Category Archives: Memories-Childhood

A Miracle Delivered to Our Doorstep

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:




A Brief Return to the Subject of Displaced Persons

Down time during this past weekend in New York and on the train back to Washington  led me back to the period of my early life in Europe as a displaced person. (Remember? I promised I would bounce around–And to Vietnam and other things I will return.)

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article by journalist Eric Lichtblau, who is researching the period. He stumbled on some pretty unfortunate findings about the state of Displaced Persons (DPs), especially the state of Jewish survivors of death camps (who were lumped into the DP category). The story, entitled “Surviving the Nazis Only to Be Jailed by America” included a description of a 1945 investigation into George Patton’s management of DP camps immediately after the conclusion of hostilities. The report indicted the American war hero for his callous and prejudicial views of Jewish and other refugees of the war–at points quoting his horrific views of people forced to live in utter squalor and degradation.

It is a depressing read. And like so many stories of the day it reflects certain truths and not others–the others being the relatively good treatment many of us (non-Jewish refugees) did receive in many places. Those who follow the link above to the story, might want to read some of the comments–more than 70 as I write this–which refer to the many personal realities of those days, each somewhat different and many somewhat like my own family’s and the families of Estonian and other immigrant friends.  Collectively they serve as humbling reminders about the breadth of suffering and the range of individual heroism of people of the day–for those of my generation, mainly parents now mostly gone, who hardly ever complained of the days.

The common good news, I’m thinking, was that so many survived and went on to decent lives–so often in the United States where the White House and Congress could find room in their hearts and in the land for displaced persons through the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, mentioned earlier.

But still saddening is the continuing unfortunate truth that more and more displaced persons (refugees) are being created daily. And so I give credit to Angelina Jolie, a special envoy of the UN High Commission for Refugees, who wrote of the problem in Syria and Iraq  in a January 27th article, “A New Level of Suffering.” In one paragraph she describes the scale of the problem today:

“When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.”

I’m certain not enough is being done by those who possess the power and money to  help in big ways, but I also wonder if I am doing enough to help in small ways. The answer is certainly, “No.”  Perhaps by the time I return to this I will have found some way.


A Road to “Good Morning, Vietnam!”

Well,  Bud and I travelled to Vietnam in different ways from the points in our lives at which one might say it was preordained that we would go. For Bud, that moment came with his decision in the United Kingdom to join the war and sail and hitchhike his way into enlistment into the Corps–though Bud might say it came sooner.

I think of my route as beginning from the moment I could explain myself in English (six, seven, or eight years old). Perhaps it was when I stood at the base of the sliding pond (that’s what I remember we called it in Bronx, NY), explaining my world view to another eleven-year old. The point I repeated over and over in different ways was that socialism and communism (at least in the developing brain I then possessed) was a great evil (there was no distinction in my head between them).

AV with best friend Jimmy in the callout.
AV with best friend Jimmy in the callout.

Marx and his Soviet bodies were out to rule the world and make us do everything by command, I would tell Jimmy. We would have no choice but to obey.  So what if I wanted to draw pictures, maybe illustrate a book, or design a grand building, I’d be made to drive rivets or Ladas (forgive the anachronism). They had to be stopped, said this budding Cold War fighter.

I had to work especially hard at this because I had other explaining to do–mainly justifying my father’s service in the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe.  In the Bronx, we lived in a predominantly Irish/Jewish neighborhood and linkages with the Nazis were things in need of explanation.  (In those days the question of what “your dad” did during the War was still a live one.) My response–and it was (and is) true: Estonia’s primary enemy was the Soviet Union and the “enemy of my enemy” bit usually brought sympathetic nods of understanding.

So naturally, for that and other reasons,  it was easy to gravitate toward a military career, first with a full Navy ROTC scholarship to the University of Rochester and then into the Marine Corps, as I described in my earliest “Rummaging” post. From there, after graduation, commissioning, and months of training in Quantico, Virginia, to become a Marine leader in 1966, it was off to Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base north of San Diego, California. With a Quantico classmate—Jim Williams—I drove my 1962 Chevrolet four-door, column-shifting sedan (hot stuff!) across country right after Christmas ’66. (My mother had bought it for me for $500! A nice Estonian blue in color.)

We had both been ordered, for a bit of additional preliminary  training, to a so-called replacement battalion. I don’t know about Jim, but I was given a platoon of raw Marines to command through a series of exercises in Vietnam-like settings–as though we were all going to go together. That was not to be, of course, because we soon found ourselves delivered via Okinawa to Danang in the Republic of Vietnam and dispersed throughout the two Marine divisions deployed across the northern-most military region of the country. I can remember seeing again only one Marine of that group. (Happily, the Marine Corps does it much differently now.)

