So many events from our early childhood are not remembered. Most of what happens to us before the age of ten is, sadly, forgotten. A few of the more dramatic or emotional incidents, however, are burned into our memory and help to form a bridge between our grownup selves and the children we once were.
I was very young when Estonia was occupied, first by Russia, then Germany and then by Russia again, but I have some vivid memories from that time.
One of the earliest memories is from just before the first Russian occupation. My father was involved with “Omakaitse” (Home Guard). Our house was the most modern in Kärkvere village on Saaremaa, with electricity and running water, and was a popular place in their meetings. One of the men played the accordion and had a good singing voice. After the meeting, over refreshments, he would sing nationalistic songs. Perhaps the others joined in, I don't remember. But I do remember one late afternoon standing near the dining room door where the meeting was held and listening to this man singing. He sang, “Seal kus Läänemere lained loksuvad, seal kus tuuled tormid aina puhuvad, seal kus valge kajak, valge nagu luik, seal on minu kodu, seal mu sünnipaik...”
What I remember most from the Russian occupation is the constant fear. This was probably communicated mostly from my mother.
The Russian officer in charge of that area was a Cossack from the Ukraine, a young man about the same age as my parents. He came to our house to buy eggs from my father who had a large flock of chickens. He could just have taken the eggs, but he did not and always paid for them. Also, my father spoke Russian fluently as he was often asked to translate when a local person was being questioned. He always translated in such a way as to help the Estonian who was being interrogated. Probably he saved some of them from deportation.
After a while, the officer's family came from Russia. He had a wife and I believe two children. He brought his wife to our house to show her the modern conveniences which they did not have in Russia, such as running water, a flush toilet and electricity from a home generator run by a turbine. They both were very impressed. When they were leaving, my mother gathered a large bouquet of flowers from her garden and gave them to his wife.
Although he was always kind and pleasant toward our family, my sister and I were very much afraid of him. He usually dropped in at our place when he was coming back from town. He brought candies for his children and always gave half of them to us. My sister and I, of course, would run and hide under the bed. This must have amused him because he would tease us by tickling our feet which stuck out from under the bed.
I also remember the nights we spent sleeping in the woods when people were being taken away to Siberia. The woods were beyond a field which was across the road from our house. My mother said that she stayed away all night watching for activity at our house. Eventually, my parents decided that the threat might be over and we went back home. The very first night, a car was heard passing on the road, slowing down in front of our house and then moving on. The next day we heard that this had been the night for the biggest collection of people for deportation. Obviously, our name was not on the list.
All of the lists for deportation were signed by this officer. Our name had been on the list a number of times. My father had a fish export business so there must have been many people jealous enough to want to see us on our way to Siberia. When the officer looked at these lists he would ask who the people were. When he saw our name and was told that those were the people he bought his eggs from, he had thought for a while and then had crossed our name off the list.
Shortly before the Russian officers left the island, he stopped at our gate and asked to speak to my father. Since my father was not at home, he spoke briefly with my mother. Her bicycle and radio and other things had just been confiscated, probably to take back with the retreating army. My mother was very upset. She put her head down on the gatepost and wept. She said, “Everything has been taken from me. Soon my home and my life will also be taken.” He patted her on the shoulder and said. “Don't cry; don't cry. Soon you will have everything back.”
When the Russian army was withdrawing from the island, a number of families were to be shot in their homes. The jeep in which the executioners were driving to kill these people was on its way to the first family on the list when a German plane fired on them and they were killed. The list was later found in the car. Our name was third on the list.
Some years later, after we had left Estonia and the Russians were again the occupiers, that officer had come back to Saaremaa on a holiday. He had enquired after our family. Perhaps he was glad to hear that we had escaped and were living somewhere in the free world. He must have been sad, however, to see our beautiful home burned to the ground.
I wonder what motivated this man. Was it truly kindness and a special rapport with our family, or were we simply more useful to him right there? I would like to think that it was the former. After all, there are good and bad people of every nationality, including our own. At any rate, our family survived that terrible time at least partly because of him. That is a nice memory to have.
Memories are made of this (39)