The Influence of Lithuanian Displaced Persons in the United States

Robertas Vitas (Lithuanian Research Center)

Following World War II, 1.2 million Eastern European Displaced Persons (DP) were unable to return home, creating a large-scale refugee crisis. According to United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) estimates, at the end of 1946, more than 60,000 Lithuanians were in Germany, Austria and Italy. The passage in the United States of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 began a process which ultimately saw approximately 30,000 Lithuanian DPs arrive in the U.S., with one-third of that number settling in Chicago.

The DPs typically saw themselves as exiles, not immigrants, forced to flee their homeland and established institutions for themselves and their children to deflect assimilation into the larger American culture. While the passage of time in the US diminished realistic hopes of returning to Lithuania, that spirit pervaded DP activities in the US for many years.

The influence of these DPs was felt both within and beyond the Lithuanian-American community. The US government took advantage of the influx of young Lithuanian males who were immediately drafted for the Korean War effort. Lithuanian DPs were a component of the general postwar population and economic expansion in the country providing universities with students and workplaces with fresh labor. As Lithuanian youth completed higher education and were able to achieve professional success beyond their parents, they assumed positions of responsibility in government and private industry, earning patents and running enterprises.

Within their community, Lithuanian parish schools witnessed an increase in enrollment and the period 1950-1970 saw the re-establishment of organizations from interwar Lithuania and the construction of new facilities. These efforts on the part of the DPs did not revitalize, but supplemented, what had been achieved by earlier generations, as the Lithuanian-American community of the 1940s was robust and could boast of its own accomplishments in the community and the wider American milieu.

The DPs also, at times, created what might be termed ethnocentrism within an ethnic community, as they did not always fully embrace what previous Lithuanian-Americans had done and, at times, actively denigrated their forbears. This was ironic since the DPs would not have been admitted to the US without sponsorship from the Lithuanians already in the country. Over time, succeeding generations of DPs have had to deal with the same challenges and changes that their predecessors grappled with. Indeed, the arrival of post-Soviet Lithuanians to American shores created somewhat of a repetition of history, this time with occasional conflicts and misunderstandings between them and the DPs.