My first order of business on arrival at the sprawling set of US military facilities in and around Danang was a perfunctory visit, with one or two other officers,  to the Commanding General of the First Marine Division—he took a few minutes to admonish us never, ever to allow the Marines we would lead to accidentally fire their weapons and hurt themselves or other Marines. So with that, aboard a southbound six-by (military-talk for a truck with six wheels, all powered), I pondered what seemed, from the general’s point of view, at least as big a problem , if not a larger one, than the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese we were expect to deal with.  The general’s priorities were made harder to digest by the discovery that same day that a classmate from Quantico, who had arrived in Vietnam (and joined the Fifth Marines) a short while before me was already dead, killed in a fusillade of enemy fire as he led a hopeless charge against an entrenched force in an operation well south of Danang .

After visits to the First Marine Regiment headquarters, where I and other replacement officers, actually watched briefings on the situation in the regiment’s area of responsibility (AOR), I was plunked into 3/1 and Lima Company–and first platoon, with Bud and some 30-35 Marines of that (my) generation.

Three-one’s headquarters occupied South China Sea beachfront property, as the following images show. And, being a relatively short distance from center Danang, we’d have opportunities to go urban–even visit a post exchange as large as any I had ever seen or would see (or so it seems in retrospect).


3/1 Base Helo Pad-early 1967
3/1 Base Helo Pad-early 1967

What was 3/1 doing there at the time? And what explains Lima Company’s wanderings, the wanderings Bud’s travelogue will highlight in coming posts? Three-one was one of several battalions that ringed Danang.

Lima Hqs—source of news, good and bad.
Lima Hqs—source of news, good and bad.

Our mission, was three-fold:

  • Through constant patrolling in small units, we were to prevent mortar and rocket attacks on Danang and its facilities, including the Marine airfield on the city’s south edge.  This meant units, platoon- or squad-sized, were constantly in motion and constantly passing through villages occupied by uneasy or hostile citizens, some of whom were likely to have been hiding our enemies. Constant motion also meant Marines were always exposed to sniper fire and unending series of booby traps that were a defining feature of the insurgency we were trying to defeat.
  • In the process, we were to disrupt and destroy any VC individuals or main force units that came into our AOR–whether they directly threatened Danang or not.
  • Approximate areas in which 3/1 operated in during 1967–68.
    Approximate areas in which 3/1 operated in during 1967–68.

    And, finally, 3/1  provided a strategic reserve force for the First Marine Division, a mission that had Lima Company moving from one relatively distant place to another and back again, as the map of areas in which the battalion operated suggests.

With that orientation for readers not familiar with Lima’s situation, I say, “Enough for now;  Please, patiently stay tuned.”

Waiting patiently, Vietnamese style.
Waiting patiently, Vietnamese style.

Andy V.


Reflections on Father, Albert Vaart

In thinking more about yesterday’s post, it struck me there might be a reader or two who would like to learn more about the experience of my father during those fraught years of the 1930s and 1940s.

Perhaps the easiest way to do it would be to simply adopt the obituary I prepared on his death. Since tomorrow would have been his 97th birthday, I’ll think of it as both a birthday and farewell reflection. Same continuum, no?


Albert Vaart, World War II Pilot, Civil and Computer Engineer–A Life Lived Long and Fortunately

 Born, 5 November 1917, Tartu, Estonia

Died 26 October 2013, Jay, Vermont

 Albert Vaart passed away on 26 October 2013, just short of 96 years of age. He had been a resident of the Northeast Kingdom in Northern Vermont since 1989, arriving from New Jersey soon after his retirement.

Albert was a World War II veteran, having flown as a fighter pilot for the Estonian Air Force and with the German Air Force on its Russian front. Albert Vaart’s shooting war ended, on his 250th combat mission, in February 1945 when Russian gunners brought down his plane. He parachuted out of his crippled airplane and luckily landed safely, although badly hurt, behind friendly German lines. He was rescued, taken to a hospital near Munich and over many months restored to health. But he was separated from his native Estonia and his family, his wife Hedvig and infant son Andres (me).


More good fortune intervened in 1948, when the US Congress passed an immigration law permitting refugees like him (and my mother and I) to come to the United States. It didn’t happen quickly, though. We remained separated until 1951, when we were reunited at a pier on the Hudson River in New York City.

At the risk of embarrassment, I’ll admit that my father and I (inching up on seven years old) first met (at least in my memory) in a Men’s Room at the pier, where I’d gone to the bathroom, unable to hold out until his arrival. Having done my duty, I was on my way out, when a man gently, but firmly, suggested (in what language I don’t remember–it could have been Estonian, German, or English) that I needed to wash my hands. I took the hint as he waited, and then he asked me to take him to “your mother.”

