Escaping the Russian Empire: Lithuanians’ Journey to America

A century ago, Europeans who sought a better life in the United States were subjected to a series of intrusive questions. These inquiries included asking about their race, whether they engaged in polygamous relationships, and if they identified as anarchists. However, migrants from Eastern European countries such as Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania faced even greater scrutiny. These individuals were singled out for additional attention and scrutiny, likely due to prevailing stereotypes and prejudices of the time. The discriminatory nature of these questions highlights the challenges and obstacles faced by immigrants during that era, particularly those from Eastern Europe.

Destination – America. How Lithuanians fled Russian Empire - LRT

The Red Star Line Ferries

Destination – America. How Lithuanians fled Russian Empire - LRT

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a significant number of individuals, approximately two million, embarked on Red Star Line ferries from the port of Antwerp in Belgium with one-way tickets to the United States. Among these migrants, it is believed that several thousand Lithuanians sought refuge, driven by economic prospects, religious persecution, or Russian oppression. However, as the 20th century progressed, a new wave of travelers emerged. Affluent scientists, writers, and intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish, began utilizing the Red Star Line ferries as a means to escape the horrors of Nazi persecution. This marked a shift in the demographic of those seeking passage to the US, as intellectuals sought safety and freedom in a new land.

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Promises of a Better Life

During the 19th century, many Europeans were enticed by the promises of a better life and stable employment in the United States, often conveyed by their relatives who had already settled there. The booming economies of Canada and the US, coupled with the need for cheap labor following the abolition of slavery, made these countries attractive destinations for European immigrants. In fact, the US actively encouraged European immigration and implemented quotas on the number of people admitted from each European country. Ferry companies, such as Red Star Line, capitalized on this opportunity by establishing offices throughout Europe, including in Lithuania’s Vilnius and Kaunas. These offices served as gateways for Lithuanians seeking to embark on the journey to the US in search of a brighter future.

Challenges Faced by Lithuanian Migrants

During the time when many Lithuanians were leaving the Russian Empire illegally, reaching Antwerp posed a significant challenge. Often, they had to pay large sums of money to smugglers and then spend days or even weeks traversing Europe, hiding in train carriages without access to food or showers. Antwerp was a diverse city at that time, with many migrants from Eastern Europe on its streets. However, locals often looked down upon these migrants, considering them dirty and primitive. This perception was not unfounded, as these individuals had spent days on trains without the opportunity to shower. Upon arrival at the port, their clothes and belongings were disinfected, and they were required to stand under a hot shower for at least an hour to ensure cleanliness. The surviving health check documents also identified several countries, including Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Austria, and Russia, as “infected districts.”

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Thorough Medical Examination

This was followed by a thorough medical examination by at least three doctors: a local doctor hired by the Belgian immigration services, an American doctor, and a doctor hired by the ferry company.

Screening for Diseases

“The checks were rigorous because the Americans would send the infected people back, and the ferry company would have to pay for the return of the passenger,” Van der Velden explains.

Unpleasant Questions

The passengers were screened for lice and venereal disease, which sometimes made women cry because they found the procedure unpleasant and humiliating. Particular attention was paid to the eyes, as the infectious disease trachoma was rampant at the time.

Obstacles to Reaching the US

It was trachoma that was one of the biggest obstacles to reaching the shores of the US. If left untreated, it could lead to blindness, so even a successful departure from Europe did not mean a smooth start in the US.

Health Checks on Ellis Island

Migrants had to go through the paperwork and health checks again on Ellis Island, near New York, where they were registered. If they were found to have any diseases, they were sent back to Europe.

A Heartbreaking Decision

One of the most notable cases is that of Chaja Moel, a Jewish woman who fled the Russian Empire with her four children. The father was already waiting for the family in the US, but the mother with four children was unable to leave because of an eye infection contracted by the daughter Ita Moel.

Quarantine and Questioning

The sick had to be quarantined by the ferry companies. In addition to the numerous document checks, the passengers had to go through a whole session of questions – from the usual ones about their profession, what they wanted to do in the US, whether they had relatives there, to the more unpleasant ones – whether they had many sexual partners or whether they identified as anarchists.

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Unthinkable Questions

“Such questions are simply unthinkable in today’s context,” says Van der Velden.

The journey to the US a century ago was filled with challenges and obstacles for Lithuanian migrants. From the difficult and often illegal journey to Antwerp, to the rigorous health checks and questioning, their determination to seek a better life in the US was met with numerous hurdles. However, their stories of resilience and perseverance continue to inspire generations.