by James McGeever, KAUNAS
Think of great names in the history of sport and science, film and fashion, and Lithuania isn’t the first country that springs to mind. But did you know that Manchester United Football Club, the fashion scene of swinging ‘60’s London, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and even the Beatles all share Lithuanian claims to fame.
As we know, Lithuania was once a mighty kingdom stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea – a fact often overlooked today. In the post-Soviet period, it was common for Lithuania to lose its separate identity altogether and be lumped in with Estonia and Latvia as the ‘Baltic states’ – often accompanied by patronising terms too, such as ‘tiny’, ‘plucky’, or ‘former Soviet state’.
One way to help Lithuania restore its image as a country with a rich vein of illustrious, dynamic, inventive, daring and tenacious people is to recognise just how much of an impact its people have had on the wider world. And this goes far beyond the usual suspects of basketball, ancient battles and cold pink beetroot soup.
The impact of Lithuanians on the world – especially during the industrialisation of many parts of the globe in the last century – can be traced to migration, caused by poverty, political or religious persecution, or war.
The first major wave of emigration in Lithuanian history occurred over a 50-year period of Russian rule, between 1865 and 1915. During this time, there were imposed restrictions on the use of the Lithuanian language, enforced call-ups to the Russian army for young men lasting as long as 12 years, indiscriminate persecution, and loss of land and property to Russian nobility. Up to 30% of the population fled Lithuania during this period, emigration providing opportunities to avoid drafts, persecutions and to earn money.
However, while Lithuania has always cherished those who remained in the country, the same cannot be said for the migrants who left to make a better life abroad. These Lithuanians and Litvaks are largely forgotten by their mother country.
For example, Danielius Dolskis (1891) and Al Jolson (1886), born within five years of each other and both popular inter-war singers. Dolskis was born in Vilnius and Jolson just outside Kaunas. Dolskis achieved local fame as a singer with an orchestra and had two successful years, mainly in Kaunas, before his early death in 1931. With much celebration, song and dancing, a statue was erected in Kaunas in 2007 outside the restaurant where he used to sing on the main pedestrian street in the city. Jolson left Lithuania at an early age and made his mark in America. His fame lasted over 30 years and his legacy is spread throughout his appearances on stage, radio, and in many Hollywood films. However, in Lithuania, he is remembered only by a memorial stone, erected in a unconnected village in the north-west of Lithuania in 2014, and two years later, a solemn-looking traditional wooden post in his home village.
And yet, those who left made a tremendous impact globally, and without them, there may never have been the Beatles or Bob Dylan. What Lithuania needs to fully celebrate these history-makers is a museum of migration.
Sceptical? Well, here are a few examples of history-makers who are Lithuanian, or were connected by birth a generation or so back.
At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Lithuanians migrated to Scotland to avoid conscription into the Russian army and to look for work. Scotland was also a cheaper journey to make and one that was considered as a stopping point in their quest to reach America. Although few spoke English (or Scots), there were opportunities for work in the mines and the steelyards. In finding a new life here, many men took on simplified versions of their surnames in order to fit in, or were given names that were easier to write.
Anglicised versions of Lithuanian names included Malin for Malinauskas and Clements for Klemaitis. Common local surnames either given to, or taken by locals were names such as Miller, Smith, Taylor, or colours (Green, Blue, White) or else names based on the first letter of their Lithuanian surname – Gee, Dee or Jay, for example. In one Scottish parish, ‘ski’ was added to the given anglicised names (Mitchelski, Brownski) in order to differentiate them from the locals.
In time, this influx of immigrants provided two key people at two major British football clubs, who were an essential part of their success between the 1950s and ‘70s: Celtic FC was the first Scottish (and British) team to win the European Cup, and Manchester United FC the first English team to win it.
