Global True Lithuania Lithuanian communities and heritage worldwide

New York City, New York

New York (pop 8,5 mln., 14 mln. with suburbs) is undeniably one of the centers of the world. Between 1930 and 1950 (when the Lithuanian refugees arrived) it was the world's largest city and it has been the US top city throughout its history. By the time it received its first 100-floor building in 1931 the tallest "skyscraper" of Lithuania stood at 7 floors. New York must have truly impressed the contemporary immigrants from agricultural Lithuania (of which there were 15 000 in 1930). Unlike some other once-industrial US cities New York continued to be important and its Lithuanian community constantly renews itself.

Lithuanian churches in New York

Even before World War 1 Lithuanians had their churches in New York. Queens has a Transfiguration church (64-14 Clinton Avenue). First constructed 1908, twice rebuilt (once after fire and after WW2 due to expanded Lithuanian community). Current building dates to 1962, both Lithuanian and English mass are held. The modern glass-clad building that ingeniously incorporates Lithuanian vernacular architectural details (a form of village barn, rooftop horse ornaments) and modernized historical symbols (e.g. Vytis cross, St. Casimir sculpture, merged sun-cross) has been praised by contemporary architects. It is sometimes considered a magnum opus of architect Jonas Mulokas and interior designer V. K. Jonynas who also collaborated on multiple Lithuanian American churches in 1950s Illinois. It is an attempt to create a modern-yet-ethnic Lithuanian style, something impossible in the Soviet-occupied Lithuania at the time and only existing in the USA.

Transfiguration church incorporates Lithuanian details into modern architecture. Google Street View.

Brooklyn Annunciation Lithuanian Roman Catholic church is a century older (built 1863, 259 N. 5th Street). It has been constructed by Germans and acquired by a Lithuanian parish in 1914. The interior has been redecorated the Lithuanian way: Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis and Gate of Dawn altars created (moved in from the other closed Lithuanian churches, as Annunciation remained the liveliest Lithuanian church in New York). The mass is held in Lithuanian and Spanish (as the neighborhood has large Hispanic population).

Like many Lithuanian churches the Annunciation church of Brooklyn has traditional wooden chapel-post and wooden cross (a UNESCO inscribed ethnic art form), even if there is very little place for them. Google Street View.

Brooklyn also had a St Mary of the Angels Lithuanian church (corner of 4th S St. and Roebling St.), closed 1981, now El Puente academy devoid of any Lithuanian marks. A simple neoclassical edifice it was famous for the stained glass windows by sculptor V. K. Jonynas it had, which were then moved to Our Lady of Vilnius church in Manhattan.

The most "infamous" Lithuanian church in New York is the gothic revival Our Lady of Vilnius (1910). This only Lithuanian church in Manhattan but it has been closed in 2007. The diocese plans to demolish it and sell the expensive land, triggering the largest Lithuanian community protests since independence. It included mass prayers, vigils, demonstrations attempting to save this "shard of Lithuania", among the last Our Lady of Vilnius churches of Lithuania. Even the Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus, himself a former Lithuanian-American, protested to the Pope against the church closure. However, all these were unsuccessful and the church was demolished.

Our Lady of Vilnius church squeezed between massive skyscrapers. It no longer exists. Google Street View.

At about the same time, New York's fifth Lithuanian church, the Renaissance Revival St. George's, has been destroyed and replaced by apartment blocks without much attention, likely because its less glamorous Brooklyn location. Google Street View of the 2007 has the only online image of it.

Lithuanian institutional HQs in New York

New York is also the home to a major Lithuanian secular institution. The Lithuanian Alliance of America HQ (307 W. 30th Street) is its small but well-located heart. Now surrounded by skyscrapers, the historic 19th century four-floored building recently had its exterior renovated to its former glory.

The Lithuanian Alliance publishes the oldest Lithuanian newspaper ("Tėvynė", since 1896), albeit currently the publishing dates are scarce and the printing is done outside the building. Sla 370 gallery has been recently opened on the ground floor of the building, celebrating both Lithuanian and American art. The Lithuanian Alliance was founded in 1886 by the Lithuanian-American nationalists and leftists who dissented against the central role the Catholic church and its parishes played in many Lithuanian-American activities. Lithuanian Alliance has also served as a life insurance company for Lithuanians. Its membership has declined over the time since World War 2, however, as the new generations of Lithuanians were less likely to join. It went down from 11948 in 1955 to just 2446 in 2007 and merely several hundred today. The Alliance has abandoned its no-longer-lucrative insurance business to become a non-profit.

In its basement, the Alliance HQ has a massive archive documenting as the former insurance business made it to collect more information on its members than usual. Possibly useful for genealogy research, the archive is not digitizes so far. The second floor has offices with some authentic interwar furniture while the top floors have a apartments that are rented out making the main profit for the Alliance today.

