A New Homeland—Part II

July 13th, 2012 → 1:20 pm @

“Finally, in April of 1950, after almost giving up all hope of ever seeing America, we were notified that a farmer in northern New York State had agreed to sponsor us. Father and I jumped for joy and then packed our bags and headed for another refugee camp in Wentorf, several miles east of Billbrook. Wentorf’s sole mission was to process and prepare Displaced Persons, who had found sponsors, for emigration to various countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and England. The largest numbers of refugees, by far, went to America and Canada.

 The two and a half months that we spent at Wentorf went by extremely slowly. At first there were countless medical examinations and laboratory tests. Then there were almost limitless personal documentation screenings interspersed with an equal number of interviews in an attempt to, as thoroughly as possible, determine each individual’s background. Then there was the long, monotonous period of waiting for the positive or negative results of all the probes. With so much time on my hands, I played countless hours of ping-pong daily in the recreation center. I guess all that paid off since eventually I became the camp’s junior champion and even won second place in the men’s finals.

 My remaining idle time was devoted to reading all of the popular German language Western novels that I could get my hands on. Much of that time really should have been dedicated to learning English but reading about cowboys and Indians was considerably more exciting. There was always “the next day” for all that serious stuff.

 When the results of the medical tests finally came back we encountered an unexpected setback. An unexplained spot had shown up on Father’s chest x-ray that could have disqualified him from going to America. Father was sent to a larger medical facility for more comprehensive tests. Fortunately, two weeks later he returned with a clean bill of health. We were now ready to leave for the United States on the next available ship.

 On July 7, 1950, we sailed for our newly adopted homeland from Bremerhaven on board a spacious and well-equipped American troop carrier. A War Relief Services ticket receipt indicates that it was Ship 165. Years later, while doing some research, I discovered that there was no US troop carrier with the designation of Ship 165 or more precisely AP-165. So my guess is that whoever wrote out our ticket for Albany at the New York harbor mistakenly put down 165 instead of 145 on the ship designation line which suggests that the troop carrier that brought us to the United States was the USS Harry Taylor. In any case, it was fun being briefly back at sea again and five days later, on July 12, we docked at a regular passenger pier and not at Ellis Island in New York.”

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A New Homeland—Part I

July 6th, 2012 → 12:31 pm @

Much had changed at the Transmitter Camp since we had departed a year ago. All of my old refugee friends were gone. They had departed for their new homelands. It was a severe letdown for me to realize that although I had traveled much of the world for a year, I would be the last one among my friends to relocate to a permanent home.

Fortunately, Ronald and his family still resided near the camp and I saw a lot of other familiar faces as I joined my former class at Schule Billbrookdeich. They were now in the last half of the sixth grade, the final elementary grade in the German school system.

After we returned to Transmitter Camp father immediately applied for emigration to the United States. In the request he stipulated that he’d accept any job for which he could qualify. That was the easy part. Now we had to wait and hope that one of the war relief services in America would be able to match Father’s qualifications, including a thirteen-year-old dependent, with the employment needs of one of the registered sponsors.

The Estonian refugees in Germany had appropriately named this sponsor matching process as the “orjaturg” (slave market). We waited nervously for several months and with every passing day our confidence in being able to find our way to the United States diminished accordingly. In the meantime, I completed elementary school in Billbrook and father worked as a radio technician in a factory in Gilde, another suburb of Hamburg.

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Two Different Paths—Part II

June 24th, 2012 → 6:33 pm @

“…After the war, when all the prisoners of war had been exchanged (mostly voluntarily but some by force) and the people who had been uprooted returned to their homelands (some of these folks were also not given a choice whether to return or not), there were still over a million homeless people from different countries left in western Germany. These were political refugees who knew what terrible fate awaited them if they decided to go back home. Most of these refugees were fromEstonia,Latvia,Lithuania,Russiaand theUkraine.

These exiles were officially designated as Displaced Persons or DPs and placed under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration or UNRRA. The Western Allies (Britain, France and theUnited States) supported UNRRA in their respective zones of occupation, with adequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care. In order to best accomplish that, DP camps sprang up all across westernGermany (primarily in the British and American zones). Most of the camps were situated in former German military facilities. These camps, as much as possible, were organized by nationalities. Since the number of Estonian refugees was comparatively small, there was only one large camp where they were assembled, although there were several other insignificantly smaller complexes. The main Estonian camp was located in Geislingen in the American zone.

