BaltHerNet Conference in Tartu to celebrate 100 years of the Baltic Republics and 10 years of our organization

July 6, 2018

The conference “New Beginnings of Baltic Diaspora” took place at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu from June 26-29. The conference was organized by the NGO Baltic Heritage Network with the help of partners including the Estonian National Museum, the Estonian Literary Museum, Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies, and the National Archives of Estonia.

The conference celebrated the 100th birthdays of the Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The conference was also an opportunity to examine the current and past experiences diaspora communities have had opening and closing archives. The conference covered topics such as creating new collections, promoting existing collections, questions regarding preservation and accessibility, as well as oral history and family stories, writing memoirs, and the importance of passing history on to following generations. Speakers included academic researchers, memory institution specialists, in addition to hard-working volunteers, and representatives of diaspora community memory institutions.

A total of 24 presentations were made at the Baltic diaspora gathering, Greetings were given by Anne-Ly Reimaa, the Head of International Relations on Integration Issues at the Ministry of Culture, the Director of the Estonian National Museum, Alar Karis, and the President of BaltHerNet, Piret Noorhani. The conference was opened by Uppsala University professor Raimo Raag, whose opening speech focused on the definitions of “new” and “old” in the context of community. Often the development of new communities abroad gives previous generations within the community reason to consider the next generation to be new. Similarly, ethnic groups give refugee communities their own names. The 19th century emigration that took place for agrarian reasons was without a doubt very different from the migratory wave that took place during and following the Second World War. Each new wave of migration has been accompanied by the renaming of the previous wave. Furthermore, the alteration of terminology is also recognizable over time (terms used early on, such as refugee or displaced persons, change over time or disappear entirely). Therefore, the diaspora lifestyle can be considered cyclical. Proferssor Raag found that it is interesting to analyze the conference title with “beginnings” plural – was there one similar beginning in the Baltic diaspora or rather many different ones depending on the ethnic group, destinations, period of migration, or other reasons related to the field.

Presentations by academic representatives from abroad included Geert Franzenburg from the University of Münster, Marcus Velke from the University of Bonn, Jüri Kivimäe who has been a longtime professor at the University of Toronto, Pauli Heikkilä from the University of Helsinki, and Kristīne Beķere from the Latvian Academy of Sciences. G. Franzenburg discussed the process of constructive memory, memory codes, and culture identity as a dynamic process that has a strong sense of belonging. M. Velke spoke about the Baltic community in post-war Bonn, focusing on two distinguished Baltic exile institutions, the Baltic Institute for Research and Development and the Baltic Christian Students Union. J. Kivimäe gave an overview of the heritage of the Baltic University that was active in Hamburg and Pinneberg, Germany from 1946 to 1949. The establishment of the Baltic University was incredibly important, as it was very successful in poor conditions providing scholars who had left the Baltic countries academic work and simultaneously providing an academic education to young Balts in DP camps. P. Heikkilä presented a lecture about questions surrounding committees fighting to free Estonia and their activities at their peak during the 1950s and 1960s, when the relationship between the Estonian American National Committee and Committee for a Free Estonia was complicated, including power struggles and attempts to outdo each other’s actions. K. Beķere introduced questions regarding the legal consistency of Baltic countries since the end of Second World War until the restoration of national continuity at the beginning of the 1990s. Although representatives of Baltic countries in the free world could not direct USA politics in the direction of the Baltic countries, the activities of diplomats were important for the preservation and recognition of national continuity.

This time there were 5 presentations at the conference about Latvian and Lithuanian diaspora. Presentations covered an introduction of research done on Siberian Latvians living in Krasnoyarsk region based on the Latvian author Melanija Vanaga’s work (Liene Salmina), today’s composition of Lithuanians in the ethnically Latvian settlement in the Šventoji region (Krišs Kapenieks), Latvian lecturers at the Baltic University (Baiba Vanaga), the activities of the Lithuanian Authors’ Society in the United States of America in the 1950-1970s (Žydronė Kolevinskienė), and research about emigration through the educational programs at the National Library of Lithuania (Jolanta Budriuniene). The rest of the presentations examined the activities of Estonian diaspora in Australia (Inno Salasoo, Maie Barrow, Terry Kass/Jüri Voan), in the United States of America (Ave Marie Blithe) and in Canada (Piret Noorhani). Lectures focusing on Estonian memory institution activities surrounding diaspora included: the research status of Siberian Estonians (Anu Korb), the accessibility of film heritage on topics of diaspora (Ivi Tomingas), the heritage of literary scholar Ivar Ivask (Aija Sakova), the life works of author and artist Gunnar Neeme (Marin Laak), and the literary relationship between the diaspora and the homeland following the Second World War (Anneli Mihkelev). Representative of the “Kogu Me Lugu” (Collecting Our Story) project Michaela Snopkova and Tartu University professor and literary scholar Tiina Ann Kirss gave overviews of capturing life stories. Tiina reviewed the status of the incredible collaborative project “Minu elu ja armastus: Eesti Vabariik 100” (My Love and Life: Estonia 100). The first day ended with Helga Merits’ documentary about the Geislingen DP camp, which included children’s interviews and a thorough introduction from the author. A guided tour of the Estonian National Museum, the opening of the exhibit “Food: A Treasury of Estonian Heritage. Businesses and Factories in Toronto,” a visit to the National Archives of Estonia, and the opening reception of the exhibit dedicated to Gunnar Neeme at the Estonian Literary Museum all fit into the conference program.

The conference lectures were available via livestream for all those who were curious and soon they will be available on Youtube (use the keywords Baltic Heritage Network to search). The NGO BaltHerNet Annual General Meeting also took place during the conference period and it was decided that the Chief Archivist of the Museum of Estonians Abroad, Piret Noorhani, will continue as the President of BaltHerNet. The Board of Directors was elected: Karin Kiisk (secretary, Estonian National Museum), Vice-Presidents Kristine Bekere (Latvian Academy of Sciences) and Jolanta Budriuniene (Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania), Board Members Maarja Merivoo-Parro (Tallinn University) and Birgit Kibal (National Archives of Estonia). Two honorary members were also elected: David Jacobs from the Hoover Institute Archives and Andris Ķesteris from the Latvian National Federation in Canada.

This conference was the 5th, as they have been taking place every 3 years since 2006. The next destination is in Vilnius in 2021. You are welcome to join us!

Birgit Kibal