Category Archives: Memoiries-Parents

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: http://www.estosite.org/

 

 

 

Ema’s (mother’s) Documents

My mother’s (Ema’s) documents are more spare. These documents from Clem suggest an evolution in thinking about the realities of my mother’s life and what was needed to make an emigration possible and a reunion possible  (eventually) with my father, who “officially” was not at all my father.

Looking at these documents now, it seems clear to me that in the time between October or November 1944, when my Ema carried her new-born (me) onto a ship in Tallinn harbor bound for Germany and the time she began to prepare for emigration to the United States some five years later,  all official documents from life in Estonia were gone. She had no birth, citizenship, or travel documentation of her own. She had no certificate of birth for me.

Since Ema and I never really talked about all this–at least that I now remember–I can only guess at the reasons. My guesses follow:

-She left her documents behind in the rush to leave Tallinn in October 1944 as Soviet forces were closing in on the city.

–The documents were destroyed or confiscated by some authority.

–She  purposely destroyed or disposed of them during the effort to move from the Soviet side of occupation to the west side of occupation after the war.  I favor this explanation because Ema told me of having to lie about her destination so that she would be instructed to return to the West, where she said she had come from because migrants were prohibited from moving from one side of the nascent Iron Curtain to the other. Documents establishing her as a resident of the new Soviet side would have  kept her there–that is, made it harder for her to lie about where she was coming from.

Hedvig-Steinberg-IdentityPaper-Full-webWithout official documents of any kind to establish her identity, place of residence in Estonia, and connections in Estonia, Ema was required to depend on the testimony of others to substantiate her claims. These claims she recorded in the long document on the left in English, which was attested to by friends and sealed by a designated Estonian official of the displaced persons camp in which she was located.

There was also the matter of Ema’s marriage to August Steinberg in 1937. Before seeing these documents I knew nothing other than Steinberg’s surname–it was Ema’s and mine when we arrived in the United States, and I knew that he had been her first marriage.  She told me August Steinberg disappeared early in the war, perhaps with the Soviet occupation in 1940. Several things might have explained this disappearance. The most common was Soviet practice of arresting and shipping to Siberia people who posed threats to its rule.  He might also have been lost in some combat action. Or he might have left Estonia and disappeared for other, perhaps political or personal reasons.

In any event, by 1943, when Ema had entered into a romantic relationship with my father, there was almost no chance that Steinberg would reemerge and even less chance that any authority would officially declare him dead and thus terminate the marriage.

Hedvig-Steinberg-Divorce-Decree-WebThis Ema attended to by filing for and receiving a divorce in Germany in 1949. (The document to the left).

Emotionally, this cannot have been easy for Ema in an age when illegitimate children took considerable explaining or serious efforts at concealment of truth.

So, at least, Ema had attended to her identity and had officially ended her first marriage, sufficient to gain a slot for emigration to the United States in 1950 (25 June arrival), with the sponsorship of an Estonian friend who had reached the United States a couple of years before. I can’t be sure who this friend was, but two candidates come to mind. One was Helga Rohtla, who was close to us–and who I think helped us to our first apartment in New York City in the Washington Heights part of the city. The other was Magda, who lived in Long Island City. She was unmarried then, but she was would eventually marry an Estonian emigre who lost this wife and two children in the Soviet bombing of refugee ships in the Baltic in 1944. (I think we were in another ship in that convoy that was attacked.)

There remained the matter of my father. Who sponsored him (was it Ema or someone else) I do not know.  My father arrived a year to the day after we arrived–25 June 1951.

In my mind, this is an extraordinary story of  love and loyalty. What bond kept my father to Ema and me after my conception in 1943? How many opportunities did my father have to abandon us before he arrived in the United States nearly seven years after I was born–and as far as I knew, seldom, if ever,  meeting over those years. How many excuses to ignore us could he have manufactured?

MarriageCertificate-1952-WebSo my father came and within six months (on Ema’s 39th birthday) had formally knotted their matrimonial ties, with Magda’s signature on the church wedding certificate (above).

HedvigVaart-Citizenship-Certificate-webLooking back at this post, I realize I missed a rather large point. In addition to the reunion of 1951 and the marriage of 1952, US citizenship was an undoubted goal. There was no chance of ever returning to Estonia, and we all knew it keenly.  The result, formal citizenship for Ema and Isa in 1957. (I would follow a few years later.) Ema’s certificate on the left.

What more can I say about this relationship, which lasted until February 1980, when Ema fell to a stroke?

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Parents’ Papers

The stories and images of the refugee crisis occasioned these days  by the fighting in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are heart wrenching.  So were the scenes of refugees escaping Southeast Asia at the end of the long war there in 1975 (addressed in my last post in April of this year).  Both brought to mind thoughts of the situation in Europe and Asia during and after the Second World War.  One need not know too much about history to imagine, as one strolls backward down an historical timeline, the many times such scenes have been repeated in the history of mankind.

