Submitted to United Nations - International Dialogue on Migration on HUG (this is the full text, only an excerpt could be submitted due to 2000 character limit)
I am making this submission in Honor of My Grandmother, who emigrated to the US in 1949, landing in Boston.
Who, or what, must be left behind in a crisis? Sometimes choices are no choice at all...my heart cries for displaced peoples around the world - they are in immediate crisis, and can suffer their losses for a lifetime - we must care now, and forever...
This is the story of my grandmother's escape from Estonia with my grandfather and father in 1944, a story which has been passed from generation to generation. (Kept anonymous for now)
From Voru to Riga by Horse and Carriage Aug-Oct 1944
By ***** ****; Translated and Edited by ***** ***, Sept 2001
Country life was a wonderful life in Estonia. There were lots of activities - sports, community theater, dances, somebody was always getting together a volleyball game or there was always a play to rehearse for. We were very active. My father was a schoolteacher and I wanted to become a schoolteacher too. However, I got married and moved to my husband's farm at Vana Antsla without finishing the Pedagogical Institute in Tallinn.
My two sons, ***** and Jaak, were born on that farm. We lived there only three and a half years before the war began.
The first thing that happened was that the Russians confiscated everybody's horses. Then the horrid deportations in the night of June 14, 1941. My husband heard that something had happened and he went down to the train station. So many of his friends had been rounded up that he feared we would be targeted too. We hid in the woods for several weeks until the Germans came in.
Of course the Germans looted what the Russians hadn't taken. They set very high norms for what they expected from our farms but we were able to hide enough food from them to stay alive. For example, everyone was raising pigs in secret and building secret hiding places for grain. That's how we lived until 1944.
We could see the Russians advance in 1944. From a higher hill that opened up to a view toward Haanja we could see the bombing and shelling. We started to pack our bags. Soon we saw soldiers running around on our very own fields. We didn't know whose soldiers they were, but we knew it was time to leave.
We had a wonderful horse. A few weeks earlier we had exchanged our reaper for this mare who was to save our lives. We had a sense that we wouldn't be taking in a harvest that summer, but we would need a horse if we needed to leave our farm. We
loaded the wagon and set off as the nearest town, Antsla, was already burning and the roads were filled with tanks. We knew we wouldn't be able to use the main road so we cut through the woods and set a westward course. Our destination was Pikk Sild (Long Bridge) where we knew we could cross the small Emajogi.
All the roads were indeed filled with Russians, but we were fortunate in being able to cross the river at Pikk Sild, and naturally hoped the day would come when we could return home. We spent that night at a farm. The day we set out was the 13th of August. After that I didn't remember much because we were so filled with fear. We really didn't think about anything but pressing on.
The next night we spent at Kaaral Veski. Jaak, who was six months old, became very sick but there was nothing we could do for him - we had to keep moving. The next night, at Helme, Jaak died. The farm where we spent that night, Puuritsa Talu, had enormous heaps of lumber and we were able to get some to build him a coffin. However, I had to pay for the lumber with a pair of silk stockings I had taken along. We set off with the dead child in the coffin to Tarvastu where we were told we could find a preacher to bury him.
We found the preacher, his name was Laas. We didn't have room for him in our wagon, as was the custom to provide transportation for the preacher, so he went on foot to the cemetery along a path through the meadow. Word had gotten around that a refugee family was passing through and their infant had died. We were surprised by the great number of local people who turned out with many different varieties of field flowers.
My husband fashioned a little cross out of birchwood, and that's how we buried our Jaak in a corner of the cemetery in Tarvastu. I remembered all the trees around his grave vividly, however 50 years later when I went back all the trees had grown bigger and I couldn't locate his grave.
The people who had a farm right by the cemetery offered to put us up for the night and the next day we continued on, even though we didn't know where the front was, but we decided we'd go as far as we could.
We knew we had to be careful because the Germans could have taken my husband into the army. They had lookouts on the main roads for young men, so we stayed on back roads.
We were in Karksi for a few days and then the fighting caught up with us. We could hear the battles, especially this special weapon they called Stalin's organ, that just let off a whole string of shots, just like playing an organ.
While we were at Karksi we met an Estonian general and his wife. They gave our son a very pretty little doll. ***** was just two years old and he didn't have any of his own toys along. He called this doll Juta and it went along with us all the time we were fleeing. The general's wife buried all her fine china and silver in a hole especially dug on the banks of the river. We of course didn't have any valuables along so that wasn't a problem for us. In fact, we hadn't really taken anything along except a few loaves of bread and some sugar. We had taken out my documents to take along because they were important, but we left in such a hurry that we didn't take any documents or photos along.
