As an Estonian-American (some would say a lapsed one), I am a small contributor to the Estonian American National Council, which represents the interests and heritage of Estonians and their offspring living in the United States. Its most recent mailing urging renewed contributions contained a spot announcing the availability of its recently published book, “Exiles in a Land of Promise: Estonians in America, 1945–1995. ($90 plus shipping.)
The book arrived yesterday—the miracle of the subject line. It is a professionally done masterwork, one that should interest—actually enthrall—those still-living emigres in that community of exiles and their descendants. Indeed, the inside title page, with its image of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, taken from the harbor on September 22, 1944, set my heart a pounding. I immediately imagined my mother, with her two-month old son (me) in October 1944, taking in that same view as the ship on which we were embarked pulled away for its voyage to Germany—and away from a Soviet army soon to occupy all of Estonia.
Although written and published well before November 2016, the book’s first chapter speaks directly to today’s climate surrounding refugees and their immigration into the United States. “Who knew?” is the question that explodes from the book’s first chapter, “Arrival of the Viking Boats.” It recounts, based on solid research, the voyages and arrival in the late 1940s in the United States (all illegal) of Estonians and other Balts on sail boats that took weeks to cross the Atlantic. Rudimentary instruments and elementary maps and courageous pilots (and passengers) brought most across the wide Atlantic. Though the numbers researchers offer vary, one cited in the book says “46 boats left Sweden before 1949; seventeen landed in the US; and ten reached Canada. Six ended up in South Africa and five in Argentina. Three stopped in England, and one headed south to Brazil. Two others were lost without a trace. Perhaps 250 Estonians reached American shores after grueling, storm-lashed voyages.” Images accompanying this chapter suggest that calling these vessels “Viking Boats” grossly overstates their size.
But never mind, the most salient points of this chapter are that the passengers of this little collection of boats became illegal aliens in the United States and their arrival sparked a mixed, though ultimately favorable, reception. Some saw an invasion of potential Marxist subversives. Others saw the Estonian displaced persons (DPs) as “Delayed Pilgrims,” the narrative that won the day and became a key factor, the book argues, in opening the doors to legal immigration by an act of Congress that President Truman signed in 1948. As a beneficiary in 1950 with my mother (and a year later my father) of that act, I find this story both eye-opening and breath-taking.
From that beginning, the book settles into a well thought-out rhythm (beautifully illustrated and laid out over more than 550 pages) that addresses the political context in which the emigre populations lived in their various communities around the United States and the political movements within which its hopes evolved and were pronounced and ultimately realized with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the restoration of independence.
As a New York City-centric Estonian-American who empty-headedly figured all Estonian Americans existed within sight of the Empire State Building and who met to eat and drink at the Estonian House on 34th Street, I now beg forgiveness for my lack of awareness of communities of Estonians from Alaska to Cucamonga, California, to Fresno to Minnesota to Chicago and to Alabama and to Connecticut and places in between, which are described in this culmination of twenty years of work.
In addition, the book provides a wealth of material on Estonian-American organizations of all sorts, religious, musical, military, Scouts, and more. It contains reference material and extremely well done graphics displaying the distribution and number of Estonian-Americans and more.
Much more could be said, but let me end here with the most hearty congratulations to all involved in this work, including the leaders of the Council and the crew led by Editor Priit Vesilind.
And, most of all, a sincerely heartfelt Thank You!!
For information on the Council and the book, go to: http://www.estosite.org/