When I was little, back in the 60's, we would have an International Day at our school. We would each bring in something from our background - food, clothing, a knick knack - and we'd tell the class where our ancestors came from. Since I'm half Estonian and half Finnish, inevitably, the teacher would ask me where Estonia is. "It's a small country, south of Finland, which gained its independence from Russia during World War I, and lost it to the Soviet Union in World War II." I got used to explaining. Actually, I was lucky if the teacher knew where Finland was. We never went too far past that since most people have some idea about Sweden.
[The photo is of St. Olaf's church in Talinn, Estonia. It's from Claudio Ar's Flickr Photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/claudio_ar/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
The other kids had easier backgrounds: Italian, German, even Swedish went over better. I've always loved stories about immigration: why people decided to come, where they went in the U.S. and why, how their families eventually blended in, etc. How did their families' stories compare to mine?
I'm not going to tell you my family's stories because they're not mine to tell, as fascinating as I've always found them. However, I'll give you an idea of the circumstances. As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union annexed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939. Up to 60,000 Estonians, including most of the government and the military leadership, were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan. You didn't have to be that high up, however. A college education could condemn you - maybe not at first, but eventually. There's far less risk of rebellion or resistance when one takes out those trained to be leaders and managers. If you lasted through the initial conquest, after a few years you got a new set of rulers as Nazi Germany headed through the Baltic countries on its way to Stalingrad. If you were still around, as Nazi Germany withdrew and the Soviet Union advanced, you knew that your days were numbered.
If you escaped, then it was on to the questions I mentioned earlier: where to go and how to become a part of your new society.
The Finnish side of my family was already in the U.S. a few decades before World War II. However, learning about the Winter War with the Soviet Union, in which Finland had to fight to keep their independence, combined with the Estonian history to give me more of a sense of the Soviet Union's grip on Eastern Europe than most kids my age had. When I was a teenager, I read more on my own, including most of Solzhenitsyn's work and, one of the most hopeless books I've ever read, Graves without Crosses. I avidly followed the news about the interactions of the Soviet Union and the West.
Then, 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. Having read so much, and felt so much, about the division of the Iron Curtain, it was amazing and exhilarating to watch. Estonia won its independence four years later. A number of Estonian-Americans, including some in their 20s and 30s who had grown up listening to the same sorts of stories, went to Estonia to help build the free country.* I had two children by then, but I could picture that I would have been tempted to do the same if I had still been single (and if I knew how to speak Estonian).
The stories about Estonia gradually changed. The small, newly independent (again) country was developing their economy and was becoming more successful. About half the time, now, people I talk to have actually heard about it (although I had to explain it again last week: "They lost their independence in WWII and regained it twenty years ago").
I've never had a chance to go to Estonia. We went to Finland when I was in junior high, but the boats to Estonia were full while we were there. My mother and sister went in the 1990's, but I didn't want to leave my young kids. It made sense at the time, but I now regret that I didn't.
* The first commander of the Estonian armed forces, Alexsandr Einseln, was a retired colonel in the U.S. army who had fled Estonia as a child in 1944.
- One of the blogs I check daily is Itching for Eestimaa, the thoughts of an American of Italian background, living in Estonia with his Estonian wife and daughter. I really enjoyed today's post, eestlased, which delves into a Finnish/Estonian tradition which I've tried but never really understood, the sauna:
...And in the gym I found a third remedy for the cold: a sauna.
are magical places. They can cure any ache or pain. Broken arm? Go sit
in the sauna awhile. It'll heal more quickly. I always thought that
saunas were just for fun, a sort of outdoor pub for woodsy drunks. I've
come to learn that, during the winter at least, a long stew in the
sauna is exactly what you need to defrost those frigid digits. You can
cancel out the damage done by the northern climate in a sauna. By
exposing yourself to extreme cold outside, and extreme heat in the
sauna, you may finally arrive at a normal body temperature. Or so the
But what of summer saunas? Now that's interesting.
If winter saunas are therapeutic, then summer saunas are like
Woodstock. There's nothing but nudity, lake swimming, and cool vibes,
man. You sit there covered in sweat and silt, and feel as if you are
truly one with nature, as if you should have moss for eyebrows and
snails hanging from every appendage. In fact, after a co-ed sauna in
the summer, it's kind of hard to justify wearing clothes anymore. I
mean, if you've already seen everybody in their birthday suit, and it's
hot out, then, what exactly is the point of wearing trousers?
July day, I asked our friend Mart why people sauna in the summer. I
told him I understood the rationale behind winter saunas, but wasn't
quite sure what purpose summer saunas served. It was hot already. Why
get purposefully hotter? Could it be just for fun? No. There had to be
some really good Estonian reason like, "It helps us work harder."
Mart's eyes bulged at the question as if to say Does not compute.
In reality, he just repeated my words back to me. "Why do people sauna
in summer?" I remember the puzzled expression on his face as he said
it. He was stunned. I could have asked him why he breathes air or why
he sleeps at night. But he might have actually had reasonable
explanations for those activities. But why sauna in the summer, when
it's hot? What a silly question. Mart shot an odd look at me again,
then took another sip of his beer. He never answered...
The whole post is well worth a read.
- Arts and Letters Daily has links to numerous articles on the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you look at it in mid-November, you'll be able to see them. If you're reading this later than that, they will have scrolled off.
It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell. But deep in the
forest here, a red deer called Ahornia still refuses to cross the old
Ahornia inhabits the thickly wooded mountains along what once was
the fortified border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. At the
height of the Cold War, a high electric fence, barbed wire and
machine-gun-carrying guards cut off Eastern Europe from the Western
world. The barriers severed the herds of deer on the two sides as well.
fence is long gone, and the no-man's land where it stood now is part of
Europe's biggest nature preserve. The once-deadly border area is alive
with songbirds nesting in crumbling watchtowers, foxes hiding in weedy
fortifications and animals not seen here for years, such as elk and
But one species is boycotting the reunified animal kingdom: red
deer. Herds of them roam both sides of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact border
here but mysteriously turn around when they approach it. This although
the deer alive today have no memory of the ominous fence...
[Hat tip to Chris Blattman