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.