In eastern Europe, the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution was chaos and population displacement on a previously unknown scale. Imperial Russia unravelled around the edges and new states struggled to assert their independence and pull away. In the former Russian gubernias of Kovno, Vilna and Grodno, moves were afoot to recreate Lithuania.
However, the issue here, as elsewhere in Europe, was that there were competing and mutually incompatible claims to land. It was impossible to satisfy all claims, as the population was not neatly parcelled up into ethnically or nationally homogeneous units. Most regions had diverse populations. In the city today called Vilnius, for example, Poles and Jews formed the majority and in its hinterland many of the pre-War landowners were minor Polish gentry or szlachta; yet the peasantry was Lithuanian. Force decided the issue and treaties ratified it. It was the new Polish state which emerged victorious, securing a Polish Wilno, just as it successfully secured Lwów as a Polish island in a largely Ukrainian sea.
At the start of 1918, as many as one in six Lithuanians were refugees within Russia. An estimated 550,000 were scattered across European Russia, from Minsk and St Petersburg to distant Voronezh and Yekaterinoslav. It took until 1924 to bring home all those who wanted to return and who Moscow and Kaunas would between them allow. Maybe as many as one third of Lithuanian refugees remained abroad and settled, willingly or otherwise, in Soviet Russia or Poland.
From 1921, the return of refugees was closely supervised by the authorities. Refugees were registered and issued with travel permits in Moscow. From Moscow they travelled by train to Rēzekne, Daugavpils and Kalkūni in Latvia, and thence across the Lithuanian border to Obeliai. At Obeliai – the only recognised point of entry into the country, although not the only one in practice – refugees were vetted, re-registered and issued with passes, usually to their place of birth or pre-War residence.
Those who were regarded as suspect were sent back to Moscow. And those refugees who wished to return to their pre-War homes in what had become Polish territory were often stuck in limbo for months on end in the Obeliai transfer camp, with its ever-present risk of humanitarian crisis – typhus, cholera and hunger.
Not all those coming to Lithuania were refugees. So-called optants – Lithuanian colonists long settled in Russia – paid their own way to reach the newly independent country. And from 1918 to 1921, the nascent Lithuanian state, in need of qualified administrative and technical experts, welcomed back not just its Lithuanian but also its Jewish middle classes. In fact, the immigration policy was so liberal before the change of government in 1922 that Jewish doctors, engineers and so on from elsewhere in Russia headed to Lithuania for the opportunities it presented.
For many researching their family history in Lithuania, the period 1915 to 1924 looms like something of a black hole. For a start, the family may not appear in the expected parish registers (assuming, that is, that such records were created and have survived). Over half a million spent several years effectively in exile in Russia and, of course, of these, some married, some had children and some died there. At Obeliai, too, refugees gave birth or died and, doubtless, in some cases married. The Lithuanian state did not recognise Soviet civil registry marriages so, in order to return with spouse and children, natives of Lithuania would have to remarry in a Roman Catholic or Orthodox ceremony: this can result in what appear to be illegitimate children born between the respective dates of the secular and the religious marriage.
The Google Map shows the railway route from Moscow’s Vindavsky Station to the transfer camp at Obeliai.