The Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth are still home to a Muslim Tatar community today. From the early 16th to late 18th centuries, their presence was an exception in European countries dominated by Western Christendom. Many Tatars served with distinction in the Polish-Lithuanian armed forces, especially as excellent cavalrymen. Most of them gradually became assimilated into the nations of the Commonwealth. In the early modern period, Tatar communities could be found from Vilnius to the Great Steppe in Ukraine, where many lived as nomads wandering around the plains.
Tatars first settled in Lithuania proper around Trakai, Vilnius and Kaunas at the end of 14th century. They were invited there by Grand Duke Vytautas the Great (1401-1430). In consequence, among the Jews and Christians of all denominations, there were many Tartars living in Trakai. Vytautas embraced this diversity. “The Tartars,” stressed Guillebert de Lannoy, a Flemish traveler and dyplomat who visited the town at the beginning of 15th century, “are genuine Saracens, having no knowledge of the teachings of Jesus Christ”. Lannoy was shocked when he found Vytatuas dining together with the “Saracen infidels,” with meat being served on Fridays.
Up until today the Tatars of the Eastern Lands live mainly in the former territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This includes the western parts of the Republic of Lithuania, western Belarus, and north-eastern Poland. They were called ‘Lipkas’ after the Tatar name for Lithuania. Charming small wooden mosques, similar to Orthodox and Catholic churches, constitute the main material legacy of their culture.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Lipka Tatars, much like their countrymen of other religions from the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, also migrated to the US. In 1907 they established the Lithuanian Tatar Society, which was later known as the American Mohammedan Society. This was the first Muslim organization in the US. A few years later the group started to rent a former Protestant church in Brooklyn, New York City. In 1919 the journal Moslem World referred to the building as the location of “the only real mosque” in the US. In 1931 the society purchased the property and transformed the building formally into the Powers Street Mosque. It is the oldest surviving mosque in the United States. Born in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where mosques had been built using wood for centuries, the Lipka Tatars simply added wooden panels and a traditional minaret on the roof. In 1937 Time described the building as follows: “the clean, shiny mosque looks like a Polish church, decorated in pink, yellow and blue, the Moslem star & crescent festooned with painted roses and daisies. This is natural since its swart, thick-accented Imam, Sam Rafilowich, son of an Imam in a Polish village, is a Polish Tartar, who arrived in the U.S. 29 years ago. Most of his habitual worshippers are also Tartars, descendants of Tamerlane’s hordes who entered Russia 600 years ago”.
Charles Bronson, born Charles Dennis Buchinsky (1921–2003), was an American actor who was often played police officers, gunfighters, or vigilantes in revenge-oriented plot lines. He was the most prominent American of partial Lipka Tatar background. Bronson was born in the coal region of the Alleghany Mountains in Pennsylvania into a family of Polish-Lithuanian descent. His father came to the US from Druskininkai, a historical spa resort located in the region of Dzūkija in southern Lithuania. Bronson did not speak any English at home during his childhood. He recalled that even when he was in the army, his accent was still very strong. When Bronson was ten years old, his father died and he went to work in the coal mines. His family suffered extreme poverty during the Great Depression, including famine and diseases. Bronson worked in the mine until he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1943. He served as a Boeing B-29 Superfortress aerial gunner and conducted combat missions over Japan. He flew 25 missions and received a Purple Heart for wounds received during his military service. After the Second World War, Bronson started his acting career. Because of his ‘Tatar’ appearance he often played Native Americans or Mexicans, but he also portrayed people of Polish origin. For instance, he played Flight Lieutenant Danny ‘Tunnel King’ Welinski in The Great Escape, a legendary American war film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. Bronson also played the role of Joseph Yablonski or ‘Jock’ in the 1986 film Act of Vengeance. Yablonski grew up in similar circumstances to Bronson. Jock was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1910 into a very poor family of Polish immigrants. After attending public schools, Yablonski began working in the mines as a boy with his father. After his father was killed in a mine explosion, Yablonski became active in the United Mine Workers union. He became the leader of the UMW in the 1950s and 1960s and was known for his fight for better working conditions for miners. He was fatally shot at home by three gunmen, who were hired by a rival in the UMW. At the height of his fame in the early 1970s, Bronson was the world’s No. 1 box office attraction. He has never forgotten about his Tatar roots. Bronson named one of his daughters Zuleika, a traditional Tatar name.