The Estonian American Experience > When was the first time you visited Estonia?

Share your most vivid impression!

November 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

"My first trip to Estonia occurred in 1974 against strong objections from my father. He said that by getting a visa to enter the Soviet Union I am confirming that Estonia is part of the Soviet Union. Furthermore by spending money there I will be providing hard currency to the Soviets for use against the free world. But my desire to see and help my relatives was strong. To minimize spending money there I stayed only three days and entered Tallinn by a ferry from Helsinki rather than fly in on Aeroflot. I left my wife in Helsinki, in fears that as an American she might criticize the government causing problems to my relatives.

On the ferry were many Finns. The Estonians that I spoke to did not seem to want to respond. One lady said she had been in Finland on vacation. I asked why did she not come with her husband, she answered “it can’t be done so, someone must stay at home”. The ferry arrived in Tallinn’s harbor at 3 p.m. but it took two hours to get through the visa control. A sign over the harbor entrance said something that I was entering the workers’ paradise, or something obnoxious like that.

On arrival eight relatives greeted me at the harbor. But I was directed to take a specific taxi, which took me to the only hotel in Tallinn approve for foreigners, hotel Viru. From there on my relatives guided me in a precise schedule so I could visit them all. Some came to my hotel room. The first thing my uncle said on entering with a very loud voice: “We have nothing to hide and we will speak freely!” Later he explained it was for the benefit of the presumed listening devices. I then distributed many of the things I had brought with me: clothing, jeans and even knitting needles.

It was explicitly stated that I must stay within the city limits. Still I was taken by taxi past a sign that I said I was leaving the city. We visited a collective fishery named “Kirov”, a showpiece for tourist.

My impressions? In my diary I wrote that the city was drab and uncared for, with pock marks on buildings as if it had been bombed only recently. Half the population seemed to be Russian-speakers. My childhood home was dilapidated and dirty. And yet I was elated to be in Tallinn, especially to walk in the old town. Finding toilets was a problem.

When I was taken to Kadrioru Park, my relatives spoke freely only when we were not near walls behind which someone might hear us. Even then, they all seemed to speak in whispers as if out of habit.

I came with two suitcases, gave away its contents and left with just a carryon bag. I was searched at the harbor. The customs lady confiscated my uncle’s silver ring with an Estonian crest and a book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (though I had ripped off its cover as a precaution), and something else. They did not find my half dozen rubbles (only one coin was allowed to be taken) because their size was precisely the size of Finnish coins, which I used to sandwich the rubbles as I held them I my hand. She did not they take my godfather’s cigarette case on which the names of Reek and Jonson were engraved. She probably did not recognize these names. My Kave chocolate box was run through an x-ray machine several times to sterilize it I presume.

On my recent trip to Tallinn I visited an archive, in which I found an eight page folder on me prepared for that 1974 visit. Seemed someone had been paid by the word to write lots of redundant stuff on me and some of the people I had stated that I wanted to visit. But nearly half was about my uncle who lived in New York City. It stated that he had been a “vaps”, which he never was. Perhaps it was added to make it juicier. Still, his did not stop them for granting me a visa.

In 1982 I went again to Estonia, that time for a week. Of that trip I gave two well attended slideshows at the West Coast days held in 1983 in San Francisco. The hunger to see our birth country seemed great among us all."

--- Arved Plaks, 8.September, 2013

November 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

“The first time I visited Estonia was in May 1977, during a period of détente between the USA and USSR. Other than the excitement of meeting my many relatives for the first time and my parents’ relatives meeting each other for the first time, I’d say my most vivid impression was the sad quality of life and constant fear. The air was polluted, there were long lines at stores where there was something to buy, and there were stores (valuta poed) where goods not available to the general public could be bought only with foreign currency. Despite its unique architecture, Tallinn generally seemed drab and gray. Russian was prevalent and when I refused to sign a Russian language document purporting to be a customs declaration form, a form in English was suddenly provided. I constantly had to watch what I said because my relatives warned that foreigners were watched. This was verified at the Intourist Viru Hotel when my roommate and I discussed what to do about a burnt out light bulb and we heard a knock on the door to find a hotel employee with a new light bulb. I remember my aunt being excited about seeing oranges in a store. At that moment I realized how blessed I was live in the United States where there were always oranges available and the dilemma was which store had the best quality and best price. Seeing these conditions inspired me to become more politically active to advocate for Estonian independence. It was also one of the reasons I became a candidate for a seat on the Estonian American Council to which I was elected and on which I have served since the late 1970’s.”
-- Gilda Karu

November 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

“I remember feeling astonishment, confusion, elation, and excitement all at once. As the ferry passengers (mostly Estonian diaspora from the U.S. and Canada) disembarked in Tallinn, we were met by hundreds of people. We did not know each other, but they were there just the same, waiting to welcome us to Estonia for the first time.