From his arrival, Albert began—along with my mother—to rebuild lives. My building project started from pretty close to my life’s foundation. Theirs was a different matter, but it was then a common project, lived by many millions, including some ten thousand or more Estonians displaced by war (See previous post). Our project was to restore broken or lost families and reconstruct dreams or follow new ones. Few of the old dreams were ever fully brought back. And so it was with Albert, who, before the war, hoped to become a conductor and make music his profession. But sidelined by war, music took a distant second place to making a living, although it remained a lifelong avocation and source of joy until his death. Instead, Albert’s profession would become engineering and computer science in an era when computing was fresh and pioneering.


Albert worked his way through college as a draftsman.

Through painstaking years of night-school at New York’s Cooper Union College and then through graduate programs at New York University, Albert earned MS and PhD degrees in civil engineering. The work he would find bridged engineering and computing in the manufacture of paper goods with the West Virginia Paper and Pulp Company, which remained true to its retirement programs over more than 25 years.


Albert the basso profundo singer.

Albert practiced his avocation of music throughout this rebuilding process, leading choirs in the Estonian community and in the Estonian Russian Orthodox Church in the New York City area.

From his retirement at 70 and widowed—my mother had passed away in 1980–Albert built another life in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, in the vicinity of Troy, near the state’s border with Canada. The country living and the climate reminded him of his native Estonia, and he wanted to be near an Estonian Air Force comrade living just across the border in Canada. Albert no longer worked for a living, but he tended his gardens and, wonder of wonders, he returned to flight school. Nearly on his 75th birthday, he soloed again for the first time since that day he had last flown in February 1945. Who would have thought it possible then?

Helping Albert built his third life, was a resident of Troy, VT, Clemence Leblond. Clem had sold him his first house nearby, and over time the two developed a deep friendship and love. Clem’s love and loyalty sustained him through his various illnesses and the growing weakness of his last years. They traveled together, ate together, and sang and played together at Albert’s electronic organ. She taught Andres the real meaning of caring for others for no tangible reward.



Marking A Less Noticed 60th Anniversary in a World Unhinged

This post was to begin with a note recalling the death of my father on October 26, 2013. And so it does now, but it is late because of a great deal of reflection (and research) on the migration of fellow Estonian and Baltic and other citizens out of the devastation of World War II Europe.

If there was any blessing in the closure of most US government functions in October 2013, it was that the forced time off gave me the opportunity to do my real duty that moment. That duty was to be with my father,  Albert Vaart, through the last weeks of his most challenging and rich life, which included flying as a German Air Force pilot against the Russians on the Eastern Front, recovering from severe injuries suffered when his plane was shot down in February 1945, and eventual emigration to the United States, where he joined my mother and me in New York City in 1951. The month was trying, yet enriching,  and as some of the hours stretched long, I had time to think about things I have not thought enough about.

Those things included questions that have bubbled up in this mind since it was capable of pondering subjects beyond eating, learning a new language, finding ways around a new and extremely complicated home (New York City), and adapting to becoming a latchkey kid–a kid used to being under mother’s foot for six years. through Europe. They included spiritual questions and questions about the events that had brought me to this day.

The remembrance of my father’s death coincided with the discovery of a new work on the subject of post-World War II Germany that Harvard  University published in April 2014. The work could not have been more appropriately timed as the Western Allies of the war prepared to celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Unremarked generally in the celebratory mood of that day in June, was the unfolding drama of vast numbers of people being driven from their homes by advancing Soviet armies in the East, from the Balkans to the Baltics.

The book’s author, Werner Sollors, was born in Germany in 1943 and lived those days as a boy. Sollors’s work expanded my knowledge of the times, and takes into account the travails of the displaced persons from the East. What Sollors did in his book, Temptation of Despair, Tales of the 1940s was to recover and synthesize the news reporting, photography, literature, and diaries of the period in Germany, from the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945 through the end of the decade. Harvard described the book as follows:

Drawing on a vast array of American, German, and other sources—diaries, photographs, newspaper articles, government reports, essays, works of fiction, and film—Werner Sollors makes visceral the experiences of defeat and liberation, homelessness and repatriation, concentration camps and denazification.

In the time covered in the book, the people included German citizens, of course, surviving Jews, many German, freed from concentration camps and the many non-Germans who had fled from advancing Soviet armies, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and etc. I recommend it highly.

