The Power of Family Ties: Contacts between the Lithuanians of the Free World and Their Relatives Left Behind in Occupied Homeland

Regina Laukaitytė (Lithuanian Institute of History)

The occupations of Lithuania during the Second World War separated hundreds of thousands of families: in 1944 alone, about 60,000 Lithuanians fled to Germany; later they emigrated to the free world, mostly to the USA and Canada. This presentation addresses issues that have not been explored in historiography, such as the efforts of the Lithuanians settled in Western countries to contact their relatives who remained in the USSR, the extent of the financial support they provided and the struggle for the reunification of war-torn families.

When the war ended, the Lithuanians in Western countries lost contact with their families in the USSR. During the Stalinist era, they were even afraid to correspond, and not without reason. The situation changed with the beginning of the political thaw. Through acquaintances and relatives, through the Red Cross, people had the courage to look for their relatives and started to correspond. As they learned more about life in the USSR, the family ties soon took on a new form: the expatriates generously supported their relatives through remittances and parcels. The émigrés would even refer to it as the ‘Lithuanian Marshall Plan.’

 Once the contacts were established, many Lithuanians looked for opportunities to reunite with their families. It was the émigrés in the USA who were among the first to fight for opportunities for the family members in the USSR to come to America for permanent residence (and at the same time, to expand opportunities for emigration from the USSR to other countries). This struggle lasted several years. The situation began to change between 1955 and 1960, when Nikita Khrushchev revised the migration policy and opened the doors of the reforming USSR to foreign tourists. From 1957 to 1990, several hundred Lithuanian families emigrated from the Lithuanian SSR and reunited with their relatives in Western countries. Many more families on both sides of the Iron Wall sought to reunite but were unable to surmount the obstacles deliberately created by the totalitarian state.

Strong family ties and sentiments for the homeland were definitely not a secondary historical agent, alongside the political struggle of the diaspora. It was the individual efforts of people during the political thaw that set the processes, which continued throughout the entire Soviet period, in motion.