Kaspar Rebane was born during the Tsarist era under the old calendar in 1913. He led a long full life and was a person who witnessed both the birth of the USSR and its collapse some 70 years later.
His family was visiting Russia at the time the revolution broke out and they were trapped there for almost a year. Later, he was fortunate not to be deported to Siberia and, although he was an officer in the Estonian army, he managed through luck to escape becoming expendable cannon fodder for either side on the eastern front during the war.
I knew Kaspar Rebane since my childhood in Hamilton Ontario.
We grew up in a tight knit community as children of refugees. Some of our parents came to Canada through Germany, others through Sweden. They all spent time, sometimes years after war’s end, interned in camps for displaced persons.
Many of my generation were too young to remember that experience and many of our children may not have been told of this period. It was not a happy time although the passage of time may have mellowed the memories for some. Nobody perished or was repressed, but as Kaspar Rebane once told me, it resulted in ten wasted years in our parents' economic lives. For most it was the most important ten years yet they managed to work hard and overcome this setback.
Escaping the terror and tyranny of Stalinist communism from war-torn Estonia in the autumn of 1944 was not something to be undertaken lightly. Estonia’s experience with the first Soviet occupation was so horrific that tens of thousands were willing to risk their lives to escape, leaving their property behind. Soviet aircraft and submarines sank many ships carrying wounded soldiers and civilians. It was also not unknown for Nazi submarines to run down small fishing boats headed the wrong way towards Sweden. Many smaller boats simply disappeared in autumn storms. If you were caught you usually disappeared, usually, permanently, into the Soviet Gulag.
I recall Kaspar, later in life at Eesti Kodu telling me the story of how their ship was attacked by a Soviet bomber off the coast of Latvia. The bombs narrowly missed the hull but the Russians somehow managed to knock the funnels off the superstructure. Not content with this, the bomber then proceeded to strafe the refugee ship with machine gun fire killing several hundred people, mainly wounded soldiers and women and children on the overcrowded open decks. I recall Kaspar’s nephew telling me that as a small child he remembered German soldiers on the ship firing their rifles at the airplane. Fortunately, their ship made it to Germany and safety, several others such as the Moero which left at the same time, did not.
Kaspar Rebane, along with other Estonian men in German displaced persons camps was offered a job in Canada helping build a hydro electric dam on the Ottawa River at Rolphton, Ontario. Later, his wife would joke about the strange situation where her husband was pushing a wheelbarrow at the construction site with an electrical engineer’s diploma in his pocket.
Later Kaspar was able to bring his wife and son to Canada. Eventually his qualifications were recognized and he started to work for Westinghouse in Hamilton as a draftsman. Several years later, his academic qualifications were found to be such that he was considered to have obtained the equivalent of a post graduate engineering degree. He retired from a very responsible job as a highly respected professional engineer in his field and he and his wife moved into the then brand new complex for Estonian seniors known as Eesti Kodu. This became the home where they lived the longest.
Kaspar Rebane was a member of an Estonian university fraternity named Korp! Leola that was based at the technical university in Tallinn whose membership consisted mainly of scientists and engineers. He took it upon himself to continue the traditions of the fraternity in exile and recruited and mentored several members of the second generation, myself included. For those of you that understand Estonian, I could refer to myself as a “fox pup” since Kaspar was my academic father.
Unfortunately, it proved difficult to achieve the critical mass necessary to ensure continuity of the organization in exile within the next generation of Estonian Canadians in smaller communities. During the long decades of soviet occupation of the fatherland , Korp! Leola in North America quietly snuffed out.
However, several men of Kaspar’s generation that remained in Estonia and somehow survived, persevered in secretly keeping the tradition alive during those long dark decades. Today Korp! Leola is again a vibrant student fraternity at Tallinn University and was able to send a representative to Kaspar Rebane’s memorial service held at Eesti Kodu on January 1, 2007.
Kaspar Rebane was a man who taught by example. He fulfilled all his obligations to his family, Estonian expatriate society and his fraternity honourably. He was both liked and respected by everyone he came into contact with. He will be sorely missed.
In Memoriam Kaspar Rebane (4)