With shovels and guns (39)
Archived Articles 13 May 2008 Peeter BushEWR
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This is the translated title of an Estonian language book recently lent to me by one of the members of a volunteer group known as Action Estonia that I belong to. Its purpose is helping children in Estonia. Leo Vainola is an active long-time member of this small group that works closely with the Rotary Club and the Estonian embassy here in Ottawa.

We usually get together once each month. This year I took over the duties of treasurer because of the untimely passing of my predecessor in that post. It gives me a chance to keep my spoken Estonian from getting too rusty and I also get to keep company with some interesting people. My regular visits to the embassy to pick up donations that came in the mail are a special event in themselves. I mean, who else can boast that they regularly step onto Estonian territory, get greeted by name, and offered cookies and other goodies by the friendly inhabitants and be back home in less than an hour?

The book consists of the life stories and gives the reader an overview of those young people, age 18 at the time that became members of an organization known as Reichsarbeitsdienst or simply RAD. According to the book’s preface, for young people in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany, service was “voluntary.” It was: voluntary on a forced basis.

RAD was part of Germany’s armed forces auxiliaries. Its main function was to supply frontline troops with food and ammunition, and repair damaged roads and construct and repair airfields. About 1,000 young men and 100 young women from Estonia joined. The length of service was to be for a period of one year; however, according to the book the 1943 and 1944 intake was transferred to the armed forces. Those that worked preparing defensive works in Latvia in 1944 would take work breaks, grab weapons and attack the enemy. When the front collapsed they wound up defending the trenches they had built.

There are 463 life stories in the book. I have not yet read them all. Some people made it to freedom in the West; some were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Some are deceased. There are quite a few pictures of then and now. Some stories are very brief, others quite detailed. Some are happy but most deal with the hardships that the war and occupations by two “evil empires” visited upon Estonia and upon this group of young people in particular. All are interesting in their own right.

I naturally started with Leo’s story and sure enough, there was his picture in uniform at age 18. He looks a little bit greyer now and wears glasses but he hasn’t changed that much even though he was part of the group born in 1925. His narration takes up more than 11 pages so space limitations only allow me to touch on one of the highlights, namely his time in Copenhagen, Denmark towards the end of the war.

At first, the Danes were rather cold towards the Estonians in their Waffen SSuniforms, but once the situation was properly explained to them the atmosphere changed and they went out of their way to affectionately pat the blue-black-and-white shoulder patches. The local underground asked if they would sell any weapons. Leo had a loaded unregistered pistol in his rucksack that he had no use for and a deal was struck. The pistol fetched an almost unbelievable amount of Danish currency, which allowed Leo and his friends to live it up in restaurants and nightclubs for quite awhile. He confided to me over a mug of beer that they were quite popular with the local young women as well as the underground.

When the time came to ship the Estonians back to Germany to the front, the underground destroyed the rail tracks at the appropriate time. This happened several times. Eventually, the tracks stayed repaired (I gather it was late enough in the war, so that it didn’t matter much anymore) and the Estonians gathered at the station with a Danish orchestra to send them off. The train made it into Germany, it was attacked and disabled by RAF fighters and they were taken prisoners of war by the English.

Anyway, an interesting book. As far as I know, it is only available in Estonian – which is unfortunate, as it somewhat restricts readership in North America among the younger generations.
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