“Mudilased” back in Geislingen (1)
Archived Articles 17 Nov 2008  EWR
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Priit Vesilind

Some of us barely remembered Geislingen; we were the youngest of the 4,000 people who were brought together in the largest Estonian Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. We were toddlers and grade-schoolers then, secure in the tight embrace of parents, as well as a neighborhood of tädi’s ja onu’s. We rarely had contact with the German people who lived uneasily around us.

We lived in an artificially created Estonian village that had materialized from the flotsam of war. We were only one small contingent of more than a million refugees clogging the roads and railroad stations of Europe. Of 69 DP camps in the U.S. Zone, Geislingen held the largest number of Estonians. Under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), the International Refugee Organization (IRO), and the United States Army, this restless community set up church activities, Scout groups, dance, theater, and choir groups of unrelentingly good quality. Some groups even toured to concertize for German audiences. Education included kindergarten, six-year elementary, and a five-year high school program. At peak the schools accommodated nearly 1,000 children.

By most expectations Geislingen would not be a place to be remembered with nostalgia. Yet here we were, some 60 years later, Mudilased no longer, drawn back to these green hills and valleys of Baden-Württemburg, this time in a restored, modern town that had long since gone on to other issues, and had to be reminded that we once lived in their midst.

Twenty-two of us arrived here on September 12-15, 2008, for a “reunion.” We were those who had no voice while we were here, but who now had a final opportunity to put our childhood home into perspective. For many of us, after all, this community provided our first memories. And thus we have carried the Geislingen experience with us perhaps even more deeply than those who were older, and knew of prior things.

The reunion and a forthcoming book on the experiences of the children of Geislingen have been a long-standing project of Mai Maddisson, a physician, psycho-therapist, and fine artist from Melbourne, Australia. For the past two years Mai has led an uneven but passionate Internet discussion about our mutual longing to come to grips with those first memories, and especially about what those memories have meant to us as adults. As part of that process, Mai and former National Geographic Editor Priit Vesilind have compiled a book of memoirs and photographs of those times, with contributions from more than 35 people. The 200-page, English-language book, When the Noise Had Ended: Geislingen’s DP Children Remember, is in the final layout process, and may be available for the Christmas season, but a more cautious date of availability may be sometime at the beginning of 2009.

The 22 returnees came from six different countries. From Estonia itself came those who have returned to the land of their birth: Imre Lipping and his wife, Kadri, Liivi Jõe, Ulme Muld, and Olaf Virro. Maaja Sildoja Bohm came from Sweden. Mai Maddisson, Inge Pruks, her brother, Märt, and Inge’s younger sister, Ruth got here from Australia. Tom Normet and his wife, Lee, Anne Jõulu, and Maire Johanson Barnes arrived from Canada. Lillo Kurrik had the shortest drive – from Munich.

The largest contingent -- Jüri and Kersti Linask, Priit Vesilind, Donna Parson, widow of Jaan Päärson, Helle Kask, Mari-Liis Virkus, Viiu Vanderer, Andres Kurrik, Merike Tamm, Mall Timusk, Indrik Linask – came from the United States.

The main venue for the Reunion was Geislingen’s Krone Hotel and restaurant, which had set aside a private room for the group’s meetings and meals. Other venues included the ruins of the medieval Helfenstein Castle, which dominates the hillside above the town, as well as the beer garden behind Jahnhalle, the concert building in which Estonian-refugee theater, music, and dance performed.

The Reunion in Germany coincided with planning for the 2009 ESTO to be held in Münster on June 26-30, 2009, and our group was met on Wednesday, Sept. 10, by Estonian-German ESTO organizers. Richo Zieminski, chairman of Eesti Ühiskond Saksamaa Liit Vabariigis (EUSL), and the organization’s secretary, Meeli Bagger, addressed the Geislingen reunion cohort during a special service on Thursday morning at a local cemetery, which contains a marble memorial for those Estonians who died while at the Geislingen camp.

Also on hand was a film crew from Eesti Kirjandus Muuseum (Estonian Literary Museum) in Tartu, which was filming a special on émigré poet Henrik Visnapuu, who spent three years in the Geislingen camp. Annelie Eisele, an Estonian-German whose parents lived in Geislingen, was our local coordinator, along with other local Estonians.

