Helga Merits is a determined woman. She is a documentary filmmaker living in Holland who has turned to the undersigned for help before in augmenting historical material that she has gathered. It seems that Olympic years are motivators – in 2004 she asked if anyone knew about her father Paul Merits’ wartime experiences; in 2008 about her father’s 1943 class at the Tartu Poeglaste Gümnaasium. Both requests proved successful.
It brought response from two Australian classmates – proving the reach of our media. It also attracted the attention of Peeter Urbla of Exit film in Estonia who was able to get a small subsidy – but too small to finish the film. As Merits still wanted to complete the film she just financed the rest herself. In January Helga Merits was in Estonia for the final edit. Small changes still need to be made, subtitles added, but the film - Class of 1943 – Remember us when we are gone - is almost complete.
Now in 2012, again an Olympic year, Merits is looking for information about the Baltic University. The common thread, once again, is her father Paul, who was one of the Estonians who attended the institution, founded 66 years ago, on March 14, 1946 in Hamburg. This is in conjunction with another project, research for another documentary: Children of Geislingen, this with the help of Mai Maddisson, who compiled the book about these children, When the noise had ended: Geislingen's DP children remember.
The BU was founded but a mere ten months after Word War II had ended. When the University of Washington, home to a growing program of Nordic and Baltic area studies, marked the 50-year anniversary of the Baltic university in 1996, their newsletter emphasized the passion Baltic people have for education. The founders of the Baltic university were exiled Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian faculty.
Wikipedia is one of the very few sources online providing background to the establishment of the university. According to their listing the University “was established at Hamburg in the British Zone of Occupation in March 1946, with aid from UNRRA, the Lutheran World Federation, and other groups. In early 1947, it was moved to a former Luftwaffe school in Pinneberg and renamed the Displaced Person's Study Centre. The Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik became its first Rector, and later the Lithuanian archaeologist, Jonas Puzinas, became head of the institution. Because many of the staff and students had found homes in other countries, the University was closed in September 1949.”
Thus the university only operated for 3 years. However, as WU noted in 1996, Professor Janis Gabliks wrote, "The friendships and trust which developed and strengthened over the course of Baltic University's existence will continue to be an important factor in the cooperation between the Balts in the future."
The numbers that passed through the corridors of the post-secondary institution were remarkable, considering the times. Wikipedia’s poster claims that “a total of 76 students graduated from the Baltic University in its short existence: 53 of them were Latvian, 16 Lithuanian, and 7 Estonian. Many others went on to complete their studies in other universities.” These numbers came from 1,200 students studying in 8 different faculties and 13 subdivisions. Also astounding: some 170 professors were on the teaching staff during the first three semesters run by the university.
Alas, the reality of demographics is that the numbers of those who attended the Baltic University – or even recall its existence – are fast dwindling. Merits writes that of her father’s 1943 high school class, another class member, Alfred Vellering, died this January. To her knowledge there is now but one person of that class alive, Otto Tarmet, but his health is not good.
It seems to her that “question time is over.” Merits spoke with Alfred Vellering on the phone very regularly, asking about news of people of his generation, as he was still phoning and writing with some of them. In late January Merits received an e-mail from an elderly Estonian who knew that she is considering making a documentary about the Baltic University. The e-mail asked whether she had been able to contact other persons who studied once at the Baltic University – he was interested to hear more about this. Helga Merits had not, but told him there was one way to find out if there were still people around who studied there in Hamburg: by an appeal in the media.
She turned to the undersigned and Estonian World Review readers:
Please consult your memory banks – perhaps you know of a fellow Balt who continued their war-interrupted studies at the Baltic University? Or Geislingen? The documentary about Geislingen will be partly based on the book When the noise has ended. Through Mai Maddisson Merits made contact with persons who had written their story for this book and who were willing to participate in the film. Research for stories is going on very well, but research for historical film material turns out to be extremely difficult – or perhaps there is just hardly any material? However, there once was a photo club in Geislingen. Perhaps there are still members of this photo club around who are willing to lend or give the filmmaker pictures of Geislingen.
Helga Merits is asking for the following:
- historical film material and pictures of Geislingen refugee camp (1945-1949) to be used in a documentary film about the children of Geislingen.
- information and pictures of the Baltic University (Hamburg 1946-1949) for a documentary film.
- prewar stories about the house at Vana Viru 15, Tallinn (pictured) for a small film.
Please contact her by e-mail at
Her mailing address is:
1053 RW Amsterdam
Seeking material about the Baltic University and Geislingen