, Inc. (Lietuviu Bendruomene), was formalized in 1952. On the political front, the Lithuanian-American Council (Amerikos Lietuviu Taryba), active in the U.S. since 1942, lobbied during the war and after on behalf of the plight of Lithuania under Soviet rule. The council embraced major organizations of the early immigrants as well as postwar organizations such as the Lithuanian Christian Democratic party, the Socialists, the Natl. Alliance, the Lithuanian Front, and others. Saturday schools for youngsters were an immediate priority for the preservation of the Lithuanian language, heritage, and, culture. For that purpose, the Bp. M. Valancius School opened at St. George's Church in 1949 and conducted classes into the mid-1960s. St. Casimir School started classes at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in 1952 and is in session to the present time.
In 1949 the Lithuanian Voice Radio Program (Tevynes Garsai) was founded by a group of community activists. Boy and Girl Scout troops, a Catholic student federation (Ateitis), a Lithuanian cultural fund, and a refugee society were all formed that same year. In 1950 an athletic club (Zaibas) was instituted, as was a theatrical society (Vaidila). In the cultural and artistic field, the Lithuanian Natl. Art Ensemble (CIURLIONIS LITHUANIAN NATIONAL ART ENSEMBLE) was reestablished upon its arrival here in 1949, followed by the formation in 1953 of the Folk Dance Group (Grandinele). Both these groups achieved international acclaim through concerts in various countries.

The postwar period brought an added vitality to the Lithuanian community, whose members became acculturated quite readily and successfully, but who were more actively attuned to the preservation of the Lithuanian heritage in the face of the Russification occurring in Lithuania itself. A new community center, Lithuanian Village, was built and dedicated in 1973 along E. 185th St., and community activity shifted to that area and into the eastern suburbs, as the area around old St. George's parish went into decline. The Lithuanian community, which presently numbers about 16,000, remains active in civic, social, artistic, political, and community affairs, with a vast majority of the children of postwar immigrants holding degrees in higher education and well-situated in the professions. Cleveland's Lithuanian community is recognized as one of the most active and productive in terms of organizational activity, community consciousness, political and civic involvement in the general affairs of Greater Cleveland, literary activity and the arts, and folk art ensembles, and is the home community of numerous persons prominent in various fields among the Lithuanian nation worldwide. A notable measure of the Cleveland community's standing as a major anchor of the Lithuanian culture apart from the homeland is the Lithuanian Collection at Kent State Univ., a permanent archive of upwards of 15,000 volumes of historical documents, rare books, memoirs, publications, and papers chronicling the Lithuanian experience in immigration and exile.

A monumental impact on the community was the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The leader of the re-established state, Vytautas Landsbergis, visited Cleveland several times seeking support even while Soviet troops were still in control of the country. When Lithuania was formally recognized, the new U.S. ambassador, Darryl N. Johnson, made a trip to Cleveland his first official stateside visit in that capacity. Both the visits of Landsbergis and Johnson were in acknowledgement of the significant role the, Lithuanian-American community here played in the 50-year lobby effort on behalf of the liberation of the land of their roots.

As a result of the many years of organized effort aimed at the goal of the re-establishment of the Lithuanian state, many organizations presently are grappling with a need to redefine their own roles in the community. There has been a modest level of return migration and some members in the community have established business ties with the country, while others have offered professional assistance through U.S. government and private programs to assist Lithuania's transition to democracy and a market economy.

Algis Ruksenas

Cadzow, John F. Lithuanian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1978).

Coulter, Charles W. The Lithuanians of Cleveland (1920).

Last Modified: 04 Mar 1998 04:41:55 PM

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