BaltHerNet Summer School2023 – My Estonian Roots

September 4, 2023

The Baltic Heritage Network summer school, the eleventh which has been organised thus far, took place this year from June 26th-29th. Founded in 2008, the Baltic Heritage Network promotes collaboration between cultural institutions which focus on preserving and researching the cultural heritage of the Baltic Diaspora. This includes organising events such as conferences, seminars, and summer schools. Each summer school takes place in a different location with a different theme. This year’s took place in Värska, Võrumaa, investigating the theme of “My Estonian Roots”.

Read more: BaltHerNet Summer School2023 – My Estonian Roots

Before travelling to Värska, summer school participants gathered at the Noora, the new National Archives of Estonia building in Tartu. There, the group heard a lecture by Tõnis Türna, who spoke about conducting genealogical research and any restrictions one might run into when requesting materials. Birgit Kibal then gave a tour of the building before the group began their bus journey to Värska. When the group arrived in Värska, there was a screening of the show “8 mm elu”, which investigates film footage of the Estonian diaspora, along with a Zoom discussion with the show’s editor, Maarja Merivoo-Parro. A clip was also shown examining the legacy of Estonians on the island of Gotland in Sweden.

The Baltic Heritage Network Annual Meeting kicked off the second day, followed by a packed schedule of presentations and discussions. While new members are joining BaltHerNet, financial opportunities and support have decreased simultaneously. Nevertheless, the BaltHerNet team always manages to tackle any work that comes their way, the results of which we can be proud.

The morning presentations investigated Estonian diaspora archives. Though unable to attend in person, Maie Barrow spoke with the group over Zoom about the work done within the Estonian-Australian community and its archives. There was also a presentation by Keila Kopvillem on the EstonianCanadian archives of VEMU and using the collections for genealogical and personal research. Madli Wiiburg Walfridsson spoke about the Estonian archives in Sweden and efforts being made in preserving and gathering data about the photo collection.

After lunch, Fred Puss from the Estonian Biographical Centre spoke about genealogical research, sharing examples from his work and his family history. Tiina Tael from the Estonian National Museum investigated letters from Setomaa in the museum collections. Marin Laak from the Estonian Literary Museum shared material from Ilmar Laaban, Gunnar Neeme, and Abel Lee collections. Janis Tobreluts from the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church archives discussed transferring church archives from the Estonian diaspora to the Saaga collection of digitised archives.

A discussion regarding cooperation in Estonian cultural heritage in diaspora followed these lectures. Participants included Kadri Linnus and Marin Mõttus from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Heidy Eskor from the Estonian Institute, and Piret Noorhani from Baltic Heritage Network and VEMU. Many organisations pursue similar projects and programming, and the project leaders are often the same cultural workers. Collection campaigns could be organized through competitions in supplementary schools and educational institutions in the Estonian diaspora to create connections between different generations and communities. BaltHerNet could also greatly benefit from new, young energy. There are many exciting possibilities for meaningful collaboration in the future.

Programming for the evening was a viewing of the television show “Sinu uus sugulane” (Your New Relative) and a discussion with the show consultant Fred Puss. The series is similar to the British show Who Do You Think You Are, which has been on the air for several decades. In each episode of “Sinu uus sugulane”, a public figure in Estonia finds new relatives – other wellknown people – that they did not know about before.

The third day of summer school investigated the collection of stories. Mari-Ann Remmel from the Estonian Literary Museum spoke about local lore and its role in shaping identity. Tiina Kirss from the Association of Estonian Life Stories introduced the association’s collection and explored how a biography is not just the story of an individual but a story about the individual, ancestors, and family. Marju Meschin from the Institute of Estonian Memory talked about the work of EMI and the plans to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the Great Escape. Piret Voolaid, the director of the Estonian Literary Museum, spoke about collecting Estonian school lore in Canada and how former and current students and teachers across generations in Toronto remember their school days.

After lunch, VEMU’s Piret Noorhani screened the film Meie Tartu, and, following the film discussed VEMU’s plans for the future. Aune Valk from the University of Tartu presented findings from a survey investigating Estonian identity. Following this presentation was a discussion about Estonian identity in the diaspora, moderated by Aune Valk with Riina Kindlam, Tiina Kirss and Lea Kreinin.

On the last day of summer school, the group was taken on a tour of Setomaa, thanks to tour guide Helen Külvik, beginning in Värska’s orthodox church. After learning more about traditions and history at the Seto Farm Museum, the group was treated to a performance by a Leelo choir. Although time was running short, the bus was still able to make quick stops at Vana Jüri Seebikoda (soap store) and at Seto Atelier Gallery in Obinitsa, where the group was treated to a singalong with Evar Riitsaar and Kauksi Ülle.

Instead of summer school next year, Baltic Heritage Network will be organising a conference in Vilnius – which means our Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts will also join in. Keep up with BaltHerNet news via the newsletter:

Keila Kopvillem

Birgit Kibal