An essay on Veteran’s Day Sunday
As expected, veterans were asked to stand up at the church service, and the congregation gave them applause for the service they rendered for our nation. The minister, a former commander in the US Navy and his wife, a former major in the US Air Force stood up too.
But if the congregation expected a sermon on the nobility of war, they were disappointed. The sermon was very measured. The minister quoted from the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verse 8: there is a season and time to love and time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. He reminded us of the senseless killing by a major of his fellow servicemen at Fort Hood. He reminded us of the nearly one million soldiers who died at Verdun in WWI in a battle that ended in a stalemate. He mentioned other bloody battles.
But he did not mention the slaughter in the Blue Hills (Sinimäed) on Estonian soil, 15 miles west of the Russian border, which, too, only confirmed a stalemate. 200,000 soldiers from both sides died there in 1944 either in battle or subsequently from wounds. Of course this was far from Normandy and no American soldiers were involved and no US reporters were present. But I know that place well and this is where I go whenever I visit Estonia. There I observe my other Veteran’s Day.
For background to the turbulent times of my time the following will help. Since the 13th century Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians have ruled Estonian people while maintaining their language and culture.
* 1918 Following WWI Estonians declared independence. Fierce fighting followed. The English and Finns helped.
* 1920 A peace treaty was signed by which the Soviet Union recognized Estonian independence.
* 1939 Estonians yielded to the Soviet Union’s ultimatum to let them establish bases on Estonian west coast. Estonia lost its independence with this gamble for peace.
* 1940 The Red Army occupied Estonia.
* 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. They drove the Red Army out of Estonia, but did not permit reestablishment of independence.
* 1943/4 Estonians fought in many uniforms hoping that the 1920 success would be repeated. But the Soviet Union reoccupied the land.
* 1987 through 1991 Estonia literally sung itself free peacefully. The moral and political support from America is acknowledged, but materially the US was busy liberating Kuwait.
It is hard to know when it is time to fight or to hope for peace and the choice is always controversial. Estonia is not a warrior nation, but neither is it pacifist. Small nations have to learn to be pragmatic to survive. But in 1944 many Estonians decided it was time to make a stand in East Estonia against the advancing Red Army. The front held there for over half a year, which made it possible for about 60,000 Estonians to escape to the west, including my parents with me in tow, on a German cargo ship to Germany, my stepbrother on a fishing boat to Sweden.
The battle was about strategic hills bordering the only east-west highway through swampy plains between two large bodies of water. The attacker was the Red Army, which having broken out of a murderous encirclement of starving Leningrad, was told that they were liberating Soviet land from fascists. The defenders were from many nationalities. Besides Estonians and Germans, there were volunteers from Denmark, Holland, Norway, supplied by the Germans. The motives for why they fought were many, but for the Estonians it was to hold off the Russians until an independent Estonian national government could pick up from where it lost its sovereignty in 1940 and negotiate peace. I know that, because I have interviewed many of the men who fought there. Consistently they stated that they fought for a free Estonia. After all, Germany’s demise at this point in time was certain. That Estonians, who do not belong to the “master race”, would fight for Nazis makes no sense. Not surprisingly, the most critical area of the front was assumed by Estonian units to defend.
The Blue Hills
My 19-year-old cousin Uno volunteered, and he served in the Blue Hills in an artillery unit. His widow recalled that Uno as he directed fire from horseback, was knocked of his horse by a mortar explosion near him. But Uno continued his duties.
On September 17 1944 the front was abandoned to avoid encirclement. The German Army retreated for Estonia in the second half of September. The Estonian national units were unable to stop the Red Army and soon all of Estonia was over-run. An improvised independent Estonian government could be said to have lasted only four days in the vacuum between withdrawing Germans and oncoming Soviets. When the war ended Uno was taken prisoner, and upon release the Soviets branded him a fascist (for defending his country!) and was prevented from getting decent work. He died in an alcohol stupor when his cigarette lit his vinyl couch.
After Estonia regained its independence in 1991 a group of veterans built a memorial wall near the Blue Hills at the edge of the open field over which the Red Army at one time had stormed senselessly into machinegun fire, wave after wave! Memorial plaques with the names of defenders were attached to the wall. I, too, have promoted and supported the construction of this wall.
