A Change of Pace: A Place for Reflection

Tracy treated me this weekend to a couple of days on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, spending nights in a quality hotel in Cambridge, Md.  Her goal was to deliver a belated birthday present (from August) and get me out of the office and into my kayak and onto some water, where thoughts of my office would not intrude. (It seems such thoughts cannot swim.)

BlackwaterPanorama-Web The panorama here (a melding of nine images over a span of about 130 degrees) suggests a fairly bland, uninteresting view, a great deal of marsh grass and this and that.

Life may feel like this in its broad sweep, looking very similar with a few objects/moments that stand out.  But, each of us live our days and minutes in the details. And so a scene like this panorama, begins to take on clarity with its minute parts–or so I think.



The collection of trees, otherwise  indifferent at a distance, speak to me of life, its emergence, growth, and ending.






Blackwater-Pier-CrowdThe wildlife of the marsh. Familiar yet particular. We have all seen the dudes in this image (gulls, terns, cormorants) in many places.






The minute parts of this marsh, among it the marsh grass, in its millions of stems, speak for themselves.






The patch of growth apart from all else. Who would imagine a thistle plant here? Miracles abound.


And last,  at a another level of detail, the questions remains, “Where is Charlotte?”



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.


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.


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.







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




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.



Page 2.






AlbertVaartIdentityTestimony-p3Page 3







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