It Takes a Village

November 25, 2015

The Estonian Archive in the U.S. (EAUS) is a non-profit organization that has endured for over 50 years only thanks to donations from our local expatriate Estonian community and relies on countless hours of work done by many dedicated volunteers. This is one reason why we gladly accept all and any help.

In September of this year we were happy to welcome the head of the Acquisitions Department of the National Archives of Estonia Tiiu Kravtsev, and the head of Private Archives’ Services, Content and Description, archivist Gristel Ramler. Their trip was made possible in part by a generous grant from the Rahvuskaaslaste Programm, a grant for expatriate activity promoting the preservation and development of Estonian culture abroad and with generous financial help from the Estonian American National Council.

I had met Tiiu Kravtsev already in June in Riga, at the Baltic Heritage Network conference, and then again in Toronto, Canada, where I also became friends with Gristel Ramler. It was great to see them again in Lakewood, New Jersey. Tiiu and Gristel did not joke around; they demanded a project to dive into on the very first day. Like the mythological creature Kratt from Estonian folklore, who gets mad if you don’t have enough chores to keep them busy once you have summoned him for help.

We decided to start with private persons’ collections, since a large portion of Estonian expatriate organization’s files have already been sent forward to the Caverns, aka Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, which houses a large portion of EAUS collections. The Estonian collection, in fact, is among the top 5 in scope of about 200 different ethnic collections. We can’t help being a highly cultured packrat nation! It helps, that Tiiu and Gristel have worked at IHRC, sorting through this multitude of documents; therefore their expertise was invaluable in assessing the remaining files in Lakewood. It appears, that as more documents arrive at EAUS, many collections are now in existence both in New Jersey and Minnesota. Weeding out duplicates is painstaking work. This is the reason, why initially the aim of EAUS was to collect materials of Estonian expatriate organizations, which have ended their work; therefore their archives would be complete. Life hardly goes as planned and of course we can not refuse any materials relevant to the Estonian experience in America, even though this means revising existing collections many times.

At our lunch breaks Tiiu, Gristel and I also had a chance to discuss the unique town of Lakewood, New Jersey, where EAUS has been located for half a century. Lakewood used to be a big Estonian hub, now the population has dwindled significantly. Over the years, it is however rapidly becoming one of the largest Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities.

Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, known, as BMG or simply “Lakewood” — is one of the two biggest yeshivas, or Talmudic colleges, in the history of the world.

At Lakewood, 6700 undergraduate and graduate students pursue a curriculum focused on the Babylonian Talmud, the compendium of legal argument and ethical narrative that has informed traditional Judaism for a millennium and a half. Even at the height of the golden age of yeshivas in pre-war Europe, it is doubtful that many people were studying the Talmud full time.

Observing the daily life of this town can be quite exotic. Autumn is the season of High Holidays: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, among others. We enjoyed many interesting conversations about various diasporas and how culture and ethnical identity exists in various communities. The Estonian population of only circa 1.5 million worldwide is an astonishingly small number, considering that the 10 biggest cities in the U.S. alone have populations in millions (New York City being the largest with a population of 8.4 million). This census data alone shows it is imperative to collect and preserve materials illustrating the vast wealth of Estonian heritage, and prove to the rest of the world that we do exist and we do matter.

Ave Blithe