In addition to taking care of the remaining refugees in Germany, UNRRA also helped the DPs to emigrate to new homelands in the West. That was usually accomplished by finding sponsors for the DPs in countries like theUnited States,Canada,Great Britain,AustraliaandArgentina. The sponsors promised employment and housing for the émigrés. Some of the DPs, especially those for whom UNRRA couldn’t find sponsors, elected to permanently stay inGermany. By 1953 all of the DP camps had been closed.

It was in Hamburg that Father and I were officially given the new label — DP. To me being called a “DP” was humiliating. I hated this term from the very first day I heard it. I felt as if I was a lesser person than anyone else, with the exception of other refugees. Even the Germans, who had been defeated in war, had more self-respect as far as I was concerned. They were still Germans and not some God-forsaken DPs.”

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Two Different Paths—Part I

June 16th, 2012 → 1:29 pm @

In the next two blogs I will attempt to give the reader some sense of how the life of my sister, Maimu, and mine differed from day one after I fled from Estonia with my father on September 19th, 1944…..

 “Somehow I managed to get back to Tallinn within a couple of months after the reoccupation. I moved in with Mother at Aunt Hilda’s, and the three of us tried to make ends meet as best as possible. It wasn’t easy. Even our own relatives made it more difficult to cope with the living conditions. Father, for example, had left everything we weren’t able to take with us when we fled to Põlva with Aunt Olga. When mother sent a letter asking Aunt Olga to send us some of our clothes, she received a surprising letter back from cousin Salme, Olga’s oldest daughter, telling us that they didn’t have any of our clothes. Further, she told her that they no longer considered her to be their relative since she’d chosen not to go with Father,” concluded Maimu as she fetched an old yellow envelope from the book shelf and handed it to me.

It was Salme’s letter that she’d saved for all these years. The tone of the letter was unbelievably cutting, yet she’d had the gall to sign it, “With best wishes, Salme.” After reading it I was sick to my stomach, especially since I’d met “smiling and gracious” Salme on our first trip. I guess she sensed then that Maimu would eventually tell me something about the letter. What also now became quite clear to me is why Laine had avoided staying in touch with Maimu all the years from the time that Father and I had fled. In effect, all members from my mother’s side of the family were “untouchables” and Laine had made sure that there was no doubt as to what side of the Ehin clan she belonged to. How sickening!       

After I gave the letter back to Maimu she continued her story. “After the war, Mother trained to be a nurse and then she went to work in the Tallinn Children’s Hospital where you had been born. She really enjoyed caring for children. She continued to work at the hospital even after she got sick until she became completely incapacitated and confined to her bed. I guess she needed to be close to youngsters because of her tragic loss of you. You can’t imagine how Mother missed you until the day she died.” She stopped for a moment to wipe tears from her eyes.

“When the schools finally reopened, under new management of course, I didn’t go back to high school. Instead, I applied and was accepted to the Tallinn Physical Education Technicum. I completed my two year education there in 1950. While attending the school I became a fairly respectable athlete (‘Respectable’ my foot! I later saw roughly fifty or so certificates for the medals she’d won. One year she even took second place in high-jump in the All Soviet Union Junior Women’s Finals in Moscow.). High jumping was my best event but I also competed in the hundred-meter dash, hurdles, and the relay,” Maimu chuckled with a wily grin on her face. It was nice to see her smile again.

“My education was put to real good use. For nine years after I received my degree I was officially assigned to a canning factory in Tallinn. Actually, I didn’t do any work there at all. Instead, I played volleyball full-time and our team competed all over the Soviet Union. Now you know why the USSR doesn’t have any professional teams or athletes. And you thought you did well playing American football in college.” Maimu was definitely in good spirits tonight.

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Deceived by an American Sailor

May 25th, 2012 → 3:30 pm @

On one of our stops in England (when I spent a year at sea) a young American merchant sailor visited our ship and Father invited him to our cabin. During the course of our conversation he told us that he was from the western part of the United States and that his father owned a large cattle ranch. Later he asked if we were interested in emigrating to America. Naturally, the answer was yes. The young man then mentioned that he could probably get us jobs on his father’s ranch. At that point I became elated at the prospect of becoming a real honest-to-goodness cowboy. Subsequently, the lad asked if we could advance him some money which he would use to pay for the initial paper work requirements in order to get the emigration process started.