This first visit was in June of 1990. As did so many other Estonian-Americans, our family flew to Helsinki from where we took the ferry to Tallinn. The welcome we received upon arrival in Tallinn was completely unexpected and overwhelming. There were hundreds and hundreds of people waiting for those of us on the ferry. They included unknown relatives; families who would host us in their homes for two weeks; folk dance groups and choirs; and various others with roles both large and small at the Tantsupidu and Laulupidu.

About twenty of them were waiting specifically for our family. They somehow knew the date and time of our arrival. Using old photos or signs, they managed to find us among the many dozens of ferry passengers. They greeted us with smiles, flowers, and songs. They greeted us in Estonian. It felt as if we had always been family and were already friends. I have many other memories of that first trip: a party that lasted until the morning hours because the night sky never really got dark; hearing Estonian spoken on sidewalks and streetcars; seeing tens of thousands of dancers and singers performing in unison; walking back from the center city to Lasnamäe (about 4 miles) late at night due to a lack of taxis or buses. But the sight of so many people there to welcome us as family and friends, even though we were really still strangers, remains the most vivid.”
-- Maia Linask

November 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

To have a dream come true and to have a dream be shattered at the same time, I never expected. My dream had been to meet my father as a grown up. That dream I realized in 1968 when I was 28 years old. It took me almost a year to understand this strong urge to go and then plan for this not advised trip. In spite of the fact that Estonia was behind the Iron Curtain, I was determined to set my feet on the soil of my beloved Estonia and walk together with my father for the first time since infancy regardless of the risks. The moment I saw my father, I was forever marred with the realization what the Soviets had done to him, the family and the entire country of Estonia. The hopelessness, despair and fear were on the faces of most of the Estonians living there.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaie Currie

My first visit back to Estonia was in the summer of 1995. I had left for the United States during the soviet time in early 1990, with no intention of staying, but...
Arriving from Finland, I kept waiting for the familiar "kilukarbi siluett" (anchovy tin silhouette) to appear and was overcome by its beauty over the sparkling sea. As I was expecting my first baby, I was easily overcome by everything. My previous nautical approach had been marred by a horrible winter storm in 1987 after a visit to my relatives in Stockholm, who had left during the war.
In Tallinn harbor it was a great relief to no longer be greeted by squinty-eyed armed soviet border guards and german shepherds ( the dogs, I mean). And of course, the joy of seeing my parents and grandmother again after five long years was immense. They met my husband for the first time and in a-sort-of-way their first grandchild, who decided to start kicking for the first time at that trip. We would return next year with a six month old baby who took a great liking to Estonian carrot juice and his great-grandma singing Estonian lullabies.
During my subsequent visits I have admired the continued progress of free Estonia. Re-playing all the memories in my mind, Estonia seems to have transformed from a gloomy black and white film to a full color production. Except... at some point it crossed too far into the neon glitz. I wish I could still walk the quiet cobblestone streets of Toompea all by myself, like I used to do as a schoolgirl. Now I need to fight my way through crowds of tourists congregating in front of the endless overpriced souvenir stores. I miss the old "kilukarbi siluett" of church steeples. I kid you not, literally every time I have gone back, another skyscraper has been erected. Perhaps I am starting to show my age, reminiscing about my childhood and recalling the grass being greener. Even if it was just an old black and white film.
--- Ave Maria Blithe