Billy McNeil played for Celtic FC from 1957 until 1975, through what is considered to be their golden era, and later managed the club. In 1967 he even captained Celtic to European Cup triumph (equivalent to winning the Champions League today) and remains the Celtic player to have received the most international caps (for Scotland). His Lithuanian connection comes through his grandparents, who boarded an immigrant ship bound for New York, but actually docked in Leith, Scotland, where they stayed.
Manchester United FC’s most successful manager before Sir Alex Ferguson was Sir Matt Busby. His father was Lithuanian, arriving in Scotland to work in the coal mines. Busby is part of the Manchester United DNA, building several great teams in the 1950s and the 1960s. Indeed, the club’s finest moment came under his leadership in 1968, when the team won the European Cup, with Busby becoming the first manager of an English team to do so.
In the field of athletics, Harold Abrahams (whose father was Lithuanian) won the gold medal for Britain for the 100 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics. This feat was the basis for the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. Abrahams’s brother Alphonse has a claim to fame in sport too, being considered the founder of British sport medicine.
Stage and Screen
Lithuanians made a huge impact on Hollywood right from its inception. Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in 1886 in the small Lithuanian town of Seredžius. He is considered to have spoken the first synchronised dialogue on screen in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer with the words ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ At his peak in the 1930s he was America’s highest-paid performer and considered the biggest star in the world – with success on radio, stage and in the movies.
Fast forward to the 1960s – although often thought to be quintessentially British, the actor Laurence Harvey was born in 1928 as Laruschka Mischa Skikne near to Joniškis. He is best remembered for starring alongside Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate and opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, as well as his Oscar nominated role in 1959’s Room at the Top. Sadly, he died in 1973 at the young age of 45.
Hard to imagine, but the voice of Mr Potato Head from the Pixar Studios’ Toy Story films (1995–2019) belonged to a real person. He was Don Rickles, whose father emigrated from Kaunas to America in the early 1900s. Rickles made his name in the 1960s and ’70s, mostly as a comic actor in TV shows. He was also well-known as an auxiliary member of the ‘Rat Pack’ – an informal group famous in the 1960’s for carousing and quaffing together, and which included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
The Lithuanian influence continues right up to today with the Oscar-winning American film director Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump, The Polar Express, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future), whose father was Lithuanian-American and who kept his family name – unlike many who changed theirs to better fit in.
The British film industry, too, would have missed some of its biggest stars. Take Michael Balcon (the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants), who was an English film producer who led Ealing Studios from 1938 to 1955, before moving to Hollywood. He was also the grandfather of Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
And there’s also the film The Great Escape (1963), based on the true story of the exploits of a daring troupe of POWs held captive by the Germans in Stalag Luft III in 1943 who included the Lithuanian pilot Romualdas Marcinkus. At the time he was a Pilot Officer and Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, and had taken part in the Battle of Britain. Captured by the Germans, it was thanks to his command of German, Polish, English and French that he became one of the leading escape organisers. Although he played another character in the film, the actor Charles Bronson (born 1921 – his original family name was Bučinskis) also adds to the Lithuanian Hollywood connection.
And Superman, although considered to be from Krypton, can actually claim to hail from Kaunas. This is because although Jerry Seigel – the co-creator of the Superman character – was born in the US, both his parents were Lithuanian Jews who migrated from Kaunas to New York in 1900.
From the 1960s onwards, many British high streets had either a Burton or a Cecil Gee menswear store. Sir Montague Maurice Burton was born Meshe Osinsky in Kurkliai, Lithuania in 1885; he went to Britain in 1900, setting up a tailoring business in Chesterfield in 1903 and quickly establishing a network of stores up and down the country. During World War I, Burton provided uniforms for a quarter of the British armed forces. By 1952, the company was the largest multiple-outlet tailor’s in the world.
Cecil Gee, born Sasha Goldstein in Lithuania in 1903, opened his first shop in 1929 in London’s East End. He revolutionised retail clothing stores, being the first to display clothes on rails rather than on shelves and the first to sell shirts with attached collars and fastenings. Gee brought some Hollywood glamour to his designs, introducing the flamboyant American Zoot suits to Britain in the 1940s, and Italian mod-ish box jackets and knitwear in the late 1950s and ’60s.