My own memories of the period are chiefly those my mother shared:

  • my birth in the middle of a mid-summer night, she said, during a Soviet air attack;
  • our evacuation in a ship convoy that was primarily intended to carry retreating German soldiers in September 1944 over the Baltic Sea to Germany (more below);
  • transport in a refugee train from the Baltic seacoast to the relative safety of southern Germany;
  • toted,  just over a month old,  in mother’s arms westward,  by whatever means, and away from still advancing Soviet forces;
  • mother finding early in 1945 the bodies of the German family that had sheltered us through the winter of 1944–45, a dairy farmer and his wife and daughter (victims of a family suicide pact in the face of advancing Russian forces)
  • settling somewhere in Germany, with mother working in an orphanage to support us (see images below);
  • sailing aboard a troop carrier, the General Stuart Heintzleman, from Germany to New York City, arriving on June 26, 1950.


Mother and me

Ema-Orphans Image of child of color in German orphanage, late 1940s

Mother with orphans


Me (left) with friends


Unknown orphan, apprehensive, going somewhere

USNS Stuart Heintzelman

The Gen. Stuart Heintzleman


Ship Manifest

The Heintzleman’s manifest on arrival in New York City in June 1950. My mother and I were the final entries on this page, Hedvig Marie Steinberg and Andres Steinberg. (Another story.)

To a number of good friends this is an extraordinary story, but, of course, it was not. Millions moved across multiple continents during those months and subsequent years. Many died. Many left behind loved ones–my mother’s mother, Bertha Rettel waved goodbye from the dock in Tallinn, my mother told me–she was unwilling and felt unable to make the perilous effort to escape. (My grandmother died in 1948, but we would not learn of it until 1953 or 1954.)

More than I had imagined before beginning this rummaging has been written on the subject of Displaced Persons, which we were classified by international refugee organizations.  To mark the 60th anniversary of the those times, following are a few observations, some contemporaneous, used to describe the times and the moods of those who passed through them. I offer these because my own memories are so sketchy–mother and father did not say all that much, and I seldom had the nerve to probe.

One of the great sagas of our time…—J. Donald Kingsley, director of the International Refugee Organization , quoted in “In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order,” by Gerard Daniel Cohen, and

Within six days [in mid-September 1944], around 50,000 troops, 20,000 civilians, 1,000 POWs and 30,000 tons of goods were removed from Estonia, 38,000 of the military personnel by sea. In the course of the evacuation from Tallinn, the following ships suffered serious damage from Soviet air army attacks: on board the “Nettelbeck” and “Vp 1611”, 8 people killed and 29 wounded; the “RO-22” hit and 100 personnel killed; the hospital ship “Moero”, with 1,155 refugees, wounded and crew on board, sunk in the middle of the Baltic sea with 637 dead. —On the sea evacuation of Germany troops and Estonian citizens in September 1944 (

Half a million Ukrainians, Belorussians and others were deported from Poland to the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Croats, and others, fearful of reprisals for wartime collaboration, fled westwards from all over eastern Europe, most of them hoping to get to North America.

and finally from the journal of a Lithuanian sailing to Australia from Germany in 1948:

I am travelling. On the horizon we can see the outline of the Australian continent [could as easily have been on seeing the Statue of Liberty]. That’s my future homeland. Homeland? No. Because I have a homeland. Then why am I travelling? Looking for happiness, fortune.

No. You see I’m not an ordinary traveler. I’m not paying for my passage. Also I get my food free. clothing is also unusual. Shoes from the USA, trousers from Canada, coat…who knows where that is from? I’m called DP, that is “Displaced Person, God’s bird. That’s why I neither sow nor reap.

I left my fatherland, flowering meadows, undulating grain-fields. I left my weeping mother who blessed me, wishing me a happy journey. I left my brothers, sisters, and relatives…. I left part of myself. Like one half-crazed. I departed not know where to or wherefore. I reassured my mother that I would return before long. I certainly didn’t really believe it myself. Only to pacify her. I glanced back at my beloved home as it faded into the distance. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Yes. I departed….Included in Catherine Panich, “Sanctuary? Remembering Postwar Immigration, Allen&Unwin, Sydney, 1988, 22-23.

Doubtless my mother felt these same things as the Heintzleman left Bremerhaven, Germany, in June 1950. But we prospered. My father arrived a year later, took work, went to school, earned a PhD–all with mother’s full support (and mine, though it was hard to pry $.25 from him for a visit to a local swimming pool!). Mother died relatively young, at 67, in 1980.  Father lived a full retirement life thereafter, blessed a second time by a precious companion named Clem. I am blessed, too, in many, many ways. But those blessings lie (and accumulate) in another part of the memory shack–to be pulled up in time.

And last, I can only wish, as I know countless others do, that the Lithuanian writer’s sentiments were not being expressed over and over again as a result of the wars that have been fought since 1945 into this day in November of 2014.