With the impending Canada Day and the 60th anniversary of my landing on these blessed shores, I have occasion to reflect on the years past. The following highly personal memoir was intended for my English speaking friends and relations:
In 1944 our family escaped from a Soviet ravaged Estonia and fled to a comparative safety in Germany where war was still very much of a reality. My mother and her two young sons were lucky, our ship made it. The hospital ship "Moero" that we were supposed to have boarded with its cargo of women, children and wounded soldiers was sunk by a Russian submarine with a great loss of life. An unknown number found watery graves on that terrible stormy September.
My 17-year-old sister had previously joined the Estonian army with her friends in a vain attempt to stop the hordes. We were eventually reunited when her mother rescued her from an American P.O.W. camp. My father, an officer in our War of Independence and a renowned Military Historian escaped being sent to an execution in Siberia as "an enemy of the people" by dying in 1940. Grandfather, the most gentle of men who entertained his daughters with bird song imitations, died in a mine cave-in in Siberia.
As our ship left the dock in Tallinn, mother noted in her diary that: "We may never see our homeland again but somewhere in the World we will build a new home; civilized, comfortable and safe."
The war eventually ran its miserable course and we spent the next three years in various Displaced Persons' Camps.
In 1948, thanks to the sponsorship on an aunt who had previously immigrated to Canada, we also received permission to come here.
Landing on the now famous Pier 21 in Halifax, we were each given a one way train ticket to Toronto, a banana, a bottle of Coca Cola, five dollars, a pat on the bum and were told to "get lost!"
There was no safety net. No Social Workers or Immigration Lawyers on the pier advising us of what our rights and expectations were. We were just so thankful to be here. We had cried our tears, cut our losses and went on with our lives. One of my aunts ended up in Canada, one in Australia, one in Brazil, one in the United States and one eventually returned home from a Siberian exile.
It was a very British Toronto on that beautiful sunshiny fall Friday of our arrival. So far removed from the deadly gray Baltic Sea four years previous.
On the following Monday I was taken to Brown Public School. Having had no previous formal education, I was arbitrarily placed in grade six. I remember a few black eyes and bloody noses but I do not remember learning English, a language far removed from Estonian. No "English for New Canadians" then. I guess that it just came naturally. I do remember the cool civility of English Canadians. I also remember the wonderful teachers that put an extra effort toward the lone D.P. Miss Bartlett, my sympathetic grade six teacher whom I will always recall as a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Mr. Cairns who instilled in me the love of working with wood and Miss Hosford who gave me my respect for books and the language. Bless you all!
Mother, who did crosswords in four languages and enjoyed reading dictionaries, spent her working days as an office cleaner. Her generation sacrificed their personal lives to give their children learning. Having lost almost all, they recognized that what could not be taken from you was what lay between one's ears. Almost without an exception, all of us children attained a higher education or skilled trade. We became doctors, lithographers, engineers, teachers etc.
We also, sometimes reluctantly, became Canadians while maintaining the culture of our parents. This was very much "our thing", never expecting the Government to subsidize it.
I recall that late in her working life mother purchased a mink coat from her limited income. When we children commented on the absurdity of the purchase she replied that she bought it because: "I could!” She wore it only occasionally and whenever she put it on she would say: "Hail Canada!"
Eventually Estonia regained its freedom in what became known as "The Singing Revolution". To celebrate, it held a song festival that comprised of a massed choir of 30,000 voices and an audience of ten times that number. I had the good fortune to partake of that occasion and, symbolically, to carry the Canadian flag in the parade. I realized then that I was the citizen of two wonderful countries. One of them being my adopted homeland and the other the land of my birth. Very few of us chose to return permanently. Too much time had passed. As expatriates we observe the accomplishments of Estonia from afar with pride and a certain amount of trepidation.
My three sons have dual citizenship by virtue of parentage but there is no question that they are Canadians first. They respect their heritage and are all married to terrific Canadian gals.
"Tagametsa", the home that had been promised to be built, became a reality 50 years ago in Mulmur Township where the countryside is very much like our native Võrumaa. The roadgate bears the inscription: "My Estonia is Here". Over the years it has been the "Home Away from Home" for hundreds of young Estonian Army personnel who have attended Camp Borden.
After 50 years, having completed her life's journey, Linda Kurvits is interred in Põlva beside her husband Oskar. She recrossed the seas. Her younger son and one of her grandsons took her remains back to her homeland.
So, looking back over the intervening years and to mark the occasion, I can do no better than to reiterate, mink coat notwithstanding: