Escaping Soviet Union Occupance During World War II

The Foreword to Coming Home

My story doesn’t describe the intimate details of the slaughter and unbelievably inhumane treatment of people in German concentration camps and Soviet gulags. Neither does it chronicle the unthinkable death and destruction of battlegrounds like Stalingrad and the landings at Normandy. Rather, it’s an account of an average family’s struggle to survive in the midst of World War II and its far-reaching aftermath.

Many of us are accustomed to looking at wars from a perspective of winners and losers. Regrettably, winning or losing a war usually represents only part of the misery and cost of armed conflicts. Most agonizing are the repercussions of war that consumes lives and resources for decades after combat has ceased.

Let’s use the 2003 war with Iraq to depose the regime of Saddam Hussein as an example. At the start of the conflict there was little doubt in anybody’s mind which side was going to win. The war lasted only weeks with minimal death and destruction. However, what were its consequences? That question won’t be definitively answered for decades. Most people agree that war should be the very last resort to solving a conflict. The reason for that is because in war there really are no clear-cut winners. To one degree or another both sides in the conflict suffer human and material losses. Worse, the suffering goes on for years afterwards, especially for families who lose loved ones through death or permanent separation. Consequently, when a nation decides to go to war, it also has to devise a detailed strategy to deal with the war’s after-effects. World War II is a prime example of a war that, because no such strategy existed, in effect was not over until 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down.

War in Estonia began on the 23rd of August 1939 when the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Vyacheslav M. Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed a secret protocol fundamentally dividing Eastern Europe into “two spheres of influence” between the two world powers. The agreement essentially stipulated that the Soviet Union was to occupy Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Poland would be divided roughly in half between the two totalitarian regimes. Other Central European countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria would be governed by Nazi Germany. Shortly after the signing of the treaty the Red Army massed on the Estonian border and the Estonian President, Konstantin Päts, was forced by Joseph Stalin to sign a “mutual aid pact” allowing the Russians to establish military bases inside the country. If Päts had refused to sign the treaty, Soviet Forces were prepared to forcibly occupy Estonia.

Eight months later, on June 16th, 1940, the tiny independent and democratic nation of 1.5 million people was falsely accused by the Soviet Union of non-compliance with the mutual aid pact by allegedly giving refuge to a Polish submarine crew. The following day the Red Army poured over the border and the forces in the military bases already established within Estonia fanned out to occupy the entire country. Immediately, a new provisional government was installed and three weeks later, under the guns of the occupying forces, elections were held in which only Communist Party candidates were allowed to appear on the ballot. The results were predictable and the newly “elected” administration wasted little time in asking for, and receiving, admittance into the Soviet Union.

What ensued has been described as the “Red Terror.” Within a year 1,900 Estonians were executed, 1,100 vanished without a trace, and more than 10,000 men, women and children were randomly rounded up and deported to Siberian forced labor camps.

In late July of 1941, the Germans, now at war with the Soviet Union, with support from the Estonian “Brothers of the Forest” (small lightly armed underground units including an entire battalion that had clandestinely returned from Finland) pushed the Soviets out of the country. Unfortunately, although the Estonians fought gallantly for their freedom on the eastern front, the nation never regained its independence from under the Third Reich. During the German occupation roughly 6,000 Estonians were executed, many were jailed and a considerable number were forcibly sent to Germany to work in the defense industry.

By the end of October 1944 the Soviet Forces were again in control of Estonia. Amazingly, for several days between the departure of the Nazi Army and the Communist occupation, the Estonians managed to regain their independence and form a government that included an army composed mostly of men who had been fighting on the eastern front and other physically-able individuals recruited right off the street. Even the national flag was raised on top of Tall Hermann (the medieval castle tower overlooking Tallinn), which angered the few remaining German officials and required the use of force to keep the flag flying. But predictably, the effort to reestablish a new independent republic was courageous but futile.

My father and I were among the approximately 75,000 citizens who escaped (mostly to either Germany or Sweden) from the return of the Red Army. We were the lucky ones. The majority of people, including my mother and sister, had nowhere to run or hide. They had to remain behind and endured extreme hardships and callous treatment at the hands of the occupiers.

