Researching and Archiving the Estonians in America

May 24, 2013

The Immigration History Research Center and Baltic Heritage Network hosted an interdisciplinary symposium on May 15, 2013, at the University of Minnesota, with the goal of furthering efforts to research and archive the experiences of Estonians in America.

“Researching and Archiving the Estonians in America” brought together scholars, archivists and Estonian Americans to discuss international and academic-ethnic community achievements, needs and future directions for collaboration, with attendees of Estonian descent outnumbering all others.

IHRC Director Erika Lee welcomed participants, warmly noting the work of Maarja Merivoo-Parro, a Fulbright Scholar in residence at the University of Minnesota and BaltHerNet board member, in organizing the day-long symposium.

Kris Kiesling, director of the Archives and Special Collections at Elmer L. Andersen Library, described the significance of the Estonian American Collections at the University of Minnesota. She introduced Enda-Mai Holland-Michelson, Director of the Estonian Archives in the U.S., Inc. (Lakewood, N.J.), an organization central to preserving Estonian and especially refugee experience in the U.S., whose work continues today. The EAUS first gathered much of the current IHRC materials and cooperates closely with the collections in Minnesota.

The IHRC Archives is the largest North American collection of multi-ethnic immigrant experience. Estonian American collections comprise 1,100 linear feet, or about one-tenth of the vast immigration and refugee holdings, according to Kiesling, who moderated the archival presentations for the morning.

Estonians abroad have created and preserved historical materials that are vital to the continuing work of reconstituting Estonian culture after decades of Soviet occupation. Keynote speaker Piret Noorhani, president of BaltHerNet since 2008, spoke about the synergy between diaspora and homeland Estonians in that process. The Year of Cultural Heritage 2013 especially calls attention to the fundamental role of heritage and culture in bringing together communities separated for decades in the 20th century, she noted.

Chief archivist of VEMU (Museum of Estonians Abroad) of the Estonian Studies Centre at Tartu College, Toronto, Noorhani detailed the organizational archives held by VEMU. Consistent financial support and scholarly cooperation with the University of Toronto’s Chair of Estonian Studies and the Estonian Canadian community has made it possible for VEMU to become a leader in promoting North American Estonian history. Archival collections are fundamental to the array of cultural and scholarly activities in which the centre engages, such as lectures, public events and the recent “Siberian Estonians” exhibition created by the Estonian Literary Museum and other Estonian heritage institutions.

The Estonian national government has consistently supported Baltic Heritage Network, recognizing that diaspora Estonians have often articulated their experiences and aligned themselves in common with Latvian and Lithuanian refugees. Their shared political efforts abroad and similar refugee experiences despite language differences provide examples of how ethnic identity can remain distinct yet take on collaborative forms. That philosophy is echoed in the structure and mission of BaltHerNet.

Peeter Väljas and Aet Tran-Tõnissoo, archivists of the National Archives of Estonia, offered an overview of work undertaken to preserve evidence of the past two waves of Estonian emigration as well as that occurring since the late 1980s. Although certain materials predated the war, the majority of available documentation abroad relates to post-World War II refugees, or Displaced Persons. Väljas and Tõnissoo traced preservation efforts as early as 1946 from Geislingen DPs through the establishment of the Estonian Archives (now EAUS) at Lakewood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the transfer of a large amount of materials in 2003-2005 to the IHRC in Minneapolis.

The IHRC’s research archivist, Daniel Necas, recounted the long relationship between Lakewood and the IHRC that preceded the momentous gift of historical materials that enlarged the center’s existing Estonian American Collection. Michael G. Karni worked on staff as a volunteer to cultivate relationships in the Estonian community, corresponding as early as 1974 with Endel Kuik to express the center’s understanding of the importance of preserving Estonian immigrant materials. The National Archives, BaltHerNet and IHRC have closely coordinated work at University of Minnesota for five years to describe and make collections known to scholars and the public, ensuring that EAUS efforts are continued and amplified in Minneapolis.

Their archival colleague Liisi Eglit, the newly-named assistant curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies at Stanford University Libraries (SUL), elaborated on collections at SUL and Hoover Institution (HI), also located at Stanford University. She has been charged with filling gaps in the existing print holdings of SUL, and she commented that both institutions aim to increase their Estonian collections, especially through digitization. Recently HI has begun to interpret refugee experience as being fully part of its Cold War focus, encouraging growth of such collections rather than excluding them. Regions near Estonia are also documented, enabling comparative research, and SUL works closely with the Museum of Occupations in Estonia. Stanford University is a leader in digital humanities in the United States, making joint access to digital materials (such as the KGB files of the National Archives of Estonia) an intriguing area for continued work.

The afternoon turned to research and Estonian experience presentations. Erika Lee, who also is a professor in the Department of History at University of Minnesota, introduced Maarja Merivoo-Parro and other speakers. Marivoo-Parro called for scholarly attention to “global Estonianism” and the ways that individuals choose to practice Estonian culture in their everyday lives. She selected Estonian schools and recreation as themes for emphasizing the ways that members of communities inculcate and re-create Estonian knowledge and values in environments far from a native land that a growing number had never seen firsthand.

Bernard Maegi, assistant professor of history at Normandale Community College, spoke of the importance of studying Estonians in the U.S. Despite small numbers and low visibility, such groups can provide insights about immigration writ large. He challenged the audience to consider the complexity of illegal immigration by noting that some Estonians signed up for ship crews and after disembarking to American shores, simply did not return to their vessels. Baltic groups took on an identity that fit within Cold War relations, earning disportionate political attention and modeling interethnic cooperation.

The afternoon session closed on a personal note of remembrances by Kalju Kubits, who came to Minnesota as a refugee with his family. He recalled not learning English until he was sent to an American school, with Estonian language dominating his childhood. Twin Cities Estonians worked to build their community through the Minnesota Eesti Selts, dramatic and sports groups, and cultural associations. Pastor Lind inspired the community with his church leadership, and Richard Nixon began testing his national political aspirations in appearance at the Estonian House in Minneapolis, he said. Audience members likewise shared memories, and Kubits accepted requests for Estonian flags carried in protest of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the Twin Cities, still in his possession.

The predominantly Estonian audience talked deeply after the research session as well as throughout the day, with members sharing wartime and later memories in small groups. An audience member’s comment about the available but aging energy of first-generation immigrants who wished to help with heritage preservation stirred conversation among archivists and community members, as did the question of how to define “Estonianess” – by geography, language, cultural practice or, as one person nicely said, “conversion.”

A concert of choral music arranged for the treble voice made song the answer to those many questions and exchanges. Kelley Sundin, recipient of the first Gustav and Hildegard Must Graduate Fellowship in Estonian Studies, conducted a chorus reprising her master’s degree recital with the university women’s chorus in November 2012. Selections drawn from the IHRC’s collections, gathered first from the Estonian community and stewarded by the University of Minnesota, came to light in a small forest of voices and the piano accompaniment by Jessica Schroeder. Upon audience request, the chorus repeated the song “Koit,” with the phrase “The Homeland soil awakes for blossoming” recalling for one listener the moment of return to Estonia after second independence. As with the symposium, the music summed up the sustenance that émigrés had willed to Estonia from exile.

Elizabeth Haven Hawley
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