Klaipėda and Cleveland

– Written by Ezra Ellenbogen

Klaipėda, Lithuania is a beautiful seaside town, located where the Curonian Lagoon empties into the Baltic Sea. The city is the most prominent point for international trade that goes through or into Lithuania, and is the only large sea port. The port can manage up to 40 million pounds of cargo annually.[1] The population of the Klaipėda is near 200,000.[2]Klaipėda’s history is interesting and intricate.

The 1250s were a memorable decade: the Seventh Crusade ended, Nichiren Buddhism got popular – good times. Also in the 1250s, Teutonic Knights established Klaipėda on an empty shore, calling it Memelburg.[3] The Teutonic Knights had been told to convert or destroy the local Pagan Baltic tribes, and chose modern day Klaipėda as a base. Originally, the area consisted of just a castle and a small town. In the 16th century, the local Teutonic Order secularized, and Memelburg became part of Prussia. It was then that the town started being called Klaipėda. Klaipėda was briefly Prussia’s capital during the Napoleonic wars, when the royal family retreated there. The 19th century brought thousands of new people to Klaipėda. In 1854, a devastating fire burned down two-thirds of the city, but it was rebuilt.

By around 1871, the first Lithuanians had immigrated to Cleveland. Early Lithuanian immigrants in the city concentrated around St. Clair and Oregon Avenue (which is now Rockwell Avenue).[4] The early Lithuanian community in Cleveland established the St. George’s Lithuanian Church, which became the center of activity for the predominantly Catholic community. Around that time, only around 1,000 Lithuanians lived in Cleveland.

Back home in Lithuania, the entire Klaipėda region had been absorbed into the Entente States from Germany. The region was ruled by the League of Nations until the Lithuanian supported Klaipėda Revolt of 1923. It was successful, and the League of Nations and the Entente states recognized the transfer of the Klaipėda region into Lithuania as an autonomous incorporation. At this time, Klaipėda was home to 45,000 people, 70% of whom were German.

By 1930, back in Cleveland, the Lithuanian population had grown to over 10,000 people. Cultural and religious centers, newspapers, and communities were being formed. A major reason for the spark in Lithuanian immigration to the US was the rise of political tensions at home.

The rise of Nazism in the 1930s spread into Klaipėda, but not without strong resistance. Germany sought to annex Klaipėda, despite being former allies. Lithuania was unable to gain major support to keep Klaipėda and gave in to the ultimatum, ceding it to Nazi Germany.

Nearing the end of World War II, Klaipėda was overrun by Soviet armies. At one point, the invading forces only found 20 inhabitants left, the rest having immigrated or died. The city was captured and incorporated into the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Through the 1940s and 1950s, primarily Russians and Lithuanians repopulated the city. Klaipėda’s population skyrocketed; even just by 1950 it had grown larger than pre-war years. The region of Klaipėda soon became a major economic driver for Lithuania.

Post-World War II in Cleveland, there was a major influx in Lithuanian immigrants. Approximately 4,000 Lithuanians arrived in Cleveland, among them was Antanas Smetona, a former president of the Lithuanian Republic. Institutions established by these new immigrants tended to be distinct from those established by the first wave; as they mostly sought to renew or recreate organizations that had been banned or had collapsed in Soviet Lithuania.

Numerous organizations organized Lithuanians in Cleveland around culture, politics, language, and more. For instance, the Lithuanian-American Council lobbied during and after the war to bring attention to the troubles of the Lithuanian state under Soviet rule. Local organizations were also quick to organize around teaching culture and language. In 1973, a new community center, Lithuanian Village, was built along E. 185th St, and community activity shifted towards there and eastern suburbs.

During the re-establishment of an independent Lithuanian state, Cleveland was recognized for the Lithuanian community’s significant role in lobbying for liberation. The leader of the new state, Vytautas Landsbergis, visited Cleveland multiple times seeking support from local groups. When the US recognized the new Lithuanian state, the new US ambassador to it, Darryl N. Johnson, made his first visit as ambassador to Cleveland.

In 1992, under Mayor Michael R. White, an official sister city relationship between Klaipėda and Cleveland was formed.[5] In the modern day, Lithuanian-Americans in Cleveland interact frequently with their home state, with the establishment of business ties and assistance.The population of Lithuanian-Americans in the city numbers around 16,000.

The relationship and its history has been critical to both sides. Cleveland gained huge cultural and economic boosts from waves of Lithuanian immigrants, and, in the modern day, the city has helped Klaipėda with medical services and facilities, seeking to help improve the conditions of their sister city. Under the Hope Medical Mission, Cleveland nurses and doctors, in an effort founded by Dr. Gerald Goldberg, have worked directly with Lithuanian medical offices and workers to make medical treatment more accessible and better quality.[6] Not only that, but the group has worked to directly treat local patients and improve the quality of equipment available

Altogether, Cleveland and Klaipėda have had a long history of working together. Cleveland helped serve as a large base for lobbying against Lithuanian oppression, and works today on spreading culture and improving medical facilities in Klaipėda. Klaipėda and Lithuanian Americans in Cleveland have contributed greatly to work, culture, and community formation in the city. Despite being thousands of miles apart, Klaipėda and Cleveland have managed to both be critical to each other’s history.

– By Ezra Ellenbogen

Ezra’s Blog – One Page Stories 

[1] http://www.cleveland-oh.gov/CityofCleveland/Home/Government/MayorsOffice/Office_of_Government_Affairs/SisterCities#klaipeda

[2] https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/lithuania-population

[3] http://www.truelithuania.com/history-of-klaipeda-memel-447

[4] https://case.edu/ech/articles/l/lithuanians

[5] https://case.edu/ech/articles/cleveland-sister-city-partnerships

[6] https://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/archives/rx-for-transforming-lives-of-lithuanians/article_c5fc93ae-0ef5-5149-a2a8-54a493d355fd.html