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.
The 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.
The 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.
More basic data, follows the pages with the image, apparently, though a bit hard for me to define.
The first actual, as far as I can tell, officially stamped and noted travel, in 1937 appears on the page with the red stamps.
Travel 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
I will stop here. The next post will show my mother’s documents.