But for the moment, my passive participation as an infant, toddler, and five- and six-year old during and after WW II came to mind as my late father’s dear friend and care giver Clem mailed from Vermont a collection of aged documents she recovered from some hidden stash of my father’s belongings. Never having seen them before, they bring to mind moments in life during that period (including moments before my birth) for my  father, Albert Vaart, and my mother, Hedvig Marie Steinberg, her married name from a marriage that took place in 1937 (when she was 24) to a man, August Steinberg, who was 16 years older than she.

In the next two posts, I will introduce the documents Clem sent, which, in a general sense, I believe reflect elements of wartime and refugee experience common to all times. I will offer my take on them, and invite anyone from that time more knowledgeable than I to comment.

For those not familiar with my story, do visit my second post here Marking A Less Noticed 60th Anniversary in a World Unhinged and my third, Reflections on Father, Albert Vaart.

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A General Observation

Assuming both my mother and father did their best to preserve documents of this period and some more thorough stash doesn’t exist, this is an unsurprisingly ragtag collection. Bits are surprising, especially the survival of my father’s internal “passport” for Estonia (1936-1943) and his gymnasium (middle-high school) report card from 1930.  None of my mother’s documents predate her arrival in Germany in the period 1944-45.

Presumably, my father, having moved in a relatively orderly fashion in 1943 or 1945 to join a German Luftwaffe fighter squadron in Germany,  had a chance to pack some papers. Though he was shot down and hospitalized well away from his squadron’s headquarters in early 1945, he seems to have had delivered to him some of his possessions.

To state the obvious, the above no doubt describes the documentary plight of most refugees at any point in time.

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My father, Albert Vaart (Born, 5 November 1917)

The documents in this package are a report on his gymnasium class of 1930; an internal travel document with notations (four of them)  from 1936 to November 1943; an English-language document that affirms his discharge from the German air force, the Luftwaffe; an entirely German-language document that appears to establish the particulars of his life that would be pertinent to emigration consideration.

AlbertVaartPapers_1930-GymnasiumReportCardThe gymnasium report suggests my father was a ho-hum student. That it is prepared in German is a bit puzzling. By 1930, the historical German influence on Estonia would have receded. His performance in gymnasium, only a bit more impressive than my days in college, hints at a reason he was not more angry about my relative mediocrity as a student.

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport-1The travel document, was unexpected. That my father managed to preserve it is fascinating. That it was a requirement of the day, seems a bit surprising, but, given Estonia’s security environment, perhaps it is not surprising residents were obliged to check in with travels from city or town to another location. It appears, however, that exit stamps were unnecessary. The above and following images show the entire marked content of this document.

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport_Page_2-web

 

 

 

 

 

The page after the first shows basic information–birthdate and home location.

 

 

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport_Page_3-web

My father’s image is from 1936.

 

 

 

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport_Page_4-web More basic data, follows the pages with the image, apparently, though a bit hard for me to define.

 

 

 

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport_Page_5-webThe first actual, as far as I can tell, officially stamped and noted travel, in 1937 appears on the page with the red stamps.

 

 

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport_Page_6-webTravel to Tallinn recorded from 1939, August 1940, and 1942 appears on the following pages, without ornamental, colorful stamps. Given the circumstances of the day, these two pages are symbolic of the endurance of bureaucratic processes in the face of upheaval.  In 1939, Estonia was still independent. By August 1940, it was occupied by the Soviet Union as a result of the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of 1939–yet the recording of travel continued unchanged.

Albert-Vaart-Internal-Passport_Page_7-webThe last entry, a single one on the left side of the book, is, the last notation in the book. It shows an entry into Tallinn in November 1943. My father was by then, I am sure, in the Luftwaffe. He seemed to have gotten home leave and went to Tallinn, presumably to visit his romantic interest, my mother, who he had met by virtue of her employment as a secretary in an Estonian Air Force office. I materialized in August 1944. Hmmm?

Having been downed (my father said, by a gunner in a Russian tank) and fortunately been picked up badly wounded (by an unfortunate parachute escape from his FW-190) by friendly German forces, he was transported to a German military hospital near Munich.

The war’s end brought a new beginning of sorts for my father–and the creation of a new set of critical documents, two of which are included here.

AlbertVaartDischargePaper-FrontThe first, was an  English language document, certified by an American officer, declaring my father’s discharge from the German air force. This was a necessary step in the denazification process that allowed him to play roles in the displaced persons camps of the time and to make him eligible for eventual consideration for entry into the United States.

AlbertVaartIdentityTestimony-p1The second was a document that would support assertions of his identity. The image to the left and the following two images appear to be efforts to fully establish his identify–a judgment dependent on a full translation, now underway.

 

AlbertVaartIdentityTestimony-p2

Page 2.

 

 

 

 

 

AlbertVaartIdentityTestimony-p3Page 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will stop here. The next post will show my mother’s documents.

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?

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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).

LtVaartWinter

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.

AlbertDraftsman

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.

AlbertSinger-EstonianHouseNYC

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.

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