Still Estonian

September 3, 2016

Estonian Archive in the United States has been in existence for over 50 years despite being staffed only by volunteers and depending on charitable donations. The geographical location makes its survival even that more miraculous. Lakewood, New Jersey, used to be a large Estonian enclave but has now rapidly become one of the largest Hasidic communities in the United States. It is difficult to make friends with new neighbours that won’t shake your hand. Literally.

Luckily we do have an ally in the other end of the congested town – Lakewood Estonian House. On September 2 Lakewood Estonian House is celebrated its 70th anniversary. Many volunteers were excited to choose historic photographs from the Archive’s extensive collection, to be displayed at an exhibit for the milestone. Seventy years is a generation. The first Estonian DPs arrived in Lakewood shortly after WW2, learning English, adapting to the culture and customs of their new homeland. Children enrolled in local schools, participated in sports, joined the Boy and Girl Scouts. The grown-ups took whatever jobs were available. A doctor may have become a bricklayer, a lawyer might have found employment at a poultry farm. The Can Do generation considered government handouts embarrassing. Together the Lakewood Estonian community, that numbered in hundreds back then, worked hard, strived for better education and held dear their language and culture.

The strong community feeling among Lakewood Estonians is evident to this day. It is understood, that giving back to the community is part of life. Even the land where Lakewood Estonian House stands was a donation. A young newlywed couple, Konstantin and Martha Lacht in 1933 offered up a parcel from their farmland. The Estonian Clubhouse was completed in 1947. Understandably, altruism takes time and money. Recent expatriates visit Estonian Houses and other organizations, but it often takes a few years of adapting to a new society and to line up profitable work that enables one to volunteer time and money to keeps these organizations going.

Lakewood has supplied the Estonian expatriate community in Northern America with quite a few notable individuals – the honorary consul-general of Estonia in Canada, Laas Leivat´s uncle settled in Lakewood already in the early twenties. Two of Estonia’s historic diplomats – Consul Johannes Markus, representing the Republic of (independent) Estonia in Canada beginning 1959, was a pre-war inhabitant of Lakewood as was Johannes Kaiv, Consul-General in New York and in charge of legation (chief diplomatic representative of Estonia in the US). Juhan Simonson, a tireless freedom fighter during the Soviet years and a long serving president of Estonian American National Council called Lakewood home. But as illustrious as some of these careers have been, an expatriate community survives and thrives thanks to ALL its members – the ladies who donate their time and skill to make potato salad and herring sandwiches for parties and fundraisers, the men who mow the lawn or plough the snow, the children – who sometimes no longer even speak Estonian – learn hours of Estonian folk song repertoire by heart to delight the audience.

In an era of borderless utopia and the voluntary mandatory assimilation of cultures, honouring one’s roots and ethnic origin may soon be a revolutionary act. Are you ready?

Ave Maria Blithe