At the graveyard, set between two steep mountains on the road to Ulm, Dr. Maddisson led a wreath laying at the Estonian memorial, as other Estonian-Germans in the area joined the Reunion group. Estonian-community pastor Merike Schümers offered words of condolence for those whose relatives and friends are carved into the marble of the monument. Many among the visitors remembered friends and relatives. For Inge and Marty Pruks of Australia it was a highly emotional event; it was their first time back to Geislingen, and they had not known where their father, Albert Pruks, had been buried. For the first time, they knew, and saw his grave.

In her speech, Ms. Bagger summarized the exile and immigrant experience of those who landed in Geislingen after harrowing journeys from their homeland, “on behalf of those who did not leave here.”

There are only 15 left in Geislingen, but some 6,000 Estonians remain in Germany, including those married to Germans. This community, Ms. Bagger added later, is holding its own. “For example,” she said, “we have organized an Estonia-European choir of 70 members, and have traveled to Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, and England to sing. There were those who raised their children here, and taught them Estonian culture. It’s important to hold on to the culture, especially important now that our neighbor in the East is again showing its aggression.”

On Thursday afternoon the reunioners split into three groups to revisit the old Geislingen neighborhoods – Schlosshalde, Rappenäcker, and Wilhelmshöhe – that had been designated for Estonian refugees by the U.S. Army in 1945. For those who had not seen the neighborhoods since the 1940s, it was a mild shock to see the changes, although most of the houses remain; Geislingen, in these areas, has not undergone any major rearrangement of buildings. Notable differences were the paved streets that had been gravel, the still-intact but unused railroad spur behind Hospitalweie that was overgrown with weeds, the presence of cars and garages that made the houses seem bigger and clunkier, and the absence of the brick smokestack that had announced the dairy factory on Werkstrasse. The tiered waterfall that we all remembered as accessible is now hidden behind chain-link fences that limn a town playground and swimming pool area.

Dr. Maddisson had emphasized that the Germans who had been displaced from their homes in those years would not have fond memories of the Estonians, but all of the contacts with residents proved to be cordial. The visit of the “Mudilased” group had been announced in an article in the Geislingen newspaper, so many of the residents had been expecting to see the Estonians along the streets of the old neighborhoods. A reporter from the newspaper visited us again as we toured the sites. Many hailed us with smiles, although no one said that they were glad to see us.

After a few local Kaiser beers at the garden behind the Jahnhalle and several visits to Fischhalle, the factory story for the famous Würtembergishe Metallwarenfabrik (WMF), a prestigious kitchen-and-tableware factory that is still the town’s chief industry, the group visited what is now the Uhland Schule, the building where the children of post-war Estonian exiles had been educated for five years, first grade through high school. Headmaster Sigfried Kramer met the delegation at the door, where Ms Maddisson presented him with one of her own oil paintings – a street scene of the red-roofed streets of Rappenäcker, with children playing.

Mr. Kramer took the delegation on a tour of the facility that several older members of the group remembered, although hazily. In a case of selective memory at work, Olaf Virro, who grew up in Kentucky, remarked that, “I remember everything about going and coming from school, but nothing at all about the classes.”

The newly renovated school, which just observed its 100th anniversary, now serves not only German students but those of 83 immigrant nationalities – Turks, Kosovars, Pakistanis – so pervasive has immigration been in southern Germany in the past several decades. The hallways and stairs are little changed from 60 years ago, former students reported, and the views from the windows are about the same, but little else has remained recognizable. Well-lit, well-equipped classrooms have been retrofit between the old walls of the school, which looks generally in good shape.

Few in town remember the Estonian presence anymore, Mr. Kramer said, except for those who delve into history, and those dwindling citizens who were displaced for those years. The circumstances between the refugees of 1945 and those of the current immigration boom from the south, he confirmed, were so different that there was no comparison between the groups. Besides, he said, although the Estonian refugees represented 20% of the town’s population in 1946-49, a more important refugee population for Geislingen at that time was the arrival of tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia that had been inhabited by ethnic Germans, who were forced out after World War II. Some 3,000 of those former Sudeten Germans, he said, still return to Geislingen every year for their own reunion.