Arts and Science
Jonas Mekas (born in Semeniškiai, Lithuania in 1922) left Lithuania in 1944 and arrived in New York in 1949 where he remained until he died at the age of 96. As an influential avant-garde filmmaker and film archivist, he worked with some of the defining figures of the avant-garde movement, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Patti Smith and Sonic Youth.
Mekas had a particularly close early relationship with Yoko Ono and provided the sponsorship for her to get her green card to stay in the US in the early 1960s. It was also Mekas who taught President Kennedy’s children photography.
Another link to Lennon and Ono was Jurgis (George) Mačiūnas, who was born in Kaunas in 1931, and who also fled Lithuania in 1944, arriving in the US in 1948. Mačiūnas established the subversive art movement Fluxus. Considered subversive because it overturned all the rules and conditions associated with the art world in the ’60s and ’70s, it refused to be categorised and it encouraged art for everybody by everybody. Art was considered not just as an end product, but instead as a process or a gesture; anything visual or audio. Its members included an eclectic mix of artists, performers and musical composers who challenged the viewers conception and commercialisation of art.
John Lennon was a close friend and a supporter of the movement and would support exhibitions of the artists. Other artists and collaborators included George Brecht, Christo, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and Robert Filliou.
Bands don’t get any bigger than the Beatles, and their manager Brian Epstein, whose paternal grandfather was Lithuanian, discovered the Fab Four in the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961. Within a few months he became their manager and transformed their image from leather-jacketed ‘teddy boys’ to one of sharp suits and uniform haircuts. However, with his premature death at the age of 32 in 1967, it wasn’t long before the Beatles started to fall apart as a group.
Other notable musicians include Leonard Cohen (Lithuanian-born mother), Bob Dylan (both Lithuanian maternal grandparents), Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Lithuanian paternal grandfather), Pink (whose mother is Lithuanian) and Brandon Flowers, the lead singer from the Killers (through his grandparents).
Finally, from the field of science, Herman Minkowski was born in 1864 in Aleksotas, Kaunas and was Albert Einstein’s mathematics professor in Zürich during the early 1900s. It was during this time that Einstein developed his relativity theory, presenting it in 1905 to very little interest. It was not until a few years later, when Minkowski gave a lecture in Cologne, taking Einstein’s theory and this time more clearly explaining the theory using his own terms of geometry that the world sat up and took notice. It was just a year after Minkowski’s lecture that the University of Geneva awarded Einstein his first honorary doctorate, and a year later that Einstein was first proposed for the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Ireland now has its own migration museum/centre, established in Dublin in 2016. Since records began in the 18th century, some ten million Irish are estimated to have migrated from Ireland. The largest single movement of migration took place during the period of poverty and starvation caused by the potato famine of the late 1840’s, with between 800,000 and one million leaving with many going to Britain or America.
With a similar geographical size and historically a similar economy to Lithuania, Ireland has made a whole industry out of promoting and even encouraging connections between the motherland and all those who migrated from it. The aim of this permanent place of pilgrimage is to honour the Irish diaspora, as well as to recognise the vital contributions that Irish people have made worldwide. This centre took Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction award in 2019, beating such attractions as Buckingham Palace, Rome’s Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower to claim victory.
A Lithuanian migration centre might well out-do the Irish in terms of recognising the vital contributions Lithuanian emigres have made worldwide. But to do so would mean a culture shift, accepting, embracing and fully appreciating the lives of those who left or fled throughout the last century. It would also mean putting migrants on the same level of recognition as those who stayed.
It’s time to open up the eyes of the world to see just what a difference Lithuanians have made to the development of popular culture.
James McGeever has lived for 15 of the last 21 years in Kaunas, Lithuania. He writes, proofreads, teaches and works on sustainability stuff. Some of his irrelevant irregular records of travel observations, conversations and confrontations can be seen on his curtainsinkaunas blog.
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