As we say “we shall never forget…” This summer I had a plaque added to the memorial wall with Uno’s name. Will anyone still recognize that name in that obscure, sparsely populated area years from now? The area was depopulated during the heavy fighting and subsequently many ethnic Russians were brought in to work in secret uranium mining operations. Most of them never learned the Estonian language.
While still occupied by the Soviet Union in 1987, more freedom of expression was allowed. Estonian “greens” began to test promised “openness” by protesting a planned massive mining operation of phosphorite for fertilizers. This would have ruined the drinking water sources for 1/3 of Estonia. But the unstated motivation was to avoid 10,000 Russian workers to be brought into Estonia to work the mines. Mikhail Gorbachov, premier of the Soviet Union, backed down. While the Soviet authority was also challenged in Poland and Berlin, this was the first time that Moscow was successfully challenged in the area that they considered was part of the Soviet Union.
In 1988 came demands for autonomy and then independence. What drove the point home to the Moscow overlords were the many massive but non-violent demonstrations. What could a government do to the 150,000 people gathered at festival grounds to spontaneously sing forbidden patriotic Estonian songs? Despite 45 years of indoctrination the unity of spirit, expressed by singing, was overwhelming. There is a time for war and a time for peace implies the Bible. This was the time for peaceful action. And it worked!
An incident that illustrates the discipline shown by the people occurred close to the end of the occupation. It was a time of transition and in the name of openness displaying the Estonian flag was permitted. This was formerly an act punished with sentences served in Siberia. Ethnic Russians organized a rally during which the demonstrators succeeded breaking into the courtyard of the Parliament building and tore down its Estonian flag. Immediately tens of thousands of people converged to defend the Parliament building by surrounding it and chanting to the Russians: “out, out!” For the Russians a narrow corridor was made so they could leave the courtyard in a single file. But in that very tense situation not a single blow was struck, so as not to give the Soviet Army an excuse to intervene. This was not the time to take up arms.
When there is hope for freedom Estonians will act in a measured way. A history professor said once, “Freedom is never given to you, you take it!” It seems that Estonians chose carefully how to take it. At this Veteran’s Day service I thought of my many relatives, all of them veterans, but having served in many different uniforms. But does a uniform define what a solder thinks or values? Here follows an accounting of the many uniforms my relatives wore.
In 1932 Estonia was free but the economy was in shambles. My Uncle Gustav stayed in the cavalry after his draft time was served, since there were no jobs and he liked horses. In 1939 Hitler and Stalin defined in a secret protocol their respective areas of interest in Eastern Europe. Emboldened by that the Soviet Union gave Estonia (and the other Baltic states) an ultimatum to allow them to build military bases on its west coast. With a huge Red Army on their border, the Estonian government made a controversial decision, that this was not the time to fight. The government felt that without backing by England unlike at the earlier War of Independence, it had no choice but to opt for peace with its much bigger neighbor. It wanted to buy peace.
Two Soviet occupations
The Soviet base builders entered the country in 1939 and the Red Army flooded the land in the following year. The government was taken over by Communists, which asked the Soviet Union to admit Estonia into their union. The Estonian army was melded into the Red Army. So now my Uncle Gustav’s uniform carried a red five-pointed star. He avoided arrest for his anti-Communist stand only with the help of his friends. Germany attacked Soviet Union in 1941. As the Red Army withdrew from Estonia, he, like many others, joined self-defense units to fight the Communist destruction battalions. They wore ordinary clothes with a white armband. This occurred well before the German Army arrived. After the new occupiers arrived, Uncle Gustav’s unit was supplied by Germans and given German uniforms, but with Estonian arm patches.
As the Red Army advanced westward in 1944, Uncle Gustav’s units retreated. His family, on a horse-drawn wagon followed Gustav’s unit, but lagged behind so that a bridge was blown ahead of the family and had to turn back. They never saw my uncle again. At the Estonian border the unit commander gave men a choice to stay in Estonia and fight perhaps as partisans, or continue to withdraw southward. Gustav knew what would await him if he fell into Communist hands and so he continued the retreat into Germany.
The Germans were quick to gather such men and put them into an all-Estonian division. Since they were not German citizens – many could not even speak German – they could not be incorporated into the German Wehrmacht (Army). So instead they became a SS division. This caused much misunderstanding after the war given the reputation of the original all-German SS.
