“Behind the Mask” Deportation in Estonia
Reminiscences by Ants Oras M.A.B Litt. / Oxford England
Transcribed & Edited by Enn Lepist in 2005
It was half past eight on a fine sunny morning on the 14th of June 1941. I remember having spent a restful night in bed. Somehow the fear of the N.K.V.D. had not weighed on me as heavily as usual. Both, my wife and I, felt refreshed. We went downstairs for breakfast. The dining room was unusually deserted. The food on the table was untouched. My parents-in-law were mysteriously nowhere in the house. This was unusual indeed at this hour. We thought of even going to look for them in the garden.
We had not gone far when we came across the maid. She looked very pale and startled, with feverish eyes.
“The Professor and the Mrs. have gone out,” she said.
“There was a telephone message.”
“What telephone message?” asked my wife.
“From the country…from your uncle’s farm.”
Her voice was unsteady.
“It was not your uncle who telephoned…it was a relative. Something terrible has happened. They have all been arrested, all of them…your uncle, aunt, cousin and the cousin’s wife together with their little son and Vilma. The N.K.V.D. came for them.”
We were speechless with horror. We had been fearful but we had not feared this. They were just farmers, quite unpolitical, but excellent and most successful farmers. They had never found it necessary to disguise their patriotism.
My wife’s uncle Alfred was seventy and his grandson only two. Vilma, his daughter, only a school-girl of sixteen who had left us just over a week ago to spend the vacation at home.
What was the sense of arresting them ?
“They were taken out of their beds and bundled into lorries and taken to the railway station. There they all were locked into cattle cars. Nobody may go near them.
“Our neighbors have also been arrested. Among with them the new lawyer and his wife in number 6 and Justice Baarman with his wife and little daughter in number 2. Awful things are going on.”
This was too much for me. It was impossible suddenly to think of breakfast. I rushed out of the dining room into the hall and from there into the street. It was most urgent for me that I should know what was taking place.
It was usually one of the quietest streets in the town of Tartu. But today people were moving about in small groups and talking furtively and looking very scared. And there, just before me, a lorry passed on the street. There were three uniformed men in it. An N.R.V.D. man, a soldier with a rifle and a militia man together with some ten or twelve civilians…men, women and children. They looked desperate. They had bundles with them. Everybody on the street could not help but glance in their direction.
“In my country patriotism had generally been a more exacting virtue, as it is in old-established countries. It had been amply tested in the past, under Tsarist and Baltic-German rule, when it often took some courage to display one’s Estonian feelings. People’s behavior during that period was still remembered in 1941. The Bolsheviks examined their past very carefully, and even patriots of the Tsarist period were apt to be accused of “bourgeois nationalism.”
I was seized with disbelief. Somebody nearby addressed me in a semi-whisper:
I looked up, startled. It was a friend, the wife of a clergyman whom I knew well. She had a strange look about her, like everybody else that morning…pale and terrified.
“Go into hiding at once,” she exclaimed in a subdued voice.
“Why”… What’s going on?”
“Go at once. The whole town is being rounded up. Look at those lorries,” she said. “Thousands have been arrested. It is still continuing. Go away. Don’t waste a minute.”
I took her advice and obeyed. I went home at once. It took but a few minutes for my wife and me to take our raincoats and leave our home. We hurried away from the house, dazed and uncertain about what to do.
It was an exceptionally hot day for the time of year. Summer had come late but very suddenly. Some apple trees were still blossoming, but already the lilac bushes were loaded with purple and white flowers. The air was saturated with their scent. But we were not in a state of mind to notice nor appreciate it. We saw the moving lorries with their distressed occupants and the horrified faces of the passers-by in the street. There was a deadly danger everywhere…horrible and totally unexpected.
It was but a short distance to the children’s clinic where my father-in-law was the Director. We went there and passed through the big front garden and rang the bell. A nurse opened the door. No, Professor Luus was not in. He had gone out somewhere.
We had to find refuge and we had to learn more about the catastrophic events happening all around us. At the Café Werner we should doubtless get all the information we needed. There were always people there who were somehow “in the know”. But then again the café might prove a trap. It was too obvious an objective for the N.K.V.D…it might easily be raided. Too many well known people used to frequent there.
No known building, no café nor institute seemed safe. Safety could only be found in the open air and best of all in some of the less frequented public parks. The least visited of these was the Botanical Garden…lovely but seemingly hidden behind its high walls. We know every nook and corner in it. We decided it was best go there.