It's strange how your mind goes blank when you are in danger- as I said, the soldiers were already running around on our fields. All you can do is grab the children, harness the horse, and go off across the field away from the fighting, remembering only to keep off the main roads. We saw airplanes overhead but fortunately they didn't shoot at us.
The general and his wife decided to hide in the woods and wait for the front to cross over them. We however decided that come what may, we would continue south toward Latvia and hope for the best. That's where the German army was going. The Russians had already cut off the main roads, so we took back roads and places where there were no roads at all. We really didn't know where to go.
We went through Halliste as it was burning and it all reminded me of "Gone with the Wind '. We weren't sure the horse would brave the fire but we only knew that we had to keep going. Every village we went through was deserted. We could see the sky lit up from Parnu burning in the distance.
We thought we'd follow the shoreline south, and constantly we met refugees coming toward us, going north. The talk was that English ships were expected in Tallinn and perhaps we should also go toward Tallinn, but the Germans were sure that the English weren't expected in Tallinn, that it had long since been taken by the Russians. The Germans advised us to go south toward Latvia, and that if our horse could get us to Riga we would be able to catch a ship to Germany.
Everywhere cities were burning - Parnu, Moisakula, Valga. We had to circle around a lot to avoid the Russians. At Misakala they were pretty near and the roads were in particularly bad shape. The Valmeti railroad station was burning.
Once we got to Latvia we had to circumvent a lot of places that the Russians already held. We found some Estonian legionnaires and joined up with them. It was very dark at night and hard to see, but we had to travel at night in order not to be detected. We went through the woods and through long stretches of rutted gravel - mostly there weren't even any roads. At times the Germans even disappeared from our sight and we kept going on on our own.
There was an instance when the Volosssovi men, White Russians who had joined the German army, tried to steal horses from the refugees. Their own horses and wagons were in poor condition and they were desperate. They eyed our horse too but saw that her shoulder was already warn bloody by the harness. Our poor horse Eva was in such pain that she jumped when we approached her. We tried to protect her shoulder with padding as best we could but it got worse and worse. If they had wanted to take our horse they could have done so very easily as we had no means to protect ourselves.
The woods were full of women and children who had fallen victim to them. But we had to keep going.
The next day we reached a fairly large sized Latvian village and took cover there as Russian Eagles (airplanes) started to shoot at us. We found shelter beside an abandoned house, but another refugee wagon took a hit. The windows of the house we were beside got blown out.
The Germans decided to blow up an ammunition dump. The earth shook around us and glass from windows blew all over the place. The whole village had been abandoned and the explosions sounded eery as well as being scary.
They also had to blow up a bridge but allowed us to cross before they did so. A few hundred meters beyond the bridge we took refuge in a root cellar but the horse of course had to remain outside. She trembled from fear. My son ***** was very brave. We tried to make light of the explosions by saying it was a lot of 'pomm-pomm' and he was very good.
There were unexploded shells everywhere. We were told to keep a distance of 300 meters between the wagons. Everything around us was burning. Toward evening we came to a manorial estate that was burning and we had to stop between two burning buildings to let a troop of foot soldiers pass. Then we were allowed to let our horse trot behind them. We knew we very close to the front and it was really really terrifying.
Then we were told we had to cross a 70 kilometer ring of Russians, and we were to do it in the dark of night and very fast. Several Germans lost their lives because they ran into obstacles. ***** became afraid and began convulsing. We knew it was his nervous system reacting and I thought if we lose him too then I wouldn't want to go on living. But he recovered. Airplanes continued to bomb us from above. It began to rain and we were drenched to the skin. It was very cold and dark. Several times our wagon slipped into the ditch but we had to keep going.
About 30 or 40 kilometers into Latvia the German army stopped and set up a Battle station. There were great numbers of dead horses and dead German soldiers there. I will never forget the face of one of them who had died fervently in prayer - his body stiff in a kneeling position and his hands clasped together.
We had nothing to eat and really didn't have any time to eat, in fact, didn't have time to think about eating. Occasionally ***** jumped down from the wagon and pulled some hay from roadside fields to feed the horse. Much worse was not having water to drink. At this same battle site, with all the dead bodies, there was a small stream running through the field and we put our little cup in there to get something to drink.
We all drank from that stream, even *****, and thankfully there were no bad consequences. Naturally the Germans had no regard for us and considered us an unnecessary burden.
There was one incidence that was particularly painful. We came upon a large gravel pit, and my husband finally succumbed to the exhaustion of the trip and weeks without proper sleep. He pulled the horse to the edge of the gravel pit and yelled out that we had been saved.
