Monday, 13 July 2015

How many Lithuanians came to Australia before World War 2?

The short answer to this question is that we don't know and will probably never have exact numbers.  Apart from the Australian Lithuanian Society which in the 1930s had recorded around 100 members in Sydney, there is very little information.  However, we can make some reasonable assumptions.  And it's fun to speculate.

Certainly the numbers were not huge, but they may been larger than some people have imagined.  There were likely only very small numbers able to leave Lithuania until well into the second half of the nineteenth century (serfdom was only abolished in that part of the Russian empire in 1861).  Unlike the USA which attracted tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian immigrants, Australia was not high on the list of potential destinations; during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries most migrants from Lithuania who headed west sought to establish new futures in North America.  Great Britain was often a stepping stone to North America, but many stayed on in Scotland, London, or Manchester.  South Africa was particularly favoured by Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews).  Argentina received probably 10 times more Lithuanian immigrants during the 1920s and 1930s than Australia had received in the century prior to the post World War 2 migration (my uncle was one of those who arrived in South America in 1926 from Lithuania).

Nevertheless, numbers in Australia grew during the early twentieth century, in parallel with the growth of the new federation:

  • The 1933 Census in Australia was the first to record Lithuania as a place of birth.  It tells us that a total of 235 people gave their place of birth as 'Lithuania'.  Of these, 155 were male and 80 were female.  While this figure can be questioned, e.g. some people with origins in Lithuania may have listed their place of birth as Russia or Germany (having in mind the respective empires prior to World War 1), it provides the only solid benchmark we have at this time.

  • The Lithuanian historian Adolfas Šapoka, while acknowledging the 1933 census figures, wrote in 1936 that there were around 2,000 Lithuanians in Australia and neighbouring countries (Lietuvos Istorija (History of Lithuania), edited by A. Šapoka, 3rd edition, published in Germany in 1950, p664).  Šapoka would have had access to estimates of the Lithuanian government in the mid 1930s.  He argued that many Lithuanians may have been listed under other nationalities.

  • The Lithuanian Encyclopedia (published in Boston, USA, between 1953 and 1969) claimed that in 1946 there were 1,000 Lithuanians in Australia.

  • Dr V Doniela in a contribution to The Australian Encyclopaedia (Volume 5, Australian Geographic Pty Ltd, 6th edition (1996), p 1932) wrote "Apart from a few immigrants in the 1830s and onwards, several hundred Lithuanian immigrants settled in Australia after World War 1 ..."

Ultimately it depends on how you define 'Lithuanians'.  If the term is used solely for ethnic Lithuanians then the numbers will be much smaller, in the hundreds; however if the term is used to include all people born in the territory of Lithuania (in particular the Litvaks) then they will be larger, possibly in the thousands.

Another issue is that of mobility.  Not all migrants remained in Australia:

  • Australian government statistics for 1928 recorded 51 Lithuanian arrivals and 7 departures (Morning Bulletin, 6 March 1929, p 14);   
  • by 1931, with the effects of the Great Depression being felt throughout the country, 13 Lithuanian arrivals and 7 departures were recorded (The Mercury, 16 February 1932, p 10)

The next two blog posts will look at some of those who came to Australia, stayed a while, but then left. 

1 comment:

  1. “While this figure can be questioned, e.g. some people with origins in Lithuania may have listed their place of birth as Russia or Germany (having in mind the respective empires prior to World War 1), it provides the only solid benchmark we have at this time.”

    Very true, and at that time a lot of people born in Lithuania gave their place of birth as Poland, as in 1933 part of the territory of modern Lithuania, including the Vilnius area, was in the Polish state.

    A good source to reconstruct the number of Lithuanian born people in Australia is their naturalisation records. The preliminary statistic that I have correlates well with Jonas’ reconstruction. According to my research the number of Lithuanian born people naturalised before 1930 was at least 188 (this statistic relates mostly to men, who applied for naturalisation, and does not include their wives and children, but their number was not large). Most of them arrived before WWI. The number of Jews among these 188 persons was around 140. The number of Poles, Belarusians and Russians was 16. All the rest (32 persons) were Lithuanians and Germans. If we know the proportion of those who naturalised in relation to all immigrants, we can reconstruct the numbers of immigrants. My estimate in respect of pre-WWI immigrants of non-Jewish origin from Russia is that only one fifth of them tried to naturalise. In respect of Jews the proportion was higher – perhaps one half.

    My statistics, based purely on naturalisation records, also correlate well with Charles Price’s reconstruction of ethnic composition of ‘Russians’ in Australia in Australian censuses. According to him in 1921 there were 222 natives of Lithuania in Australia (179 among them were Jewish, and 43 – ‘Other’). (Charles Price, 'Russians in Australia: A demographic survey', in McNair and Poole (eds), Russia and the Fifth Continent, St. Lucia; UQP, 1992, pp. 54–80).