Friday, 16 November 2018

Azuria 8: The Path Back to Nõo

This year the Geelong Writers Inc. dedicated the eighth edition of the literary journal Azuria to the centenary of the three Baltic Republics. The book was launched at the 2018 Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies at Deakin University on 13th October 2018. Baltic writers from Australia and abroad contributed to the publication, myself included. My story The Path Back to Nõo can be found in the Memoirs section on page 21.

The Path Back to Nõo
Estonia experienced extraordinary change and upheaval during the 20th century. First there were the uprisings in the early 1900s inspired by the National Awakening followed by the elation of victory in 1920 after the Estonian War of Independence. A brief period of instability ensued as Estonia fumbled to find its feet a as nation and then came an idyllic time of growth and prosperity during the 1930s. Those who recall that period often remember it with great fondness. No matter if you were rich or poor, people were generally happy in Estonia during the 1930s. They worked hard, built houses, cultivated their land, life was good. That all came to an abrupt end in 1940 when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Estonia. The Soviet occupation tore apart the fabric of Estonian society, robbing the country of its statehood and destroying family units. Those who managed to flee at the end of the war later found themselves new homes scattered across the globe, but family units were never really the same again. There was always someone missing, someone had either fled, been deported or died. 

I think one of the most tragic things of all, apart from the Soviet war atrocities, was the destruction of the family unit. There are so many people like me, second or third-generation Estonians who experienced a disconnect with our ancestral homeland. We were cut off from our relatives in Estonia and sometimes didn’t even know who they were. I am very glad that my Estonian grandparents managed to survive the war and start a new life for themselves in Australia. But the truth is, they could have ended up anywhere. Australia was a great place to resettle, it’s a very fair, democratic and balanced society. If you are prepared to work hard, you can get far. I am very grateful that I was born and raised in Australia. I had a better quality of life than many of those who remained in Estonia. But for years I felt this disconnect, knowing my family was Estonian, yet feeling as if a big chunk of it were missing. It was not until Estonia restored its independence in 1991 and travel restrictions were removed that I was able to reconnect with my roots. Researching my family history was essential for me to understand where I came from. I gradually pieced it all together. It may have taken me twenty years but I have now reached a point of satisfaction. As a dual citizen I have a love for both my countries but when it comes to patriotism, Estonia will always be number one. 

Growing up in Australia it was perfectly normal to be surrounded by people of mixed or foreign origin. In high school, my close circle of friends included a Croatian, Czech, Italian, Iranian and two cousins whose fathers came from Jordan. Having this mix of friends evoked many interesting conversations as we were often eager to share ‘how we did things at home’ in regards of our customs and traditions. Even though I grew up with all these different nationalities around me, I was the only Estonian in my school and during my entire childhood I never encountered another Estonian outside of my family. Our paths simply never crossed. In my youth none of my friends knew a thing about Estonia, they had no idea where it was located on the map and some even admitted they had never even heard of the country. That’s just how under-the-radar Estonia was back then. It was a country rarely featured in the mainstream news, a country people never seemed to talk about, a country that was only in the minds and in the hearts of fellow Estonians and neighbouring nations.  

I have always felt proud of my Estonian heritage. From an early age my father attributed anything good that my siblings and I did to our Estonian origins. When we performed well at school, excelled in sport or even our good clear complexions etc, it was always due to our good Estonian genes!  He may have said this half in jest, but he said it often, and it made me feel proud to be an Estonian. I was pleased I belonged to a unique group of people who were a little bit different from everyone else. 

I must admit as a child, I had little knowledge of the hardship and perils the Estonian people faced during and after World War Two. I was never taught it. I knew my Estonian grandparents lived in Germany before they immigrated to Australia, but I had no idea about the displaced persons camps, the years of living in limbo or the fear or repatriation. That was something I gradually learnt over time once I commenced my family history research. As a child I had assumed that my grandparents simply moved to Australia for the reasons people typically do today. How wrong I was!  Since I started exploring my genealogy the information I uncovered amazed me again and again. How wonderful it is that such precious documents have been so well preserved in the Estonian archives so that people like me, who knew little about their ancestry, can now be enlightened by knowing all the facts. 

One of my favourite family photos.
Taken in Australia in 1955.

I used to love visiting my Estonian grandmother. She had a small business making dolls’ clothes and at the end of a visit she would always open her stock cupboard and give me a few pretty dressed to take home with me. Her sunroom was her work room and it was filled with beautiful fabrics, reels of ribbon and lace, and jars of buttons.  It was a sight to behold for a little girl like me! My grandmother was a little bit different from the other grandmothers I knew. Even though she was fluent in English she resolutely refused to speak anything but Estonian at home so most of the time I couldn’t understand a word she said. My father taught me only very basic Estonian – greetings, numbers, food items etc. so whenever my grandmother spoke, my father always translated. It was a funny situation but one that I remember fondly. 

