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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Lithuania, Germany, Poland
Kursenieki language
Related ethnic groups
Latvians, Prussian Lithuanians, Lithuanians

The Kursenieki (Latvian: kursenieki, kāpenieki, German: Kuren – 'Curonians'; Lithuanian: kuršiai; Polish: Kuronowie pruscy – 'Prussian Curonians') are a nearly extinct Baltic ethnic group living along the Curonian Spit. "Kuršiai" refers only to inhabitants of Lithuania and former East Prussia that speak a southwestern dialect of Latvian. Some autochthonous inhabitants of Šventoji in Lithuania call themselves "kuršiai" as well.[1]


Kursenieki are often confused with the extinct Curonian Baltic tribe, as neighbouring ethnic groups called Kuršininkai/Kursenieki as Curonians: in German, Latvian and Lithuanian, Kursenieki and the Curonian tribes are known by the same terms (Kuren, kurši and kuršiai respectively). In scientific Lithuanian literature, the name kuršininkai is used to distinguish them from the Curonian tribe. Similarly in Latvian kursenieki is used mostly exclusively by scientists to distinguish them from the Curonian tribe. On the other hand, Kursenieki should not be confused with Kurzemnieki, which are the geographical group of Latvians from Courland. Kursenieki are often considered descendants of the extinct Curonian tribe.[citation needed]

The Kursenieki have never designated themselves as Latvians and called their own language "Curonian language" (kursisk valoud). From a linguistic point of view, it is a southwestern dialect of Latvian,[citation needed] while some linguists also consider it a sociolect as Kursenieki were predominantly fishermen. In German and Latvian writings of the 19th century, Kursenieki sometimes are called "Prussian Latvians" (German: Preussische Letten; Latvian: Prūsijas latvieši).[citation needed] Kursenieki were loyal to Germany and identified themselves as German citizens and ethnic Kursenieki.[citation needed]


The language spoken by the Kursenieki is called Kursenieki language. It is distinct from Curonian language (or Old Curonian) spoken by the Curonian people.


Curonian-populated area in 1649


The exact origin of the Kursenieki is unclear. One version says that they are indigenous descendants of the Curonian tribe that lived there since antiquity, at least along the Curonian Spit.[2] During the conquest of the Old Prussians and Curonians by the Teutonic Knights, the area became nearly uninhabited. In the process of various migrations of the 14th–17th centuries,[3][4][5] Curonians from Courland settled near Memel, along the Curonian Spit, and in Sambia (all regions in East Prussia). They preserved the old self-designation of Curonians (kurši), while Curonians who stayed in Courland fused into Latvians. Over time the Kursenieki were assimilated by Germans, except along the Curonian Spit where some still live. Until the Soviet Army's takeover in 1945, several places in Sambia were named after Kursenieki, including Cranzkuhren, Neukuhren, Gross Kuhren, and Klein Kuhren. In 1649, Kursenieki lived from Memel to Danzig. At the end of the 19th century the total number of Kursenieki was around 4,000 persons.


Kursenieki were considered Latvians after World War I when Latvia gained independence from the Russian Empire.[citation needed] This consideration was based on linguistic arguments and was the rationale for Latvian claims over the Curonian Spit, Memel, and some other territories of East Prussia. Later these claims were removed. In 1923, the newly created Memel Territory separated the Curonian Spit in two parts. This separation interrupted contacts between Kursenieki. In 1933, Latvia tried to establish a cultural center for Kursenieki of the Curonian Spit where the majority of them lived, but that was opposed by Lithuania, of which Memel Territory was a part of.

After World War II[edit]

Near the end of World War II, the majority of Kursenieki fled from the Red Army during the evacuation of East Prussia. Kursenieki that remained behind were subsequently expelled by the Soviet Union after the war and replaced with Russians and Lithuanians.

Some Kursenieki managed to return to their homes after the war, but only 219 lived along the Curonian Spit in 1955. Many had German names such as Fritz or Hans, a cause for anti-German discrimination. Russian residents called the Kursenieki "fascists", while Lithuanians called them kuršiai. Neither Lithuania nor Russia have allowed the return to Kursenieki of property confiscated after World War II.


Curonians are one of the Baltic tribes. Their culture, religion and architecture are similar to those found in Germany and Sweden. Curonians are related with Lithuanians and Latvians. The Kursenieki were predominantly Lutheran,[citation needed] like most former inhabitants of East Prussia, although some ancient pagan customs were preserved. Most Kursenieki were bilingual or even trilingual: the Curonian language was used within the family and while fishing, German was used in everyday communication, and the language of church services was German and Lithuanian. The Kursenieki were primarily fishermen. Some elements of cuisine are named after Kursenieki, for example, Curonian coffee (Kurenkaffee); a drink made of vodka flavoured with coffee, honey and other ingredients was popular throughout East Prussia.

The first scholar who took an interest in Kursenieki culture and language was Paul Kwauka, a member of the separatist movement of Memel Territory. His book "Kurisches Wörterbuch" is a highly valuable source of information. The work of describing their heritage is continued by one of the last remaining Kursenieki, Richard Pietsch.[6]


The surnames of Kursenieki have various origins, including:

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Lietuvis sauc mumis kuršininkās. Mes esam ne latviai, o kuršininkai". (in Lithuanian) http://samogitia.mch.mii.lt/TAUTOSAKA/balcius.lt.htm, tr.: "Lithuanian calls us Curonians, we are not Latvians, we are Curonians".
  2. ^ Preserved Baltic, Scandinavian toponyms shows that people in Curonian Spit lived from generation to generation without interruption to 1944.
  3. ^ In the 15th century large scale emigration from Courland to Prussia has been documented.Bezzenberger A., Ueber die Sprache der Preussischen Letten, Goettingen, 1888.
  4. ^ In 1541 documents mention 162 fishermen originating from Ventspils, Kandava and other places of Courland. Forstreuter K., 1981, Das Volk des Kurisches Nehrung,– Wirkungen des Preussenlandes, Köln
  5. ^ 150 Curonians settled around Memel in 1630. 180 families arrived after 1655, some of them settled around Tilsit. A. Seraphim, Ueber Wanderungen lettischer Bauern aus Kurland nach Ostpreussen im 17. Jahrhundert, Altpreussische Monatsschrift, XXIX, 1892.
  6. ^ Kavaliauskaitė, G. (2000). "Nežinomas Paulius Kvauka". Mokslas Ir Gyvenimas (in Lithuanian). 3. Archived from the original on 27 September 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2006.

External links[edit]