Many chose to fight to the bitter end. For instance, when the country was overrun by the Red Army, most of the Estonian soldiers faded into the woodlands and marshes to again form “Brothers of the Forest,” bands similar to those during the initial Soviet occupation. These units conducted organized attacks against the Red Army, the KGB and other administrative agencies until well into 1954. In 1978 the last active Forest Brother, while fishing, jumped into the river and drowned in order to avoid capture by several KGB agents who were about to apprehend him. It’s estimated that there are at least 10,000 unmarked graves in the forests, bogs and swamps of Estonia containing the remains of fallen Estonian “Brothers of the Forest.”

Immediately after the Soviet Union regained control of Estonia, large numbers of people again disappeared. Some were summarily executed; most were banished to slave labor camps in Siberia where the majority died as a result of inhumane treatment and appalling living conditions. By the end of 1944 about 30,000 people had already been sent to Siberia. Early in 1949 over 20,000 additional Estonians, mainly members of farm families, were deported with the intent of cutting off the support farmers had been giving to the “Brothers of the Forest.” In addition, those farmers who resisted collectivization of the farms were sent to Siberia. Overall, between 1940 and 1959, approximately 145,000 ethnic Estonians perished as a consequence of the Communist tyranny.

Thirteen percent of the one-and-a-half-million pre-war population of the country vanished. Ironically, the Soviet portion of the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was further reinforced and actually expanded by the results of the Yalta Conference in February 1945 attended by Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. At this conference the three leaders agreed that all allied occupying forces would help the occupied lands to form democratic forms of government. Of course, Stalin never intended to comply with the accords reached at the conference and, before long, the world was immersed in the Cold War that lasted for forty-five long years.

In this book I attempt to bring to life many of the seldom mentioned tragic effects of the secret agreement made by Molotov and Ribbentrop and expanded by the Yalta Conference by tracing the trials and tribulations of the members of my family from 1940 until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990. I have always believed that being able to witness world events unfolding through the eyes of participants allows others to get a much better sense of the extended suffering caused by wars.

War affects people in infinitely dissimilar ways. Clearly, wars kill, maim and disrupt the lives of countless combatants as well as civilians. That, nonetheless, is only part of the story. Extended conflicts also tear families apart permanently, amplify personality conflicts that may have existed before, and cause irreversible psychological damage. Conversely, war may also strengthen the character and altruistic tendencies of individuals. Accordingly, this book is a very personal and bittersweet account of a family in a small insignificant Baltic country caught in a life and death struggle between two world powers. From a broader perspective, the story depicts the fate of countless other refugees who lost their homes and were separated from members of their families and relatives by the events of World War II and later by the Iron Curtain for more than four decades. The work is also a partial chronicle of a small country’s frantic struggle against Nazi and Soviet terror, repression, and later systematic russification of its ten-thousand-year-old language and culture.

This book is based on my own experiences and numerous return trips to my native country, Estonia, before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union where I visited with my sister and other remaining relatives after thirty-eight years of separation. Essentially, the work describes the misfortunes of my family, battered and finally separated by the ruthless events of war and forced to live in two different worlds. It’s also the story of desperate attempts made by its members to find each other after the war ended.

I hope that readers will appreciate what it was like to survive in two drastically dissimilar environments, especially in a country like Estonia that was a free democracy prior to World War II but remained occupied for nearly fifty years after peace was supposedly restored. Paradoxically, millions of innocent people died and suffered before and after the war because of the demented impulses of two of the most inhuman tyrants in recent history, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Is it possible for people and countries to be subjected to such drawn-out misery again? Clearly, the answer is an unqualified “Yes!” All we need to do is to take a good look around the world. Evil is everywhere and it doesn’t discriminate against any particular race or nationality. The story of my family is no doubt being repeated even today as tyrants make war on their neighbors. I hope that this story may, in some small way, helps reduce the possibility that our children will be subjected to such pain and deprivation. In war, there are no winners!