Friday’s schedule began with a reception at the Rathaus by the town Bürgermeister, or Lord Mayor, Wolfgang Amann, a young and cheerful man who confided right away that he had not yet been born when the camp was here. Yet he has read local schoolteacher Bernhard Stiller’s book about the DP camp, and he took obvious pride in the visit to Geislingen by Estonia President Lennart Meri in 2000. He passed around the official town guestbook with Mr. Meri’s photo portrait and signature, mentioning that the Estonian president was the first modern head of state to visit Geislingen. President Meri, too, had laid a wreath on the cemetery monument.

“The first Estonian in Geislingen,” Mr. Kramer related, was an Estonian woman who worked during the war as a maid at the factory. “Her presence attracted others as the war was coming to a close.”

Other factors in the U.S. Army’s decision to house displaced persons in Geislingen were probably that the scarcely damaged town had a record of voting heavily for the National Socialist (Nazi) party in the 1930s, and that many government officials had been rewarded by the Nazis with villas among Geislingen’s picturesque valleys. General Eisenhower, it seems, singled out the town specifically for these reasons.

Imre Lipping, a former diplomat and U.S. Ambassador to Estonia, made the official presentation from the group to Lord Mayor Amann. “We understand that our coming was uncomfortable for the Schwabians,” he said, “but we didn’t understand that – we were only five years old, and we had an understanding of only our trek to get here – a trek during which many were lost. And yet, our time here was happy.”

“This political crisis in Eastern Europe is still not over,” Dr. Lipping warned, “Witness the situation in Georgia. It could happen again in another country.” Dr. Lipping and Liivi Jõe then presented the Lord Mayor with a bronze plaque with these words: “To the people of Geislingen – we are grateful to have been able to live in your homes when we were homeless – presented by the children of the Estonia Displaced Persons’ camp – 1945-1950, on the occasion of their return visit on September 12, 2008.”
„Diese Gedenktafel ist den Bürgern von Geislingen an der Steige gewidmet in Dankbarkeit fûr die gewährte Zuflucht als wir heimatlos waren. Von der Jugend des Estnischen Displaced Persons Camp 1945 – 1950 anläßlich ihres Besuches im September 2008.“

On Friday evening the group enjoyed a chilly and windy early evening and a few refreshments around the ruins of Helfenstein Castle – to watch the sun go down, Dr. Maddisson had said, but gloomy rain had set in. Some in the group were surprised – they only remembered sunny days.

Some in the group visited nearby Memmingen and adjoining old refugee camp towns on Saturday. At the farewell dinner that night, spokespeople from three distinct groups spoke about their impressions: Merike Tamm, who was born in Geislingen, Olaf Virro, who was born during the war, and Andres Kurrik, who have memories of Estonia before the war began. In short, the older the child, the more dealings with Germans they had and the more nuanced and negative their memories.

Some weeks before the September trip the wording of the plaque we presented to the Lord Mayor, as well as the intent of the visit itself, came under criticism from other former Geislingen Estonians, who did not think it was appropriate to “thank” or “apologize” to Geislingen or the Germans. They cited the historically contemptuous treatment of Estonians by the Nazis, the overall brutishness of the Nazi regime, as well as hostile incidents with German Geislingeners in their youth.

In the Mudilased group, some responded that, as children, they had mostly good memories of the camp, and were traveling back there on a mission of nostalgia, and, as Dr. Maddisson put it, to “find pieces of the puzzle of our own identity.”

The trip thus had to be conducted with some delicacy. That balance was best expressed by Indrik Linask in an e-mail to the group: “We Estonians didn't remove the Germans from their homes; it was an UNNRA decision and deed. Also the Germans didn't generally help us or do anything for which to thank them…[but] they are a very sensitive and proud people and to thank them for something they really didn't do would probably insult them.”

We did not thank them. Nor did we go hat in hand. Neither Dr. Lipping nor the wording of the plaque played to the more contentious emotions. By consensus among the Mudilased, the words on the plaque simply recognized that we all – Estonians and Germans – shared troubled times.
“One-hundred fifty of us are here forever,” said Lipping, referring to the graveyard, “and the most important thing is that Geislingen is a part of us – everywhere we go – it is a part of us.”
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