Choosing the narrowest side streets, we stumbled along trying to disguise our haste. We were constantly on alert and peering round to see whether we were being followed. We reached the gate of the Botanical Garden, entered and turned behind the palm-house and the lecture rooms. There on a gentle slope, under the broad-leaved maple, we found a bench and sat down waiting for what or whom we did not know.
The sky was clear blue, with only a few light clouds floating through, and the sun blazed down on a multitude of flowering bushes and trees. There seemed to be no one there, except two people in the distance. We looked closely at them and they turned out to be friends. Both were colleagues of mine…one of them an art historian. They approached us. Both looking haggard. They sat down next to us on our bench. They too had sought safety. Here we could find it for at least a few hours.
We were all confused and our lips were dry with the heat and the feeling of helpless anguish. Though we had some idea of what was happening we did not know on what scale. Nor did we know who it was the N.K.V.D. was hunting. We remember there had only been a fewer arrests during the last weeks and months. It had already begun to accept them as though it might be possible to go on living. And now suddenly even women and children were apparently being arrested in mass.
According to these two friends, thousands had been arrested. They knew many of the victims by name. They described an elementary school master’s family, harmless and utterly inoffensive people, certainly not politically minded. Their father’s greatest offense was to have an inordinate passion for books and an abiding interest in all literary matters. Also there was the family of a minor University lecturer, the least gifted and least enterprising of our academic historians with little or no imagination and no political views but insatiably keen on delving in archives. His wife and daughter were also the most innocent of innocents. Then there was a young lecturer in French, whose only interest was in medieval text, yet both he and his wife had been forcibly removed in a lorry. Still more… there was the wife of a Professor in the Vetenary Faculty, perhaps political in that she had been president of the local Women’s Auxiliary Service of the Civic Guard before the occupation. Her misguided husband had insisted on joining her, hoping to be able to help her in her exile. Their children had also been taken away. Always the children were victimized together with the parents, and where there were grandparents, they too had been forced to go.
Thus we tried to piece together what had happened. We arrived at no conclusion. It did not make any sense. We sat there hour after hour. We talked wearily and continued to sit. We were hungry and thirsty and yet barely aware of it. We felt cold in the sweltering heat.
From time to time one of us went out of the garden to explore the situation. Lorries were still moving, large detachments of N.K.V.D. men were seen marching all about the town. There were armed guards everywhere in front of the buildings. It was at about six in the evening that our friend, the art historian, returned with the news that a party member whom he had met had assured him that for the time being the hunt was over.
It was imperative that we should go home. If we did not, my parents-in-law would be fearing the worst, and so would the families of our friends.
It had begun to drizzle. The streets were almost deserted. A few lorries with N.K.V.D. soldiers still rushed about but there were no civilians in them. Nobody molested us on our way. We got safely home, where my father and mother-in-law received us with an exclamation of relief. But we did not sleep at home that night, or many night afterwards.
Such were our experiences on the terrible day of deportations when the Soviet regime for the first time completely threw off its mask. We did not yet know the full extent of what had happened but we were soon to learn of it. I will summarize it in its main outlines.
What we had witnessed was nothing more or less then the beginning of the intended annihilation of the Estonian people. It was merely a first step which during the one night and day involved some ten thousand Estonians…one out of every hundred and thirteen inhabitants of the country. It was soon to affect fifty thousand more, but the plan, as revealed in secret documents discovered later, was to deport nearly two-thirds of the population. It was to be carried out in several stages. The first involving the more active and independent elements with their families. Then came the inclusion of all, except the most nondescript and those few who were active supporters of the regime. In so doing the very backbone of the nation was to be broken. For the sake of publicity the fiction of Estonia remained as long as it suited the Soviet and her repeated litany of liberal policies honoring nationalities.
Nominally the so-called Estonian Soviet Republic would probably still have continued to exist even after its all but complete Russification. Exactly the same policy had already been pursued in Eastern Karelia and elsewhere.
Preparations for the mass deportations had been going on from the very moment of the forcible absorption of the country and even earlier. In some cases people escaped being deported, although they had been marked down for deportation, because they were logged under their original foreign names. However, it was somewhat later, in the early winter months of 1940 that the drawing up of lists began in dead earnest. The enterprise was officially labeled, “Action for the removal of anti-Soviet elements” and the instructions for it signed by the Deputy People’s Commissar of National Security, Serov, began as follows:
“The removal of anti-Soviet elements from the Baltic Republics is a political task of great importance. Its effective execution depends on the care with which the district troikas ( groups of three) and operational staffs elaborate their plans.”