As the war ended Uncle Gustav was capture by the Russians and put in a POW camp. He pretended to be a German so as not to incur the wrath of the victors, and in order to get released feigned to have kidney failure. He was released and he made his way into the American Zone of West Germany. There the US military set up camps for refugees, so called Displaced Persons’ camps, for people who refused to be repatriated back to east European countries. But having served in a German uniform made him ineligible to be admitted to such camps. However the US military was glad to employ such men in different capacities. Uncle Gustav was employed in a military transport company and thus the last uniform he wore was that of a US Army but dyed black. There were ironies: some of the former Estonian SS men were employed to guard German war criminals during the Nuremberg trials.
Many Estonians have always shown considerable anti-German sentiment and in 1943 many preferred fighting against the Russians in a Finnish rather than in a German uniform.
In 1943 two of my cousins, Ülo and Valdeko, not wanting to be drafted by Germans, escaped to Finland and fought there with the goal to recapture the Finnish lands taken earlier by the Soviets. When the Finns realized in 1944 that they could not achieve that goal and capitulated, my cousins returned to Estonia. Germans were no longer treating them as draft dodgers being in full retreat out of Estonia. Valdeko fought on in a ragtag Estonian unit without proper supplies, offering the last resistance before Russian tank columns entered the capital city. After expending their only three antitank grenades, Valdeko just melted into farm country. On the other hand Ülo, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation found a fisherman who was willing to take him along to Sweden. To make a choice whether to fight or to escape is difficult.
At the same time my Uncle Valter joined a self-defense paramilitary unit formed by volunteers in the near vacuum between the fighting superpowers. The Germans were in full retreat and the Red Army was advancing rapidly through Estonia. A nationalist Estonian government was declared in Tallinn. The idea of resisting the Red Army’s advance was to buy time for the new national government. But without German supplies it was hopeless. Valter’s unit retreated from the eastern border westward until it reached the shore of the Baltic Sea. Having run out of land to defend and being overrun by the Red Army he was captured and interrogated. He pretended that he had been there the whole time to help with the fall harvest. The Soviets immediately put him into a Red Army uniform and sent him to a training camp with the intention of deployed in the battle for Berlin. But the war ended before the conclusion of training. After the war, the Communists suspected Valter of lying and he was interrogated weekly for over a year. Valter stuck to his story and they never discovered the truth. He got away with it, but at a terrific cost to his and his wife’s mental health.
Fearless Aunt Gertrude
In 1918 at the end of the First World War my oldest uncle, Karl was old enough to be of military age. He was at that time in Riga, Latvia to learn shoemaking, had married there and had children. When the Russian civil war broke out and the Communists got control of Riga, he was conscripted into the infamous Red Rifles as the scribe. As the Reds were routed out of Latvia (with the aid of Estonians) he ended up in Lenin’s Soviet Russia. It took two years after the peace agreement for him to get back to Estonia. He returned a nervous wreck and incapable of being a father to his children.
My Cousin Liivi (Uncle Karl’s daughter) married during the Soviet annexation in 1940. The Soviets were anxious to rid Estonia of men that might fight at some point against them. So they called out a mobilization. Many Estonians, including Liivi’s husband, answered the summons fearing reprisals against their families if they did not report. He was shipped east, and never heard from again. Many of them were used to work in Siberia until they died of malnutrition. Some of them joined the Red Army to avoid starvation.
My godfather, Oskar, a colonel and a distant relative, was married to my aunt Sigi. Having been decorated in the Estonian War of Independence (1919) he rose to be the assistant to the defense minister of Estonia for a time. Oskar died “luckily” of a brain tumor in 1938; thus before the annexation by Soviet Union. He was buried with a big military procession.
Subsequently my aunt Sigi married Eduard, also a colonel in the Estonian Army. Eduard was arrested after annexation and sent eastward to a Gulag. About 1000 high-ranking Estonian officers were shot in an infamous prisoner camp in Norilsk, Siberia. This would also have been the fate of Oskar, had he lived.
My aunt Gertrude is my only relative of her generation still living, and the youngest of the siblings. In 1940 as the Soviets took over Estonia she was engaged to Kosta, a man who could speak several languages. The Communists asked him to become an interpreter for them but he refused. That was the last my aunt heard of him. When the Communists retreated a year later, his body was found under a freshly cemented barn floor along with 40 other corpses, all shot execution-style.
