Archivists from Estonia at the Immigration History Research Centre and Archives

October 18, 2014

For the past five years the IHRC/A (Immigration History Research Centre and Archives) at the University of Minnesota, the National Archives of Estonia, and BaltHerNet have been working on improving access to archival materials of Estonian diaspora in the U.S.

Every spring, two archivists from the National Archives spend one month at the IHRC/A organising and describing Estonian collections. A substantial part of the collections from the Estonian Archives in the U.S. in Lakewood, New Jersey is being preserved in Minneapolis, with a majority of it lacking sufficient descriptions. The project was funded by the Estonian governmental Compatriot’s Program via BaltHerNet, by the National Archives of Estonia, and by the University of Minnesota. This year, in May of 2014, Birgit Nurme and Pille Aguraiuja spent four weeks at the IHRC/A with the goal to describe the collections of Estonian congregations in U.S. and the collection of Estonian DP camps.

During the month, collections from 19 congregations were organised and described, including collections from Estonian churches in Sweden, Canada, and Australia, as well as the archives of two Estonian deaneries in the U.S. and a small collection about churches in Estonia. The most intriguing archive was the oldest Estonian church in the U.S., founded in New York by Hans Rebane already in 1898. Although it was the largest collection, almost six linear meters, the earliest records started in fact from 1949. It also became apparent that as the matter of fact none of the collections contained church books. They can most likely be found at active congregations or deanery archives that might also contain books and documents from closed down congregations. However, collections in the IHRC/A contain many lists and various kinds of information about congregation members.

Congregational archives predominantly consist of correspondence, board and council minutes, information letters and congregation bulletins, song sheets and quite a lot of accounting documents. Thereat the minutes and correspondence provide a good overview of the activities of congregations as well as of everyday life of the Estonian diaspora in general. Occasionally the arrival of Estonians to the U.S. in the 1950s is reflected in these documents, as churches often collaborated with other Estonian organisations to assist them and facilitate acclimation in the new environment. For that reason and because of intertwined functions with other organisations, many different creators can be found from church archives (local Estonian societies, Estonian houses, hobby groups, women’s movements and so on). Pastors and members of board or church councils were often active in various fields, therefore articles, studies, statements and publications on significant political, economic, social, and, of course, on topics related to historical events are also often preserved by congregations.

About 16 linear meters of church records were organised and described altogether.

The collection of Estonian DP camps is organised into two series – the first series reflects various aspects of DP camps and the second consists of almost 51,000 cards with personal data of Estonians in camps. The entire collection was put on microfiche in the EAU, Lakewood in 1993 and organised during the process. Until now, the information about the contents of first series was only possible to go through at the archives on-site. The current project covered translating the record level descriptions of the first series and adding these to the database.

The first series consists of about eight linear meters of documents, or in other words, more than 600 records. The first series of preserved documents is organised by control zones and camps. Two major camps of Augsburg-Hochfeld and Geislingen form a separate sub-series. In addition, there is also a thematic sub-series “Gold Fund” (perhaps Estonian national gold reserves in western banks, frozen in 1940) which reflects the use of assets in Estonian DP camps. The collection of Estonian DP camps reflects everyday life diversity and governing the camps by including correspondence, circulars, memorandums, bulletins, regulations, reports and more. Thorough information regarding schools in DP camps can also be brought forth. There are also documents from the POW camp in Uklei with 2828 personal cards.

Information and descriptions of the church archives, as well as of the Estonian DP camps collection can be found in detail on the IHRC/A website in addition to the work from previous years. Improving descriptions and on-line search tools will hopefully continue in the IHRC/A.

Birgit Nurme & Pille Aguraiuja