In an article published in PRAVDA in the Spring of 1941, a Russian historian, discussing the policy of Peter the Great, stated point-blank that “Peter the Great made a great mistake in leaving the native peoples of the Baltic region in their countries.” It was now intended that this mistake be rectified.
Everything was to be done under the cover of the strictest secrecy. Only those actually entrusted with the preparatory work knew about it. They were: the leading personnel of the N.K.V.D. as well as the local troikas in charge of collecting and sifting the preliminary materials. Their “operational staffs”, the persons who were to carry out the arrests, were instructed only just before the deportations took place.
The following categories were to be deported from the Baltic countries:
1. All members of the dissolved bourgeois parties and of bourgeois and cultural organizations; all Social-Democrats, Syndicalists and Trotskyites.
2. Officials, judges, officers and police officials of the previous regime.
3. Participants in the was against the Bolsheviks – styled the “civil war” of 1918 –1920.
4. Former members of the Communist Party who had left the Party or had been expelled.
5. Refugees and immigrants.
6. Former employees of foreign diplomatic missions and representatives of foreign firms.
7. People maintaining correspondence with foreign countries.
8. Relatives of political fugitives.
9. Clergymen and active members of religious organizations.
10. Aristocrats, landowners, industrialists, businessmen, bankers and restaurant proprietors.
All these categories were to be removed to the bleakest regions of Russia together with their families. “This goes without saying,” a Communist in my country remarked after the event, “for their families would naturally have resented what happened and as a result they too had to be eliminated.
The only difference was that the heads of families were ordered to be “arrested” and their families “transported.” In addition, the deportations were to affect any one who was suspected of a critical attitude toward the regime or who represented a potential source of discontent for the future. All this was interpreted in the most comprehensive way possible.
Even a cursory glance at the above categories shows that they embraced a vast proportion of the Baltic nations. Particularly in Estonia and Latvia, almost everyone belonged to some “bourgeois” (non-Bolshevik) economic or cultural organization. In almost every family there exists somebody who had fought in the War of Independence. Almost every tiller of the soil owned a farm which he operated so well that it made him a reasonably wealthy “landowner” or at best a “Kulak” by Soviet standards but a minor property owner by the standards accepted in the West. Still, only a small proportion of the farming population had no holdings of their own.
The later deportations were intended to follow in rapid succession. What we saw was but a cautious first move.
The events of June 13 and 14 in Tartu, followed a plan that was applied effectively in the rest of the country as well as in Lativia and Lithuania, where the same thing happened on the same dates.
Starting on the morning of June 13th vague rumors were about in Tartu that arrests on a larger scale, then usual, were being contemplated. These rumors were partly connected with the fact that all establishments owning lorries had received orders to send them with drivers to the former building of the Estonian Students’ Association in Viljandi Street, which had been converted for Party use. At the same time the local N.K.V.D. chief Afanasyev ordered all party members to meet at 5:00pm at the party headquarters, the former Home Guard building in Jaama Square. A number of non-party factory workers were also summoned to the meeting. None of those who arrived were permitted to leave the building. All doors were guarded by N.K.V.D. men. It was a long meeting dealing with a variety of matters. At 8:00pm an intermission was announced to enable the audience to take refreshments in the refectory, since they were told it would take a considerably more time before they got home. At 8:30pm this meeting was resumed. A Russian then made a brief speech, declaring that all those present were expected to cooperate in the deportation of socially undesirable elements which would start the very same night. Their individual enthusiasm to carry out their instructions, it was emphasized, would be regarded as a criterion of their loyalty to the Party of which they were members.
There were objections to the effect that not all were party members. Still, regardless of their party status, they would have to train themselves for similar services in the larger deportations which were still to come. Then detailed instructions were issued. The operation was to be carried out by “brigades” (mostly N.K.V.D. men) a Red soldier, a militia man and a member of the audience acting as “deputy brigadier.”
The deportees were to be permitted to take with them 100 kilograms (about 220 lbs.) of their belongings per family. Any property left behind would be sold by the authorities. Thereupon the persons present were ordered to repair to Viljandi Street, where each of them was to be assigned specific duties. Shirkers were threatened with inclusion in the list of deportees.
In Viljandi Street the names of the members of each brigade were called out. The fact that some people failed to answer the roll call, all were marched into the garden and checked one by one. Then the brigadiers began to select assistants from among the workers who had been ordered to the meeting. A few managed to evade being selected by hiding in the closets and in the W.C.s. The others, with the rest of the brigades, left the building about midnight.