During the time that Estonia was free, Gertrude worked in a government ammunitions factory. When the Soviets took over she was required to stay on while the factory was dismantled for shipment to Russia. When the German occupiers arrived, the facility became a German naval harbor, and given that she could speak fluent German she was assigned to be an interpreter. She got the trust of the German naval officers, and was given the responsibility to assign crews for the small ships that shuttled between Finland and Estonia. Gertrude was fearless. Incurring personal risk she assigned many draft dodgers onto ships as cooks and firemen.
During the German occupation Gertrude married Ernst, a policeman. But soon she also had to help her husband onto a ship for Finland just prior to his being arrested for refusing to be sent outside Estonia. Once in Finland Ernst, too, joined the Finnish army. When the Finns capitulated in 1944, Ernst, being in a military hospital, did not make it back to Estonia. Ernst and Gertrude lost contact. Gertrude escaped to Germany with the last ship leaving the naval harbor. Ernst escaped to Sweden since the Finns, under the terms of the capitulation, were required to deliver Estonians to the Soviets. Both assumed that the other was trapped behind the iron curtain, and after a few years remarried to start their life anew with new partners. Only five years later did they discover that both she and Ernst had escaped. But then it was too late. The war brought on many types of suffering, guilt and stress.
We have not forgotten you
I was much younger than my cousins, and not of draft age. As the Red Army advanced in September of 1944, my father felt we must escape. After all he was a draft dodger since he had evaded the Soviet mobilization order in 1941. As we were about to board a German cargo ship, I thought of running away into the woods and joining the “forest brotherhood” to fight the Communists. But then I rationalized that as an eleven-year-old I would just get in the way. So I followed my parents leaving Estonia with only what we could carry.
I had a cousin, Helgo, whom I never met. One aunt married during WWI a Communist, who was said to having been an idealist. My aunt moved with him to Leningrad in 1920 where Helgo was born. Then Helgo’s father was executed in one of the Stalin’s purges of liberal Communist. His mother (thus my aunt) remarried, but subsequently died from tuberculosis. All contact with him was lost. Helgo would have been of military age in 1944 and if he had survived starvation of Leningrad would certainly been in a Red Army uniform and sent to the nearest front. I thought haunted me for along time; suppose I had been as old as my cousins and sent to fight in the Blue Hills. How would I have known if my gun-sight was not trained on Helgo? Would I shoot because he wore the uniform of the enemy?
When I came to America, the Cold War with Soviet Union was at its height. I assumed that eventually I would be serving in the armed forces. As a 15 year old, I joined Boy Scouts. At 17 I joined the Connecticut State Guard. At the University of Connecticut all boys had to participate two years in ROTC. I chose Air Force ROTC, excelled in geopolitical studies, and was elected president of the student ROTC organization, the Command Squadron. I was accepted into the advanced ROTC program, though I was not yet a US citizen. My goal was to be an engineer in the Air Force. When Eisenhower was elected president he decided that there were too many desk pilots, and introduced the requirement that all advanced Air Force ROTC students had to sign up for pilot training. With a heavy heart I resigned from ROTC and followed a career as an engineer in development of Navy and Air Force helicopters and later ballistic missile basing systems. I served the military, but never in harm’s way.
Here in America on Veteran’s Day we show gratitude to the men who put their lives on line for our nation. For me the day has even a broader meaning because of the Blue Hills. I am a member of the Toronto Estonian Men’s Chorus. The choir raised money and erected a memorial stone there at the Vaivara Cemetery, which says: “We have not forgotten you. ” I have been involved with maintaining this memorial ever since.
The fierce resistance there in 1944 had unintended consequences. Many Estonians were able to escape the Soviet occupation and Finland was spared from being overrun by the Red Army. This last consequence has only now has been acknowledged by the Finnish high command. Because the heavy losses of men and equipment in the Blue Hills Stalin ordered his forces moved away from the Finnish arena of operation southward to Estonia.
A final thought on uniforms. My son Jeff volunteered to join the US Air Force. At the same time Andrus, his distant cousin in Estonia, was conscripted into the Red Army. Were they enemies?
(November 8, 2009)
Thoughts on war and peace