The Story of the Baltic University

February 20, 2016

On Saturday, February 13th the Estonian Studies Centre/VEMU hosted a conference at Tartu College dedicated to the Baltic University (BU). The conference was held in honour of the 70th anniversary since the establishment of the BU, which only existed in Germany for three years. The extensive conference came to a close with Helga Merits’ documentary “The Story of the Baltic University”.

Five lecturers gave presentations at the English language conference; one of whom is directly associated with the BU and two of whom are more indirectly connected. In the first session Helga Merits, Jüri Kivimäe, and Andrejs Kulnieks gave lectures, followed by Tiina Kirss’ and Arnis Kuksis’ lectures in the second session. The Chief Archivist of VEMU, Piret Noorhani, acted as the moderator.

Helga Merits, whose father studied Theology at BU, emphasised the importance of the short-lived three year university as well as the extraordinary effort of the professors and lecturers, who were both brave and venturesome. Helga also needed to use these same qualities to access the materials to create her documentary. She had to search in archives all over the world: in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Sweden. The search was not easy; in some instances Helga was met with negativity or complete opposition. The biggest achievement was discovering the BU archives at Uppsala University, the existence of which was a surprise to even the archives employees.

Jüri Kivimäe began by presenting some interesting demographic statistics. At the end of the war, about 8 million refugees remained in Germany: 200,000 of the refugees were Baltic, 40,000 of them Estonian. In October 1945, 1329 students began their studies at the Baltic University in Pinneberg under the direction of 168 faculty members; thus, creating an 8 to 1 ratio of students to faculty members. There were eight faculties headed by the president and three rectors, one for each represented country.

BU was founded by four professors: Öpik (Estonia), Gulbis and Dunsdorfs (Latvia), and Stanka (Lithuania). This was a great achievement and impressive start considering the post-war conditions. Kivimäe also introduced a number of lesser known professors, although apologising beforehand, as according to the information he had access to, he may also be missing the names of some equally noteworthy individuals.

Andrejs Kulnieks focused on the importance of national culture and the continuation of tradition through the BU. Song and dance festivals are an important means for preserving national identity. A number of students who studied abroad either returned to their own homeland or that of their parents or alternatively, strengthened ties with the homeland.

In the second session, Tiina Kirss gave her lecture via Skype from Estonia. She discussed her family memories connected to the BU, where her mother studied medicine and her father was dean of the chemistry faculty. Kirss’ parents met in this excellent intellectual atmosphere, the curiosity of which has been passed on and preserved in their children.

The final speaker, Arnis Kuksis, graduated from the Latvian University in Oldenburg and continued his studies in Agriculture at BU. He remembered the strong sense of belonging he felt, as the class sizes were small (about 10-15 students). There were no textbooks, so the students had to rely on their own notes. Exams were oral and in German. Kuksis later continued his studies in the United States at Iowa State University, where he was given two years of credit for his 14 months spent studying at the BU. He switched faculties and graduated with a degree in biochemistry. Kuksis emphasised his appreciation of the efforts of the BU professors, many of whom established academic careers in other countries after the BU closed its doors.

Despite the lengthy conference programme, the interested audience asked every lecturer a number of questions following their presentations. Active discussions also took place during the coffee breaks as well as at the reception following the opening of the BU exhibit. The exhibit was completed as a collaborative project between Helga Merits and VEMU. It exhibits a selection of historical photos that tell the unique story of BU.

The conference concluded with the screening of Helga Merits’ documentary. Andris Kesteris introduced the film’s author and led the discussion.

In March, the Holland embassy will be organising screenings of the documentary in all three of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as a continuation of the celebrations of the 70th anniversary since the Baltic University opened its doors.

Eerik Purje (First published in Eesti Elu, February 19, 2016) Translated by Marika Mayfield