New York is also a political center. It is the location of United Nations HQ and thus the Lithuanian representative office to the UN. It also has a consulate-general. Both of those work on rented premises, however, and have no permanent Lithuanian details.

New York Lithuanian memorials

Between the 2nd street, Hewes street and Union Avenue in Brooklyn there is Lituanica square, also known as Lithuania square, a small patch of land with a monument and flagpole. It is dedicated to pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas who became the first Lithuanians to cross the Atlantic by air and the pioneers of Transatlantic air mail. Sadly their 1933 flight which departed from New York Floyd Bennett Field ended up in a tragedy near their destination in Kaunas, making them martyrs of both Lithuania and Lithuanian-American community. Lithuania sought to build a symbolic wing in that airport in 2013 (70th anniversary) but the airport administration denied this. Only a memorial post reminds of Darius and Girėnas there, located in the green line of Flatbush Ave, erected by New York Lithuanian artists Laura Zaveckaitė and Julius Ludavičius in 2013.

On the New York stock market in Broad Street (Manhattan), there is a commemorative plaque for the first famous Lithuanian-American Aleksandras Karolis Kuršius (better known in Latin as Alexander Carolus Cursius-Curtius). This nobleman established the NYC's first Latin school on the location (at the time New York was still a Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam). The plaque for him was created in 1976 for the US 200 anniversary and has been a part of a Lithuanian American struggle to widen the knowledge of the name "Lithuania" and its Soviet occupation.

Before the massive immigration from Eastern Europe began in the late 19th century such isolated noblemen were the only Lithuanians to set foot on New York shore. One of them - Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Lithuanian: Tadas Kosciuška) - fought for US freedom before unsuccessfully attempting to defend his homeland Poland-Lithuania (united at the time) from European great powers. A commemorative plaque for him has been jointly funded by Lithuanian and Polish Americans in 1997.

Another Lithuania-related memorial plaque is on the floor of the New York Library at 476 5th Ave. It cites Martin Radtke, an immigrant from Lithuania, who had a few opportunities for formal education and so educated himself in the library, amassing a fortune he then bequeathed to the library. There is next to none information available about him online, however, save for the plaque. "Radtke" surname was, however, somewhat common among Lithuania's Germans, so it is likely Martin Radtke hailed from that community. It is possible that "Radtke" is a Germinezed version of a Lithuanian surname Ratkevičius (Germanization of Lithuanian surnames was common in the German-ruled parts of Lithuania).

The first leader of both Poland and Lithuania, ethnic Lithuanian King Jogaila lived at the time America was not even discovered (1348-1434). However, New York Central Park includes Jogaila statue, created by S. Ostrowski. Symbolically it is a copy of a sculpture in Warsaw (Poland) that had been destroyed to make WW1 bullets. The Central Park sculpture was made to decorate Polish pavilion in 1939 New York Expo but while that Expo was still ongoing Poland itself was invaded and occupied by Soviet Russians and Nazi Germans. The property of Polish pavilion has then been transferred to the Polish museum but a joint request of New York mayor and Polish consul made it a gift to New York City. As the sculpture has been built by Poles the Polonized version of king's name is used (Jagiello) and the word "Poland" inscribed.

Jogaila monument in Central Park. Google Street View.

New York lacks a Lithuanian cemetery, however, the massive private Cypress Hills cemetery includes many Lithuanian graves. Arguably the most famous among them is the Grave of Antanas Škėma, one of the most famous Lithuanian writers. His semi-autobiographical exitentialist magnum opus "White Shroud" described the toil and thoughts of an underemployed Lithuanian Soviet-Genocide-refugee in New York, who had to work in an elevator of a prestigious hotel despit ebeing qualified to a white-collar work. Antanas Škėma actually worked in the elevator himself at the Roosevelt Hotel in central Manhattan, which still has the opulent interior. It is often claimed that Antanas Škėma would be considered among the world's top 20th century writers had he written his work in English, as he effectively debuted existentialism. However, with his work in Lithuanian and accessible only to Lithuanian-Americans (having been effectively banned in the Soviet-held Lithuania), he had very limited readers. He was discovere din Lithuania after 1990 independece (and added to school literature programs there) but is yet-to-be-discovered in America.

Ellis Island

Not just for the Lithuanians, but for most immigrant ethnicities Ellis Island, a point through where 12 million immigrants came to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, among them hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians.

Still, Lithuanians were among the smaller immigrant groups (compared to the Poles, Italians, Germans, Jews...), so, relatively little is available particularly on them in the Ellis Island. But the place is great for learning the experience many Lithuanian migrants had, epitomised in a local quote from an immigrant from Lithuania that basically says that emigration was similar to death in that you wouldn't ever see even your parents anymore.

New York consists of five massive boroughs. Queens has ~6000 Lithuanians, Manhattan ~5000, Brooklyn ~3000, Bronx ~500, Staten Island ~750.

Map of Lithuanian heritage in New York City.


Click to learn more about Lithuania: New York, USA Leave a comment
Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.