At this point Father sensed a scam and wanted to end the visit. Desperately wanting to become a cowboy, I begged him to take a chance. Finally, the sailor was given thirty pounds (worth about 150 dollars at that time) in cash and we exchanged addresses. Shortly thereafter the smooth-talking mariner departed, never to be seen or heard from again. It was an expensive lesson for me but one that taught me a lot about human nature and the real world around me.

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Sleeping with the KGB

May 19th, 2012 → 3:42 pm @

“Sleeping with the KGB,” written by Cheryl-Anne Millsap, is the best and most detailed article written so far about the KGB activities that took place at the Viru Hotel in Tallinn, Estonia during the 50 year Soviet occupation of the country.  Unbeknownst to me, the author also points out that Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the hotel (and created quite an incident) as did astronaut Neil Armstrong. It’s great reading and from today’s perspective also quite amusing. Enjoy! http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/homeplanet/2012/may/18/sleeping-kgb/

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A Year at Sea—Part IV

May 12th, 2012 → 12:24 pm @

 

“Storms are an unavoidable part of every mariner’s life and we experienced our fair share of them. One of the severest storms that we encountered was in the Atlantic. Dabaibe was fully loaded with coal and headed south towards Gibraltar. We had not quite passed theBay of Biscaywhen the wind grew to gale force from the west and the swells began to grow. Before nightfall, thirty to forty foot waves were breaking over our decks, threatening to tear our hatch covers off.  As the storm grew even more intense, we had to abandon our southerly course because it became too dangerous to take on the ravaging sea from our starboard side. The Captain ordered the ship to be turned west into the wind and its speed reduced. We would simply try to ride out the storm and worry about going in the right direction after the seas calmed down.

Dabaibe looked so insignificantly small among the towering white capped mountains of water around us. As she would reach the crest of a wave, almost pointing directly up in the air, she would then suddenly plunge her bow straight down and bury it in the base of the next oncoming wave. During the course of these gargantuan up and down motions the ship would shudder from stem to stern as the propeller would momentarily leave the water. Also the vessel’s bottom plates would creak ominously as she was caught between two waves which were trying to break her in two.

Even the most experienced and hardiest members of our crew were extremely concerned.  We all hoped that the forty-eight-year-old freighter would somehow stay in one piece and keep us alive at least during the remaining hours of darkness.  She continued to quiver and groan throughout the night but remained intact.  At daybreak the sea’s furor began to subside enabling us to change course and resume our original heading towardsGibraltar.

Another memorable storm occurred in the middle of the Mediterranean when the calm sea unexpectedly turned into walls of foaming fury. It was mid-afternoon and we were beginning to prepare the evening meal in the galley. I, as usual, was in charge of the potato-peeling detail. That entailed grabbing a pail and making a trip to the aft section of the ship to fetch the spuds from the storeroom. Normally, that wasn’t much of a problem, but on this day twenty-to thirty-foot waves were already breaking over the fully-loaded freighter.

Pail in hand, I left the galley for the storeroom. Before descending to the aft deck from mid-ship I carefully studied the movement of the swells in front of me. My plan was to sprint from mid-ship to the stern section between waves as they broke over the deck below me. When the next wave sprayed over the sides I made my move. I slid down the stairs onto the deck and sprinted as fast as I could towards the storeroom. Halfway to my destination I was buried by a huge wave and suddenly found myself pinned under one of the winches between the aft cargo hatches.  Spitting salt water and gasping for air, I managed to struggle free and run back to mid-ship before the next swell came over the side. Although soaking wet and bruised from head to foot, I was thankful that I hadn’t been swept overboard. The chef was also kind enough to allow me to skip the potato-peeling detail for the evening.”

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A Year at Sea—Part III

May 5th, 2012 → 11:51 am @

“Before all the preparations were completed for our first short crossing to England, I came close to being fired by the Captain. Almost immediately after signing on I became fascinated with “sculling” and was anxious to have a chance to try my hand at it myself. To me it seemed almost effortless, and even classy, to propel and steer a boat with a single oar. Apparently all one had to do was to gently move an oar back and forth at the rear of a small craft to move it forward and take it to wherever you wanted to go. I should have known better, of course.