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAve Maria Blithe

My first trip to Estonia was in the summer of 1986 when Estonia was still under the gloom of Communist regime. It is difficult for me even now to recollect this painful experience. It began as we stood on the deck of "Georg Ots" and watched in silence as the spires of churches of Tallinn rose from behind the horizon. There was no need for words, just tears. And from then on, tears and more tears.... some from utter sadness, sympathy and anger, some from overwhelming tenderness . As the "gates" opened at the harbor and we could see the hundreds of relatives who had come to greet us, all I could see was a sea of flowers. How moving that was! I could barely see through the tears that steamed down my cheeks ! After warm and tearful hugs and kisses from our relatives who had come to greet us, we were put on a bus to Viru hotel. Again, the bus was full of flowers - I guess there were people, but all I could see was a bus full of flowers! The days that followed were just as nostalgic. We had never seen such dilapidated buildings with dirty windows and dusty windowsills, dusty
streets, lifeless and drably clothed people with somber faces, such hopelessness. We met relatives at the hotel, distributed presents and then went to the nearby park to talk. Since the hotel was bugged, we did not talk there Suspicion everywhere, even in the park. We visited the "Dollar Store" every day - there we could buy things that could be resold later to purchase food and other necessities. There was nothing to buy in stores and they needed everything. People adapt - unbelievable stories about life under the Soviet occupation, more like anecdotes! We bought some car "accessories" for a relative, later we discovered that these were kept under the bed - tires and windshield wipers - or they would have been stolen! Such a life.
A funny thing happened on the way to Tartu. Had to travel on the bus with an Intourist guide. About half-way, she announced "metsapeatus" - translated "we'll make a stop here" - the woods were beautiful - a great photo op - but alas, it was not! Had to put away my camera after only a few pictures. A bathroom break! Who knew!
Another unforgettable sight in Tallinn was a sea of red flags that adorned all city streets in Tallinn on June 14th - our day of mourning, the Soviet's day of triumph. It was a painful sight - my husband forbid me to take a picture of this, he said it was only a reminder of a massacre. And so it was.
As we were pulling out of Tallinn harbor, we tossed our bouquets of flowers into to the sea - so to say good-bye to Estonia with flowers, A a tearful and a sad good-bye to a sad country that we loved so.

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterUlle Ederma

First the Back-Story:

In the Fall of 1944 my then 15-year-old mother Luule Täht lived with her family in Tartu in a home built by her grandfather. They had survived intact during the initial Soviet occupation in 1940 and then the subsequent invasion and occupation by the Germans. But now the Soviets had returned.
One night as they sat down to dinner the dreaded phone call came: “leave now, you are on tonight's list.” Their bags had been packed in anticipation of this call, and my mother recalls that they were having soup that night with dinner and as they left they poured it into a metal milk pail — a pail that even now is hanging in my kitchen.

The family had prearranged passage to Sweden on an Estonian blockade-runner, but they were intercepted by a German patrol boat and sent to a refugee labor camp in Eastern Germany. They escaped from the camp during a night Allied bombing raid (all the camp guards would go into the bomb shelters during the raids) and hopped a freight train. Fate continued to smile on them when their train left Leipzig one morning in the middle of February 1945, because the next day Allied bombers destroyed much of Leipzig's train yards.

The family continued west toward the advancing Allies — counter to the path of the retreating Germans. My mother was the only family member that spoke German — so she was the intermediary with the German troops and authorities they came across. The precocious teenager grew up very fast in a war zone.

At the war's end her family was resettled in the Displaced Persons camp at Geislingen, Germany, where she graduated from the Estonian Gymnasium of Geislingen in 1948. Shortly thereafter she moved to Canada, and then the US.


I visited Estonia with my mom in 1994 during her first trip back to Estonia on the 50th anniversary of that fateful phone call in 1944! That trip was only a few years after Estonia’s independence, so things were still rough and run down at that time.

In Tartu the house she grew up in and eventually fled still stood. We walked around the town and visited the site of her grandfather’s taxi offices (they didn’t survive the war) and the private girls’ school she attended (it is still an elementary school). We also took a trip to the countryside and found the vacation farm her family owned and hid out in the first few nights of their escape back in 1944 — and the old sauna-house was still there! She scooped up a small bag of soil to take back to the US with her.

We traveled to Estonia 4 times, revisiting many of the towns my mom remembered from her childhood. During our last visit in 2006 we went back again to her Tartu house – it had been “privatized” and divided into 4 flats that were offered for sale as the Estonian version of condos.

Sadly mom now has Alzheimer’s and her memories of those years are gone. So I will remember for her.

Marty (Märt) Wilson

November 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarty Wilson