Memorial Event in Toronto to Commemorate Olga Kistler-Ritso

June 7, 2014

On April 5, a memorial event was held in Toronto, commemorating Dr. Olga Kistler-Ritso, an Estonian émigré who, together with thousands of other Estonians, was forced to flee the country during World War II.

Olga rebuilt her life in the United States, where she married a renowned physicist and inventor Walter P. Kistler, and became a mother of their daughter Sylvia. Olga also ran a successful medical practice and was active in the local Estonian community. After Estonia regained independence in 1991, Olga sought ways to give back to her home country, and therefore created the Kistler-Ritso Foundation. The foundation supported the establishment of The Museum of Occupations in Tallinn (2003), and recently made an endowment to Stanford University Libraries, enabling the creation of its Baltic studies program (2013). Olga passed away on November 18, 2013. Her daughter Sylvia Thompson serves as the president of the foundation.

The event for commemorating Olga was hosted by VEMU/Estonian Studies Centre and brought together 30-40 people, among them guests from the United States: Ave-Maria Blithe from The Estonian Archives in the US (Lakewood, NJ) and Liisi Eglit from Stanford University. The event consisted of four talks and two film screenings, which all glimpsed into different aspects of Olga’s life and her legacy.

Piret Noorhani (VEMU/Tartu College) spoke about “Patrons and Museums”, focusing on a few examples of members of Estonian diaspora who have supported Estonian museums both in Estonia and abroad. Olga’s niece Lydia Ritso-Kadai, who was the main person behind the idea of organizing the event, gave a personal insight into her aunt’s life and legacy (“Olga Kistler-Ritso and Her Life’s Work”). The remaining two presentations by Kadri Viires (via Skype) and Liisi Eglit gave an overview of Olga’s input into enhancing the Estonian and Baltic studies both in Estonia and in the United States. Kadri’s presentation “The Museum of Occupations and Its Creator” focused on the creation of the museum, and its state more than ten years later: the museum serves as a preserver of the Estonian memory, and shares info about the 50-year-long occupation period to both Estonians and visitors. Liisi’s presentation (“Baltic Collections of the Stanford University Libraries“) gave an overview of Olga’s endowment to Stanford University Libraries (SUL) and how this initiative has transformed SUL’s Baltic collections, making it possible to create a Baltic studies’ program and to speak about establishing a Baltic chair at Stanford in the near future.

The first film, “Design and Construction of the Museum of Occupation and Fight for Freedom”, gave a good overview of the ideas behind the creation of the museum in Estonia, and the construction of the first building in Estonia specifically designed to be a museum. The second film, “The Woman Who Gave Estonia the Gift of a Museum: Olga Kistler-Ritso”, offered a more personal insight into Olga’s life through the interviews with her family. The film is also viewable here:

Although Olga Kistler-Ritso is no longer with us, she will surely be remembered and her legacy will be carried on both in Estonia and in the United States.

The day before the memorial, visitors were given a chance to see the VEMU archives and discuss possible future cooperation.

Liisi Eglit, Assistant Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies, Stanford University Libraries