Of course if he had actually gotten the horse and wagon over the edge of the gravel pit that would have been the end of us. Fortunately there were a few other refugees, large Latvian men who had also joined our caravan, who pulled him back, as well as the horse. ***** promptly fell fast asleep, which means I had to hold on to him, hold the child, and drive the horse.
About 25 kilometers before Riga we came to a fairly open place, but still fairly woodsy. The earth had been pretty badly damaged by tanks and there were broken tree stumps everywhere. We were told that we would stop there, that this was a good place to rest. I immediately grew suspicious because it just seemed like another opportunity for the soldiers to steal from the refugees. So I immediately asked for permission to continue on to Riga as I had a very sick husband and son with me and needed medical help. I said I needed to seek out the Red Cross in Riga. I was given permission to proceed.
Particularly ruthless at robbing were the Russian volunteers with the German Army. This pretext to feed the horse for 3 or 4 hours, in this desolate, sandy opening in the woods simply didn't sound right to me.
The main road to Riga, the Raalbahn, was being kept clear of all traffic. However, I had to go along that road to get to the German headquarters where I had to get special permission to proceed down the Raalbahn. Nobody was allowed to move about without permission from the Germans. There were nurses at this headquarters who saw how sick my husband and son were and gave us some medications which made them well enough to continue on. So we proceeded alone down the Raalbahn with our permission documents. It was pitch dark and there were Latvian guards guarding every bridge, but they had decided to get dead drunk and were preoccupied with that so they didn't pay much attention to our documents.
But I faced one more serious problem. The horse just couldn't go on. The last 16 kilometers to Riga went one painful step at a time. Somehow we did get to Riga some time after midnight. The whole city was in darkness. We had no idea what to do or where to go but fortunately there was one lone German soldier about who directed us to the infirmary. We were so spent they lifted the three of us physically out of the carriage and carried us into the infirmary. The horse was so tired she simply fell asleep next to a car. I was amazed that we had made it to Riga.
It was autumn. We had left home in the peak of summer, I wearing my light summer shoes and a light summer dress, though I thought to throw my winter coat into the carriage. Someone along the way had given me a pair of men's lace-up boots, and those held out well.
We finally got a good night's sleep in the infirmary in Riga. The next morning a Latvian couple happened to pass by and noticed our horse. They said it was a beautiful horse and if we sold it to them they would feed it and make it well again. I said they didn't have to buy it, that we would give it to them gladly if they would care for it. They took us to their home and made a lovely dinner for us. This man spoke German and offered to help us find a boat to get on. He found a small outbound cargo ship and helped us get our documents. It wasn't much of a ship, very small, very beat-up looking, but it was the last boat out of Riga so we took it.
Boarding was precarious. Women and children were allowed up the gangplank, but men weren't allowed to board. What was I to do. I spotted a German guard and told him that I was on board with my baby but the baby's father was on the dock with the baby's bottle. So the guard went off to look for *****. ***** made it up the gangplank, and seeing that, other men stormed the gangplank and it broke under the weight. There was mayhem as men fell into the water. I rushed my husband below and hid him under my winter coat until we were underway.
We hit a storm at sea, and it was so violent that everyone below got terribly seasick. I had ***** potty along and put it into the middle of the floor. Everyone wretched into it as no one wanted to go up above deck into the storm. There was one burly Latvian man who peridically took the potty up to empty it. We all cheered him. There was one good thing about the storm in that Russian planes wouldn't be flying so we felt safe.
We reached Koenigsberg. We had to unload all our baggage onto the dock. I don't remember specifically what our baggage consisted of- I think some blankets, a few loaves of bread, a sack of sugar - a cloth sack so it wouldn't break. ***** ate only sugar the whole time and my husband and I really didn't eat so we arrived in Koenigsburg with this bread and sugar.
We waited one day and one night before we caught a cattle train south. First we went to Kirchhaus and waited there that day. I recall that they gave us a bowl of soup at an outdoor kitchen. And then, in the dark of night so the Russians wouldn't see it, the train came that took us to Gotenhavn. The Russians came in from the north as we left toward the south. We sat on hard wooden floors as the train rattled so terribly I thought it would leave the tracks. We spent the next night in Gotenhavn. It was Oct. 5th. We slept on wooden floors. Bedbugs wanted to eat my son alive and I was up all night fighting them off.
From Gotenhavn we joined an echelon - a long train packed with refugees that went west for 3 days. We mostly rode on sidetracks because army trains had priority on the main tracks. We were taken to a labor camp at Kesterbach near Frankfort. We had gotten as far west as we could.