Sadly, my grandmother passed away when I was only thirteen years old.  She had been in ill health for some time before a second stroke took her from us. My grandmother used to say she had experienced so much during her lifetime that she should have written a book but, unfortunately, she never did. My grandmother never kept a journal or wrote anything down, all my family ever knew about her past were scattered stories that she would share from time to time. It was about a year after her death that I began to question ‘Who are we? Where exactly are we from?’, surely there must be more of us, more relatives, but where? I had no idea. I asked my father and uncles and none of them seemed to know much. I couldn’t ask my Estonian grandfather as he had passed away when I was two but my uncle said that my grandfather used to correspond with somebody in Germany. Who was that? A friend? A relative? I wanted to know. 

I come from a very small family unit. Both my Estonian grandparents grew up as only children and met whilst living in the DP camp in Hamburg after the war. My grandfather Alexander was a student at the Baltic University. When the mass emigration programmes commenced in the DP camps, my grandmother applied to go to the United States of America but her application was rejected. My grandfather had plans to go to Brazil.  They both ended up moving to Australia. My grandfather was first, arriving in Melbourne on board the Protea on 23rd December 1948, my grandmother joined him four months later onboard the SS Dundalk Bay. In 1949 my paternal great-grandmother Margarethe also joined them in Australia. For years that was it. That was the only Estonian family I had ever known. However, we did have several old photo albums filled with people who were obviously family. It took me years to put names to those faces. 

The first major breakthrough I had with my family history research was when I contacted Fred Puss at the Estonian Biographical Centre in Tartu. For a reasonable fee he completed a report for me that provided essential information making my family tree look a lot fuller. Thanks to him I knew all the names, dates of birth and occupations of my grandparents’ relatives - their uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents. The report went back four or five generations. It was simply amazing! Any questions I had went into a second report and it was a such a joy when it arrived. I was flooded with emotion to learn all this incredible information. 

Nõo Parish.

One thing Fred included in the report was the name, address and contact telephone number of my closest living relative in Estonia. Liis was the daughter of my grandfather’s cousin Ralf and had lived in the same house in Graniidi Street in Tallinn all her life. I wrote to her and she promptly replied. I was so pleased she could speak English! Liis was very kind and sent me a family tree, she had underlined my grandfather’s name, indicating she knew of him, but had no knowledge of his descendants. I soon filled her in! I corresponded with Liis for many years until we eventually met in 2007.  Liis organised a family reunion consisting of her older sister Helja and her children Andre and Natalja. Two grandchildren were also present, Katriin and Karl. We had a very nice afternoon tea together, it was very polite. We shared many stories and Helja even took me by surprise when she revealed she remembered my great-grandfather Arthur visiting her house when she was three years old. He had come to see her father and I was thrilled that she could remember she had a great uncle Arthur because he died in 1941.   

Little did I know that at the time that my third cousin Natalja worked at Tallinn Airport in passport control and it was entirely possible that we may have come into contact before without even knowing it. Her brother Andre also took me by surprise. He first introduced himself to me as a ‘sports teacher’ but years later I discovered that he was actually a well-known Estonian athlete who often appeared in the national press. Andre was in fact Andre Nazarov, a former decathlete who had represented Estonia in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games. He now coaches Estonian long jumper Ksenija Balta.  

I have made some amazing discoveries with my genealogy research over the years but I haven’t done it alone. With the aid of the internet, social media and websites like I have connected with many distant relatives who have shared a wealth of information with me. I have met some of these relatives who have shared their experiences of how repressive it was to live under the Soviet Union and I have heard many tales of survival too. Thanks to these people I have learnt so much.   

2018 marks the 100th birthday of the Republic of Estonia. Every Estonian celebrated this milestone in their own special way. For me, on Independence Day I stood with pride on Tallinn’s Freedom Square knowing that my great-uncles fought in the Estonian War of Independence (armoured trains and medical units) and thus contributed to securing our country’s sovereignty. I am forever grateful to these brave heroes. I love Estonia, it has become my second home and I visit as often as I can.  Nothing pleases me more than visiting the places I know my ancestors have walked before me, and strolls in the beautiful countryside always fill me with inner peace.  The village of Nõo where my family are originally from is a place that will always be of significance to me. Its parish colours are present in my home today honouring my heritage. 

I am no longer isolated from the Estonian community like I once was. Knowing my family history revealed that my roots are deeply engrained in Estonia as are those of Estonians living there today. The internet and social media now play a major role in keeping Estonians connected. Thanks to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, I know what events are happening in Estonian communities all over the world and I know everyone is welcome to attend if they are in the area. Estonia is a country that continually goes from strength to strength. It’s no longer under the radar, rather a beacon of inspiration, a pioneer in the digital sphere. Estonians have a lot to feel proud of and I’m sure the best is yet to come.