On the second or third day on my new job I decided to give sculling a try. One of our smaller lifeboats, used for odds and ends around the pier, was in the water tied to the dock near the bow of the ship. After work I left the vessel and walked down to the rowboat. Once in the boat I untied it and began to practice sculling in the shadow of Dabaibe’s bow assuming that no one would be watching me from the ship.

To my surprise instead of moving upstream along the pier, the boat began to promptly drift in the opposite direction and out into the open waterway with the retreating tide. No matter how hard I tried to make my way back to the pier I kept on moving away from the ship faster and faster. Realizing I’d lost control I panicked. I remember thinking that I would soon find myself out of Kiel Harbor and adrift in the Baltic Sea. Fortunately, a passing tugboat captain noticed my predicament and, with a salty grin, towed me back to the pier.

By now most of Dabaibe’s crew had assembled on deck and were watching the affair with great amusement. I wanted to hide but I was on center stage and there was no place to run. As I finally stepped red faced off the gangplank onto the ship our weathered Captain was there to greet me on board with a non-stop barrage of in-your-face scolding that’s never ever been equaled. I thought I’d heard most of the choicest swearwords, and in multiple languages, around Transmitter Camp after the war. Boy, was I wrong! My curse word vocabulary doubled instantly in my short ten minute session with our fearless leader.”

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A Year at Sea—Part II

April 29th, 2012 → 2:56 pm @

“It was quite a unique outfit we joined. The ship was owned by an Estonian named Jakobson who had his office inLondon. He had leftEstoniain 1928 and with the acquisition of Dabaibe he was now the proud owner of three tramp steamers. The ship had an all Estonian crew, with the exception of the Second Engineer who was a Latvian, and was flying a Panamanian flag since that’s where it was registered (Even today many companies around the world register their ships inPanamabecause of their expedient policies). With the all-Estonian crew we had no problem speaking with or swearing at our shipmates.

As we approached Dabaibe’s gangplank it was hard to believe that we would take this vessel to sea in seven days. Its hull was still painted in military gray and covered with rust. One of the blades of the three blade propeller, which was exposed above the water, had been half sheared off probably as a result of enemy fire.

On the deck things didn’t look any better. Hoses, portable generators, wires, and all sorts of other unidentifiable equipment lay strewn about.  Among the gear were at least a dozen men working in grimy overalls sweating profusely. After looking at what seemed complete chaos around us, Father asked one of the men for directions to the Captain’s quarters. The crew member, who looked like a chimney sweep, pointed in the direction of an open door at amidships below the bridge. We introduced ourselves to the Captain and shortly thereafter moved into our quarters…

Within an hour after our arrival Father was busy repairing the vessel’s electrical system and I was peeling my first pail full of potatoes for the evening meal. After all, I was the new mess boy and the inheritor of all other unskilled jobs that needed attention. Afterward, I really grew to hate the potato-peeling job. As far as I was concerned, chipping rust and painting was pure pleasure compared to slaving over spuds. Unfortunately, that would be an almost daily job for me for the next three hundred and fifty-seven days.”     To be continued.

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A Year at Sea—Part I

April 25th, 2012 → 4:07 pm @

“Unexpectedly, Father was offered a job as a radio operator on a ship in July of 1948. The ship was an old Estonian freighter that had evaded the Russians and was now docked in Kiel Harbor, Germany. The vessel was originally built in Liverpool, England in 1900 and its gross weight was eight-thousand tons. The ship’s top speed was eight knots (about ten miles) per hour and its masts could also be rigged for sails. It was a craft that’s usually referred to as a “tramp steamer” for obvious reasons.

To make the offer feasible I was later included in the deal and asked to sign on as a deck boy, a post that included any odd menial jobs that needed to be done around a ship. Father’s salary would be thirty-one British pounds per month and mine ten pounds. At the time the exchange rate for the pound was about five dollars. Of course, free food and board would be part of the arrangement.

Father still had his old Mariner’s Service Certificate issued back in 1920 when he worked on salvage ships as a radio operator. Before I could join the crew, however, I needed a certificate of my own. Father sent my picture and other necessary documentation to the free Estonian Legation in Stockholm, Sweden (Sweden, like the United Sates and many other countries never recognized the forcible incorporation of Estonia into the Soviet Union). Within thirty days I received an Estonian Mariner’s Service Certificate from Stockholm.  We then packed all our belongings into three newly purchased aluminum suitcases and headed for Kiel. There we reported to the S.S. Dabaibe on September 21…”         To be continued.

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