Filmmaker Helga Merits “It is all about making people enthusiastic and hopeful, and giving them inspiration.” Estonian Life
- You have made several films about Baltic refugees. Why did you start making these films?
This is my fourth film on the topic of Baltic refugees after the Second World War. The first two films were made mainly about my father to understand the events in his youth, such as how he ended up as a soldier in the German army. My father died when I was very young, so it wasn’t possible to ask him personally, and having grown up in Holland, I hardly knew anything about the history of Estonia.
- Your previous film was about the Baltic University. How did you hear about it in the first place?
My father had been a student at the Baltic University shortly after the war. This was a university created in Hamburg by academics of the three Baltic countries who were all refugees. When I tried to find information about this institution some years ago, there were hardly any details to be found. As my eventual revelation was so intriguing, I decided to make a film about this subject.
The film has been broadcast in all three Baltic countries, but the nice thing is that students from other countries who have seen this film have also found it encouraging. In the end, this is what it’s all about: to convey the story and make people enthusiastic, hopeful and give them inspiration.
- You are now making a film about Geislingen. Did your father stay in Geislingen as well?
My father did not live in Geislingen as he was in the British zone and Geislingen was in the American zone. Free travel between these zones was not possible shortly after the war. Nonetheless, amongst his papers I found a document stating that he had graduated highschool (actually he hadn’t) and this was signed by two teachers of Tartu Poeglaste Gümnaasium who were living in Geislingen. Having this document enabled him to begin his studies at the Baltic University.
But the inspiration for creating a documentary about Geislingen came from one of my father’s classmates, Alfred Vellering. Alfred had lived with his family for some years in Geislingen. I came in contact with him when making the film about my father’s class. He later lived in Australia, distance neccessitating our contact to be limited to letters and phone calls. When I spoke with him, he talked longingly about Geislingen, which surprised me, as it had been a refugee camp. But it was a subject he loved to talk about, even more than talking about his youth in Estonia.
He did explain that when he went to Geislingen in 1945, a small town not damaged by bombing, he really felt that the war had ended. He was reunited with his family, he still lived in an Estonian environment even though it was in Germany, and he just fell in love with the place. He felt very happy there.
He knew he could not return to Estonia. He also knew his father was killed during the first Soviet occupation and that the town where he was born, Narva, was almost completely destroyed. When he emigrated to Australia, his longing continued for Geislingen, as it was a place to which he could return and revive happy memories.
I travelled to Geislingen to film the street and house where Alfred had lived. For me, Geislingen was not the beautiful town he dreamt about, but merely a small German town in the south of Germany like many others. Still, I was intrigued by his story. I tried to contact other people who had lived there. Then Alfred sent me the book `When The Noise Had Ended’ written by Mai Maddisson and Priit Vesilind. The stories in the book made me curious. Thanks to Mai Maddisson, I came in contact with people who had lived there as young children. Arved Plaks helped me get in touch with the somewhat older group.
- What did people remember about their time in Geislingen?
Their stories were all very interesting because most had not only good, but also very vivid, memories referring to important and formative years. What struck me was that it was clear Geislingen was only a temporary camp. Life was nonetheless organised in a way that this could be a place where everyone would stay permanently. I was impressed by the children’s costumes made for performances, theatre plays and operettas. There was a newspaper, books were published and even an encyclopaedia of Estonia.
There was also, of course, the day-to-day life which included children going to kindergarten or school and adults waiting in lines to get food or other items. Everything was kept clean for fear of contagious diseases.
There was also another side to life in the camp: the fear of repatriation back to Estonia, various family problems, especially those of single mothers with children. When possibilities for emigration finally came up, they turned out to be mainly for young and healthy single men and women under a certain age.
- How did you start gathering information for this film?
I wanted to know what it meant to have lived in Geislingen, therefore I contacted people, corresponded with them, and started to gather materials some years ago. The funding necessary for the project was very hard to find, thus instead I made the decision to base the first film on the Baltic University.
I had a chance to visit the U.S. after finishing the film about the Baltic University. After having presented my plan regarding a Geislingen-based documentary, help was offered to conduct interviews. I received excellent materials, resulting in my decision that now was the right time to finally make the film about Geislingen.
It was thanks to the support of the Estonian American Fund, Estonian American National Council, Tartu College Toronto and Böckler-Mare-Balticum-Stiftung that I was able to organise the recordings of the interviews, to do research, have access to archival information, and to buy documents and other historical material.
I have now started on scriptwriting which is, due to the large number of interviews and thousands of pages of documents about the camp, quite a difficult task. It is sometimes very hard and even painful to select, to reduce to a highly concentrated story, what it means to live through a war as a child, flee the country, live in refugee camps for a few years and then start all over again in a new country. To provide clarification, despite all these difficulties, amazing things had been achieved which were valuable for both adults and children in helping them shape their lives.
- This topic is an acute actuality because of the refugee crisis in Europe. What feedback do you have so far on your project?
All people interviewed are around 80 years old. They can look back on their lives and express what this experience meant to them, which in turn helps to understand the current situation with refugees in Europe.
When I started to search for funding for the second stage of the project, I found a producer in Berlin who was interested in being a co-producer as he very much liked the idea. However, the German Public Broadcasters regarded the subject as being too limited in scope. I was sorry to hear this because the topic is so international, so universal, as we are all human beings and the story of the refugees in Geislingen provides important insight into how to deal with and surmount extremely difficult situations. It helps to put your own situation into perspective. As with the film about the Baltic University, my aim is for this film to provide hope and inspiration as well. So far, people from differing countries, especially students, found the film about the Baltic University very inspiring. It would be so nice if many more students could see it, but how do you reach students in the U.S., Australia, Canada …?
- Has it been easier to get funding for your new project than it was for previous projects?
I’m still looking for funding to be able to finish the film. As I’m not Estonian, I can’t apply for Estonian funds and I’m afraid the Dutch have the same prejudice as the German broadcasters. Therefore, I hope to find the necessary funding through institutes, companies and private persons interested in and willing to help with the film. Jaan Meri of Tartu College, Toronto is providing welcome assistance with this.
- When will be the premiere?
For the aforementioned reason, I can’t say yet when the premiere will be. In case I find the necessary funds, perhaps it will be possible to finish the film in early spring.
We wish Helga all the best and good luck with finding the necessary funding. In case our readers would like to help, please contact the editor of “Estonian Life”.