Memoir Collection by VEMU on the Grand Escape in 1944

June 17, 2015

In autumn of 1944, as the war was coming towards the end and the Soviet army was approaching, many inhabitants of the Baltic States decided to flee their homes. To commemorate this, VEMU announced an initiative last year to collect memoires from this period. Similar collecting campaigns have been organised by VEMU before on a smaller scale, however, almost 60 different objects were submitted this year: artefacts, photos, albums and diaries, memoirs written in Estonian and in English as well as printed books. Amongst the donations were also war medals, two suitcases that were used to flee Estonia in 1944 and a wooden model of a fleeing ship.

The jury (VEMU chief archivist Piret Noorhani, University of Toronto history professor Jüri Kivimäe and University of Glasgow research fellow Lea Kreinin) were pleased to see such a high level of participation. However, as all works were of very different scope, level and nature, it was difficult to announce the ultimate winners. All participants received a letter of honour for their contribution. The jury decided unanimously to give the monetary prize to the Estonian School in Toronto where students have been collecting their grandparents’ memoirs over many years. The prize money will hopefully be used towards publishing those memoirs in print. The four youngest participants, all of them pupils of the Toronto Estonian School, received special prizes.

Eneli Mölder, a young participant.
Photo: Taavi Tamtik


For an archive, getting original documents, diaries and photos has always been very important. A unique historical document, Leo Puurits’s logbook from 1949-1972, contains information about the Baltic University and the student corporations, events, presentations, events participants’ remarks, photos and newspaper cuttings as well as original drawings and even a German train ticket. The second remarkable donation is documents and diaries of Estonian lawyer and journalist Aleksander Peel. The diaries, which cover from leaving Estonia in 1944 until living in Canada in the mid- 1970s, contain over 1600 remarkable pages written in real time which give a very detailed insight into a refugee life.

The memoirs submitted for the competition were of different nature and scope. There were whole life stories, interviews made with parents, grandparents and relatives, copies of diaries etc.

Estonians used different routes to escape the war and the approaching Red Army. People from the NorthWestern part of Estonia and from the islands mostly left by small boats for Sweden. Amongst memoirs sent to VEMU, the majority were about fleeing to Sweden and not so many about being evacuated to Germany. It was interesting to see how the same journey was remembered differently by different people – it all complemented towards creating a fuller and more vivid picture.

Researchers (for example Jürgenson) have noticed that in case of the Second World War escape stories, dangers of the escape route and good luck which saved people from death are emphasised. Stories of leaving are social, collective events. In refugee communities, these stories are often compared and revised collectively, therefore they are often similar. Without doubt, it was a difficult time both for leavers and for those who were left behind. In those memoirs, people usually talk about their escape, describing very precisely their routes, some of them giving very detailed descriptions, place names and other facts.

People experienced different aspects of loss during their escape journey – the material aspects mentioned loss of personal valuables, property and wealth, the sociopsychological aspects of loss can be seen in losing their secure and customary environment, the stress on dislocation, losing their relationships with family, relatives and friends, as well as losing their dignity and self-esteem in a new situation, the physical aspects of loss can be viewed as loss of security, different threats to people’s health (abuse, hunger, possibility of getting wounded or killed) and threats to freedom.

For example, Lembit Liblik remembers the escape from Saaremaa as follows: The storm and rain got worse and water was everywhere. My mother was squatting beside me with my brother on her lap and trying to shelter him from the cold water. He was three years old. While I was swept overboard by the next wave, my dad saw me in the nick of time and grabbed me back from the sea and pulled me back into the boat. Then in a very loud and strict command he said: “if we are to save ourselves, throw everything in the sea to lighten the boat.” Before he could finish the sentence, all the luggage was thrown overboard.

One can only imagine how tragic an experience it could have been to a little boy to leave his home, losing his family and friends, his belongings and also, almost his life.

On the other hand, many of the memories of war-time refugees focused on positive things, most commonly the kindness of people they met on their way and a strong sense of belonging together, sharing things, helping each other and creating a sense of community. For example, many memories are about sharing food or practical tools, helping each other with little services. Soon after getting the elementary things sorted, Estonians started to organise their cultural and education life in the refugee camps. Later diasporic activities in many countries were based on the connections and skills learned in those camps.

Positive elements can also be found in the wartime escape if we look at the adventurous aspect of it. However traumatic and negative it was at the society’s and nation’s levels, at an individual level it was often also regarded as an adventure, a way of getting away from home, seeing new places.

For example, Imre P. wrote about his memoirs: In the description [of escape], one can feel a slightly adventurous tone. The reason is that these are memories of a child! It was a big adventure – long train journeys, new places and towns to see. In the eyes of an adult it was much more tragic – leave your sisters, brothers, parents, your home behind.

Many other memoirs have also praised the possibility to see foreign lands, and stressed Estonians’ general cultural interest towards places they passed on their way.

Hardship continued for some years after the Big Escape. Many people had to make a further trip from Germany and Sweden to UK, America, Australia, Canada or elsewhere later.

However difficult the times had been to the wartime generation, people managed to get on with their lives and build a new future for themselves and their families abroad.

This year’s competition is about music in Estonians’ life. VEMU is looking forward to receiving memoirs, documents, photos, film and audio recordings about this topic.

Lea Kreinin