This fall, I visited Halifax for the first time. Since VEMU is currently working on the permanent exhibition that will be on display in the new building, it was essential to finally see this legendary city along with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in order to get a better feeling for how and where post-Second World War Estonian refugees began their journeys to Canada, as well as how their story is told in Halifax.
There are so many different arrival stories and journeys, I thought to myself as I looked around and investigated the massive complex of buildings. I was reminded of how I began my new life in Canada: 14 years ago, arriving at Pearson airport with two suitcases and breezing past the immigration official because my documents were all in order, and the stamp almost magically appearing in my passport. A job, salary and even a room at Tartu College were all waiting for me. Simple!
The journeys of post-Second World War Estonian refugees and their experiences were completely different from mine. Next year, we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Great Escape of 1944, during which tens of thousands of Estonians had to leave their homeland behind. The journey did not end there for most of those refugees who fled the Soviet occupation. Germany was in shambles from the war. The Soviet Union began to demand that Sweden reveal those Baltic peoples that had escaped there. There was no sense of safety and everything regarding the future was uncertain, and so the journey had to continue for most.
But this year serves as a reminder that 75 years have passed since the first Estonian refugees arrived in Canada on “viking boats”, i.e. sail and fishing boats as well as other small vessels which weren’t passenger liners. Due to the slow immigration process, other means of transportation to Canada were searched out. Ship co-ops were formed, money was gathered, boats and ships were purchased and so the journey started. The first vessel that arrived in Canada, named Astrid, began its route in Sweden on July 5th, 1948, landed in St. John’s on July 31st, and resumed its journey to Quebec City where it arrived on August 13th. Immigration officials were caught off guard and faced with the dilemma of what to do with these illegal refugees, but by August 31st, they all had visas in hand.
One of the most famous “viking boats” was Walnut. It began its life as a mine sweeping trawler and served in the British Royal Navy beginning in 1939. The Swedish company Stem Olsen purchased the vessel in 1948 but already by September, was bought by Compania Maritima Walnut S/A, which was formed by Baltic refugees (mostly a group of Estonians) who wanted to leave Sweden. The ship was registered in Panama to avoid Swedish capacity limits for the vessel and was rebuilt to transport 200 travellers.
Steamship Walnut began its journey from Gothenburg on November 13th, 1948, stopped in Lysekil to finish preparations for the trip across the ocean and departed on November 17th, 1948. A large part of the travellers were Estonians, but there were also Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, and Finns. After a stopover was made in Sligo, Ireland to stock up on coal, the vessel, originally made to carry 58 people, was on its perilous way across the Atlantic with 347 people on board. This was the biggest group of “vikings” that came to Canada through this method of transport. The trip was long and arduous. There was very little room, the waters were turbulent, seasickness was rampant among travellers. The ship made it to Sydney, Canada on December 10th where food and coal were stocked up and arrived at the Halifax Immigration Terminal Pier 21 on December 13th.
In total, 11 “viking boats” arrived in Canada between 1948-1950 (in addition to travellers from three boats that had originally stopped over in another country), bringing about 1600 individuals, approximately 1300 of whom were Estonians. The ships forced Canadian immigration offices to change their policies, in part due to public interest and pressure since those who had risked their lives making the journey across the ocean moved the locals. Most of the refugees were allowed to stay in Canada.
The Walnut’s fame has undoubtedly been helped along by a dedicated section in the Pier 21 museum exhibition, but you can also find other Estonian tidbits there, for example Mrs. Oja’s suitcase and photos of Estonian refugees. The museum collection also has many interesting things that aren’t on display: documents, photos, oral history. I had the chance to familiarize myself with these materials during my visit in October; they gave a good, clear picture of the immigration of Estonians to Canada and a glimpse into their lives here. One of the most interesting and informative documents in the Pier 21 collection is undoubtedly the book of the Walnut’s protocols, which documents everything starting from the process of purchasing the ship to selling it Canada. Letters sent to the travellers from the Board of the Walnut co-op paint a picture of what the conditions of travel and rules aboard the ship were. The exchange of materials, info, and the exhibition was also discussed with colleagues at Pier 21.
The group of travellers on the Walnut has been great with documenting their own stories. The result of thorough collection and research work can be viewed at the website that Tiiu Roiser-Chorowiec started (https://walnutship1948.ca/ ), where you can find a half-hour long documentary film as well as written memoirs, articles, and more. Linda Männik defended her doctoral dissertation on the topic of the Walnut at York University, which was published as a book in 2013 (Photography, Memory and Refugee Identity. The Voyage of the SS Walnut, 1948).
Information about the Walnut can also be found in VEMU’s collections, for example in the Estonian Cultural Heritage Society’s oral history collection: biographical interviews with Elvira Potsepp, Silvi Treier, Juhan Zoobel, Jaanus and Hans Leppik, Monika Saarniit, and the recording of the commemorative event for the 50th anniversary of the Walnut’s journey in 1998. Whether there are also memoirs about the other “viking boats” remains to be seen until the students from Tartu University finish their supplementary descriptions of the aforementioned collection.
For those that are interested, there is much more to offer. This past January, Tõnu Tõsine presented a lecture at Tartu College titled “The Unique Voyage of Estonian Refugees: Coming to North America on “Viking Boats,” which can be viewed on VEMU’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbt3zzdzF3c .
Historian at the University College Cork, Gabriel Doherty, is in the process of making a documentary about how the ship Victory was caught in Ireland. His 2012 lecture (Escape by Victory: Ireland and Estonian refugees, 1949-51) can also be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-W3UFgKSQY .
The continued escape of Estonians from Europe to North- and South America has been documented in detail in Jüri Vendla’s book (Unustatud merereisid. Eestlaste hulljulged põgenemisreisid üle Atlandi 1940. aastate teisel poolel), which can be borrowed from VEMU’s archival collection and from the library.
VEMU invites everyone who came to Canada on “viking boats” and their family members to contact VEMU. We are interested in memoirs, documents, photos, and other archival materials as well as belongings that were brought along on the journey. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. 416-925-9405.