Sunday, 19 January 2020

A glimpse into the life of Juhan (John) Jurss

Estonia lost a large proportion of its ethnic population as a result of World War Two. The Soviet and Nazi occuaptions had a devastating effect on Estonian society that caused the deaths of tens of thousands. In 1944 thousands of people fled Estonia to escape the advancing Red Army who were known for their ruthlessness and brutality. No-one wanted to endure the Soviet occupation for a second time. The first one had been an indication of what would come.

Not everyone who fled Estonia survived the ordeal. Many perished along the way, caught up in bomb raids in Germany or contracted illnesses such as typhus or tuberculosis. The fortunate ones were those who managed to find shelter in DP camps after the war and who later took up opportunities to resettle in other parts of the world.

I have often wondered what happened to some of these people. Where did they go after they fled Estonia and what was their experience in the DP camps? Did they find happiness in their new adopted countries? Did their lives flourish once again? Every Estonian has a story. There are those with tales of survival as they fled the Soviet occupation, and there are stories of endurance from those who stayed. It is through these stories that we frequently find similarities with our own lives, or those of our more senior family members.

I recently came into contact with Juhan Jurss, a WWII survivor who gave me his account. Juhan and his mother were two of the many Estonians who fled the homeland on 22nd September 1944. This is his story.

Juhan's house in Viljandi from 1940-1944.
He lived at Karja Tanav.1

Born Juhan Niimiste in Viljandi on 9th September 1940 Juhan has fond memories of his youth in Estonia. He loved going for walks along the Viljandi marina and can still recall the smell of the paint under the boats. When he was 11 months old Juhan's passion for music began, it all started with his parents' gramophone. 

Juhan with his parents Ellen and Aleksander in 1944.
Juhan's kodu-nimi was 'Juku'

Juhan recounts the decision to leave Estonia on 22.9.1944. 'Things were getting a little too hot, with a German machine gun next to our little house firing across Viljandi Lake at the Russians on the other side.' It was time to leave.

Like many others, Juhan and his mother fled to Germany. They travelled through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland by any means possible - by truck, train boxcar or wagon. A lot of the journey was done on foot and usually at night and they often slept in fields during the day. They were lucky to miss a train heading west when it was blown up in a tunnel by a Soviet bomber. Juhan and his mother arrived in Dresden a few days before it was bombed. They survived by taking shelter in an underground railway station.

After the war Juhan and his mother spent many years living in different DP camps in Germany and Austria. Pegnitz, Bayreuth, Augsburg, Wildflecken, Valka, Dutschendach, Geislingen and Delmenhorst are all places they rested their heads at night. 

Juhan continued school whilst living at the Valka DP camp in Nuremberg.

Juhan lived at Geislingen for several years prior tro relocating to Australia.

Christmas at Geislingen in 1948.
Juhan's mother remarried at Valka in 1948 and it is here that Juhan adopted the surname Jurss.

Juhan had a very good relationship with his step-father Albert who was also his god-father.

Juhan arrived in Australia in 1950 onboard the Dundalk Bay.

The journey to Australia took six weeks.

Juhan with his mother and step-father in Brisbane in 1968.
It was in Australia that he anglicised his name from Juhan to John.

After arriving in Australia in 1950 Juhan completed his education. He enjoyed primary school in Australia but found higher education dull and boring. He was a self-taught drummer and pursued his passion for music. In the course of his career Juhan was in nine bands and freelanced in several others before becoming a successful audio engineer and record producer.

Recording at Channel Ten Brisbane in 1971.

Juhan with his band 'The Clefs' in 1977.

Over the years Juhan has won numerous awards for his work on various recording projects that were released in Canada, Europe and Australia. He has worked with many well-known Australian entertainers such as Smokey Dawson and Normie Rowe and has met many big international artists during his career. 

During his career Juhan was fortunate to meet performers such as Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Helen Shapiro, Ringo Starr, and Spike Milligan to name a few. He recounts that these people are absolutely nothing like the way they were portrayed by the media. Juhan said  'one of the finest people,in and out of the industry that I have ever met was Roy Orbison. He was most probably one of the gentlest people I have known.'

Juhan married his sweetheart Norma in 1971.

Smokey Dawson visiting Juhan in his home for a recording session, pictured with both their wives

In addition to his studio work Juhan previously held the role of Vice President at Actor's Equity, and Treasurer & President of the Queesland Recording Association. 

Juhan's passion for music was a driving force in his life that led to many successes. He has other interests of course, including sport, science, nature and mathematics and admires the work of Tesla and Einstein. One thing Juhan is particularly fond of is problem solving; he has always enjoyed a good challenge!

Looking back now, Juhan saw his youth as one big adventure. Many times he found himself in dangerous situations, narrowly escaping serious injury or death but it was those life experiences that shaped him. It gave him a far greater education and a much better sense of what is important in life compared to that which he might otherwise have had. "Family is the most precious thing", he said "and whatever else you want in life will follow naturally.".

In September this year Juhan will celebrate his 80th birthday. He has lived an eventful life and no doubt his escapades could fill a book.  Juhan has flourished in Australia, the country he now calls home.