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.
Without 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.
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?
Looking 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?