Recently someone questioned why we now are placing so much emphasis on commemorating the 1949 deportations of March 25th. We traditionally have commemorated the 1941 deportations of June 14th with Latvians and Lithuanians at ecumenical church services.
It was inevitable, that after fleeing the Red Army takeover of the Baltic states in the fall of 1944, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian refugees would mark June 14th as a day of mourning. (Eventually the USA officially named that day the Captive Nations Day.) The Soviets had perpetrated these crimes just three years before, in 1941, in precisely co-ordinated operations in all three countries together. All of the refugees either personally witnessed or had relatives or friends who were placed in cattle cars and shipped to Siberia. (In fact Western Belarus, Western Ukraine and Moldova suffered similarly at the same time in 1941.)
The refugees were present when it happened. They had already fled their homelands when the same atrocities were committed in 1949. These crimes weren’t as immediate personally as they had been previously. It was inevitable that the 1941 deportations would remain as the chosen event to me memorialized.
A comparison of the 1941 and 1949 deportations (there were several others on a smaller scale) gives these crimes a distinctive character. The June 14, 1941 deportations involved over 10,000 Estonians. Mature men were actually arrested, separated from their families and shipped to labour camps where most died. Women and children (yes children) were sent into exile in the Kirov and Novosibirsk oblasts. About one half survived.
The 1949 deportations in Estonia took four days from March 25th to the 29th. The youngest on record was three days old and the oldest 95, this time mostly women and children. Their property was confiscated, never to be returned until Estonia regained independence in 1991 - if there was anything left to be returned. Over 20,000 were thus also shipped in cattle cars. The victims of the 1949 crimes numbered twice as many as 1941.
British historian Robert Conquest has provided some grim facts about the extent of terror against the civilian population during just the first Soviet occupation from June 1940 to June 1941. The number of confirmed executed, conscripted or deported is estimated at a minimum of 124,467 in the Baltic states; 59,732 Estonians, 34,250 Latvians, 30,485 Lithuanians. The last large-scale operation was planned for the night of June 27-28, 1941. It was postponed till after the war. On June 22, the Germans launched their Operation Barbarossa by invading the USSR.
If one were forced to choose the deportation that should be given most attention by simply the numerical impact and severity of the crimes alone, then the March 25th commemoration would be the logical choice. But the commemorations are not to be rated as important and less important. For those who ask why Estonians abroad should suddenly now make an effort to commemorate the March 25th genocide, the answer is we should have been morally motivated from 1949 on.
The impetus to give the March 25th deportations the due solemn recognition they have always deserved comes some 60 years after their tragic occurrence, from student groups in Estonia. These are the youth who have very little (if at all) personal experience of the Soviet occupation and have been accused of a lack of historical memory since the events are at a significant distance in the past. They have adopted the principle that those who forget the past are doomed to relive it. Estonians abroad must support their initiative and light a candle for the March 25th victims. Let’s stand in solidarity with them. Details of where, when and how are in this paper.
June 14th or March 25th. Which should we commemorate? (1)