Sunday, 28 December 2014

In Memory of My Estonian Grandmother

2014 commemorated several historic events. It marked 100 years since the outbreak of World War I which precipitated the Estonian War of Independence.  My grandmother Hertha would also have turned 100 this year on 22nd February if she were still alive. Sadly she passed away in 1989 at the age of 75.

My grandmother Hertha often used to say she should write a book about her life because she had had such a colourful and eventful one. She was born in Tartu, moved to Germany with her Baltic German husband at the start of World War II and then eventually settled in Australia. For a ten year period from 1939 until 1949 her life was in a state of limbo as a result of war, occupation, being displaced and living in fear that she may be repatriated to her Soviet occupied homeland.  Even after she relocated to Australia she maintained a deep fear and loathing for the Russians and she always referred to them as that - never as 'Soviets', 'Red Army' or 'communists' etc. In her opinion the Russians were far worse than the Nazis and the massacres of civilians in Nemmersdorf and Metgethen perpetrated by the Red Army is proof that they were at least as evil. Unfortunately my grandmother never got around to putting pen to paper, not even in diary form, so many of those life experiences stayed private and simply went with her to the grave.

My favourite photograph of my grandmother.
She was born Hertha Lindser in Tartu on the 22nd of February 1914. 
Three people dear to me share my grandmother's birthday.

My grandmother never told us the full story of her life. No doubt there were turbulent times, painful memories and things she simply wanted to forget. For the past twenty years I have been trying to put the pieces of her life together and its only been through my persistent research that I have finally managed to fill in many of the gaps.

My grandmother Hertha left Estonia with her Baltic German husband Helmuth Pralitz and his cousin Armin Kraemann during the first wave of the Baltic German Resettlement Program. Unfortunately Armin (pictured here with my grandmother) did not survive the war. He died in Hamburg in April 1945.

For several years during WWII my grandmother lived in central Poland in the city of Łódź.

Zoo Camp Hamburg

My grandmother's marriage to Helmuth did not end well and in 1944 they parted ways. It was during this time that the Red Army were advancing in Germany which forced my grandmother and thousands of others to flee to the West. After the war my grandmother and uncle Kuno sought refuge in the displaced persons camp in Hamburg known as 'Zoo Camp'. It was here that my grandmother met my grandfather Alexander.

SS Dundalk Bay

My grandparents sailed separately to Australia. My grandmother and her young son Kuno sailed to Australia on board SS Dundalk Bay which departed from Italy. They arrived in Australia on the 10th of April 1949. After arriving in their new adopted country they were sent to a processing centre and then stayed at the Uranqunity Migrant Centre in New South Wales. My grandfather had already been living at Uranquinty for several months prior to her arrival.

My grandparents in Australia with my father, uncle and great-grandmother.

My grandparents married in Wagga Wagga in 1949. They spent several years living in Queensland before moving to the Sydney beachside suburb of Manly. They had two sons.

It was never my grandmother's intention to permanently settle in Australia, she had dreams of living in America but unfortunately her immigration application was rejected  Even in the 1960s she still hoped to move to the USA but by that time my grandfather was settled in Australia, he liked it there and didn't want to start over again. Manly is an absolutely beautiful part of Australia, the perfect place to raise a family. My family still live there today.

In 1989 my grandmother passed away while living in Manly. It was a direct result of her smoking, a dreadful habit she had developed later in life. I wish she had lived longer but unfortunately that was something out of my control. I was only thirteen years old at the time. I would love to have heard more about her stories and life experiences to gain a better understanding of the woman she was.

Sadly, this generation of Estonians are slowly leaving us. Everyone who left Estonia due to the war and occupation are now in their senior years, many of them aged in their nineties. It is important for us to record and preserve their stories as they are the ones who remember Estonia during its first period of independence, before everything changed.  Everyone I have spoken to who lived in Estonia during the 1930s all have glowing praise of how wonderful life used to be there before the Soviet invasion and occupation. Earlier this year I was in contact with a distant relative who now lives in Brazil.  She recounted her father's words to me of his life in Estonia before he was forced to flee. He said, - 'no matter rich or poor, everyone was happy in Estonia - it was a wonderful place to live'.  And from all the photographs I have seen, I have to agree!