The Great Baltic Escape – And The Armada Of Boats That Saved So Many

September 30, 2022

In the late summer of 1944, tens of thousands of Baltic people were compelled to flee their homelands. They fled in desperation with the intensifying war front in the Baltic lands and in fear of the pending terror of a Soviet reoccupation of their nations. Some fled via limited land routes, and several thousand crammed onto the last departing freighter ships. In Estonia, over 30,000 Estonians fled to the Baltic sea coast seeking passage to Sweden on boats large and small. Those fortunate to find space on boats would embark on a perilous journey – across the Baltic sea. Many boats capsized in the stormy seas; the invaders’ gunboats ruthlessly sank some boats. Several thousand perished at sea. Yet over 27,000, crammed on their small boats for two or more days and nights, survived the journey and landed on Swedish shores. They disembarked into an uncertain future but felt heaven-blessed for their deliverance. The escapees hoped that the war would soon come to an end and envisaged a return to their homeland and to their loved ones left behind. But this was not to be. The lives of those escapees were irreversibly diverted, and a return to the homeland would not be possible for decades. Nevertheless, the drama of their Great Escape would be indelibly remembered by the escapees as a life-altering event.

The Great Baltic Escape (or as it is referred to in Estonian, “Suurpõgenemine”) was commemorated this past September in several countries. An all-day “Suurpõgenemine 1944 ja meie” conference was held on September 19 in Tallinn at the parliament convention centre. A summary of that conference’s presentations and forums was presented in Eesti Elu’s September 23 edition.

This past July, the BaltHerNet (Baltic Heritage Network) summer school in Hiiumaa featured several presentations on the archival research and exhibitions of the Great Escape. One of the presentations was by Dr Mirja Arnshav, a Research Coordinator at the National (Swedish) Maritime Museum. Dr Arnshav’s interest in the Great Escape and her ongoing research is fascinating and noteworthy.

Dr Arnshav’s personal connection to the Great Escape can be traced back several years to a serendipitous encounter that she had with what turned out to be the wreckage of a small escapee boat. Over the years, Arnshav spent her summer holidays on the Swedish island of Gotland, and during those sojourns, she realised an interest in history, the sea and boats. Old boats are seemingly everywhere on the shores of Gotland, as there is a tradition of leaving boats to disintegrate by the sea after reaching the end of their service. However, while strolling along the shores during one of her visits to Gotland she noticed a boat, unlike the other abandoned boats due to its construction. Based on her growing maritime knowledge, she suspected the boat was built in eastern Europe. Subsequently, an elderly local confirmed that the boat had been beached and abandoned by Estonian escapees in 1944. Arnshav’s curiosity about the boat revealed that the maritime heritage agencies did not list such refugee boats. Although Arnshav does not have family roots in Baltic escapees, she felt that the legacy and stories represented by such escapee boat wrecks were important and worthy of research and documentation.

Arnshav’s formal research into refugee boats began with her PhD thesis at Stockholm University in 2017. Her extensive study of the refugee boats for her 2020 dissertation has been documented in a book entitled “De Sma batarna och den stora flykten” (The small boats and the Great Escape).

The scope of Arnshav’s research work was to seek and identify as many Baltic escapee boats as possible that still remain on Sweden’s shores and to document their condition. This research is not only an archaeology of the escape and its aftermath based on these escapee boats. The forsaken boats also quietly evoke stories, images and memories of those escapees who stepped out of those boats in 1944 onto Swedish shores.

Arnshav’s research examined 34 boats confirmed as Baltic escapee boats. They are located on several shores, on Swedish islands and the mainland and are ageing in varying degrees of degradation.

In her role as Research Coordinator at the National Maritime Museum, Arnshav commenced a second and broader research project on “The Materiality of the Great Escape”. The three-year project investigated, documented and archived hundreds of essential and cherished items brought along by the escapees on their boats. In addition to the collection of items, interviews were held with several of the 1944 escapees or their descendants – all of which were compiled into a compendium for the museum. A book on this research, “Foremal pa flykt” ((Personal) Objects of the Escape), has also been published. Exhibitions, public lectures and school education programs have been organised to share the research results and the stories of the escapees. This past June, many Estonian diasporas in Sweden were in attendance at the Maritime Museum forum, where Arnshav’s book was presented along with various panel discussions. Dr Arnshav’s research work and the two books were originally written in Swedish. There is interest in having the works translated into English and Estonian. A recent Estonian TV news clip of Dr Arnshav and her research can be viewed in clip number 2: “Mis on teisel pool vet”.

This research work and interest in the Great Escape is timely, recognising that the 80th anniversary of the 1994 Escape will be commemorated in 2024. Steps are being taken to formally acknowledge September 19 as the Day of Remembrance of the Great (Baltic) Escape. In leading up to the 80th anniversary, there may be interest in preserving at least a couple of the escapee boats on the Swedish shores and to erect suitable plaques at those sites, inscribed with the historical context and a recounting of the Great Escape. Such memorial sites on Swedish shores might be a fitting complement to the Puise, Estonia statue “Minna et taha, kuid jääda et saa” which commemorates the Great Escape departure from the shores of Estonia.

Toomas Eichenbaum

First published in Eesti Elu/Estonian Life