Eesti Elu
2014 – a year of remembering…. Estonian Life
Eestlased Kanadas 24 Oct 2014 EL (Estonian Life)Eesti Elu
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A year of remembering the events of 1944 when Estonians fled their homeland by the tens of thousands, fled before the iron curtain descended and closed Estonia off from the world for another 47 years.

To flee or not to flee…….in most instances, the decision was made in extreme haste. Estonians had already experienced the atrocities, tyranny and repressions of the 1940 Soviet occupation and to stay meant facing,
at best, imprisonment or deportation to Siberia, at worst, certain death at the hands of the Russians.

To flee meant to risk life and limb, it meant facing an uncertain future in a foreign land. But sheer terror and desperation drove families with infants and small children to launch themselves into the stormy September Baltic Sea, many in unseaworthy small vessels in the hopes of reaching a safe haven and freedom beyond the borders of their beloved homeland.

One such evening of remembering the traumatic events of 70 years ago took place on October 4th at Tartu College. Planning such an event involved a change of pace for the women of the AKEN (Canadian Estonian Women`s Alumnae Association) committee, who are well-known in the Toronto Esto community mainly for their fund-raising rummage sales in support of Estonian children`s and youth programs in the homeland and in Canada.

Consisting largely of women who were born in Estonia and had experienced the 1944 flight to freedom alongside their parents as infants, toddlers or young children, the AKEN committee decided that the torch had been passed to them and that it was their generation`s turn to rise to the occasion, to bring people together to commemorate and pay homage to their parents’ generation who had risked their lives, who had lost their homes and homeland so that they could raise their children in a free and democratic county like Canada.

As VEMU (Museum of Estonians Abroad) had already issued a challenge to the Estonian community in Canada to participate in a “põgenemise–teemaline” collecting contest, it seemed fitting for AKEN and VEMU to join forces in order to add a commemorative evening to a year dedicated to remembering, recording and sharing memories about the mass exodus, the “suurpõgenemine” of 1944.

VEMU is asking the community to participate in documenting the history of Estonia by providing written memoirs, audio or video files, diaries, letters, documents, photos, artifacts from family archives regarding their own and their family’s flight to freedom, the escape routes taken and the difficulties encountered as DP’s in the early years in Canada. The deadline for submissions is February 1st, 2015 and materials can be sent or taken to VEMU/Estonian Studies Centre, 310 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON, M5S 1W4. Monetary and book awards will be awarded for the best collections submitted.

The audience at the October 4th gathering was multi-generational, ranging in age from first-generation refugees in their nineties to fourth generation descendants of refugees 8 yr old Imbi Uukkivi and her 6 yr old sister Eila. And the program was multi-faceted. Memories and stories about the events of 70 years ago were shared verbally, visually and audio-visually and were interspersed with fine dining catered by Paul Lillakas and musical interludes which included folk ensemble Jaaniku, harp/guitar duet Ashley Lennox and Kalev Nisbet as well as Raja Raudsepp on guitar with her own composition “Murtud süda” (Broken Heart), words and music written for the occasion.

But the evening commemorating the events of 70 years ago also had a celebratory feel to it. During the meal breaks from the formal program, a stream of thousands of pictures ran across the big screen showing enterprising, energetic and successful Estonian refugees and their descendants in action building and maintaining a strong and resilient community, starting practically from the moment they set foot on Canadian soil in the late forties until the present day. And what were the very last pictures in the loop? Pictures of a very successful AKEN Basaar #24 on May 10th of this year…of course!

Ellen Leivat AKEN/VEMU organizing committee
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