Each brigade had to cover a block or sector of a street. After entering a house or flat, the place was searched and the inhabitants were checked from lists which the captors had brought with them. The head of the family was shown the order of deportation. Fifteen minutes to an hour was to be allowed for packing. In most cases, however, such gestures of humanity were generally ignored. Many had to leave their homes without any food or spare clothes. Then the selected deportees together with infants, the aged, women far advanced in pregnancy and even invalids in the last stages of fatal diseases were hustled into those lorries and taken to the railway station. Upon arrival at the railway station they were immediately bundled into the cattle cars which had been waiting for days.
It was all done rapidly and almost exactly according to plan. Even the party members were taken completely by surprise. There had been rumors of impending arrests but not the deportation of thousands.
Only a few people escaped their fate in Tartu. Those who happened to be absent from their homes or who had gone underground got away. Some people, especially students, who had already acquired the habit of never sleeping at home managed to elude their captors. In one case a group of students were warned by the sister of a militia man, who was in sympathy with the deportees, indicating that something serious was pending and that it would be prudent for them to relocate their usual shelters for the night. As a result none of them were arrested and remained free to leave town the following day. In the country side, where the movements of the N.K.V.D. could be more easily monitored, escapes were more frequent and the woods gradually filled with fugitives.
Some husbands who happened to be away from home when their families were arrested, gave themselves up to the police in the hope of joining their families. Their hopes were indeed misguided. They were immediately arrested and never saw their families again.
The railway cars, generally used to transport cattle and now only slightly adapted for their current purpose, is where the deportees were crammed for their impending journey. Each railway car had a sliding door in the center with two small grated openings just under the roof to admit some air and a trickle of light. Bunks, consisting of simple adjacent boards, were constructed at both ends of the car and a contraption consisting of metal pipes and a wooden triangle serving as a lavatory. Often more then thirty to forty people were forced into such a railway cars. Only 10 could be accommodated on the bunks at each end and then only in the sitting position. All others had to stand, sit or lie on the filthy floor on top of one another. The men were transported in separate cars from the women and children.
Since it was not known in advance that men would be separated from their families they were often left with no luggage of any kind. Other deportees lost their few belongings as the guards shoved them into the railway cars. In some instances the fewer things they had to worry about enabled many to survive the journey into a world of utter chaos.
It was at that point the horrible reality set in. Many who had never experienced brutality were gripped by absolute despair. The fact that is was a stifling hot day and the air in the railway car was foul did not help the situation. Drinking water was not made available until late at night when a few buckets were passed into each railway car. Only a few of the prisoners had drinking vessels with them. Most inmates had no means to store water to last them through the daytime when no water was provided. All they were able to do was to drink what they could either directly out of the buckets or by using their cupped hands. To add to their plight the existing sanitary arrangements were so hopelessly inadequate that the floors of the cars were soon reeking with urine. Infants in swaddling clothes became filthy and had to lie in their own excrement because of the extreme shortage of space. Some persons simply died of shock. In Tartu, while waiting departure, two women gave birth prematurely to infants that died. One man cut his throat with a razor, whereupon all sharp instruments were duly collected by the guards. It took a long time before the corpses were removed.
Large crowds of people assembled at the station extending the entire length of the waiting train. Soldiers posted at each car kept the crowd from approaching the trains. The assembled crowds remained there all day long, pleading in vain for the guards to let them hand some food or clothes to the prisoners or take some last message from them. So they remained steadfast, too far away to talk to the deportees to offer any comfort, but stood there helpless as silent witnesses to the cruelty heaped upon their fellow citizens. As evening neared, the incessant weeping in the cars gradually died down. An occasional hand could still be seen desperately waving through the iron bars but the rest was becoming equally silent. The bitterness in the crowd awakened the need for action but without guns it would have been futile to start a revolt. Still during those days of despair anything might have happened. As it was, people stood there that day and the next, hoping to get near enough to reassure their caged up friends that there was hope. Some of them are said to have succeeded by pushing the guards aside and passing food and milk into the railway cars that were not yet locked. But in most of the cars women and children moaned in vain for water in the suffocating heat. Thirst was their greatest affliction, not only then but throughout their subsequent journey.
At other similar staging areas there were instances where the guards proved more humane. This was especially true in the country, where there were fewer N.K.V.D. officers. Under those liberating circumstances the guards sometimes permitted the prisoners to actually get out under escort and buy some food. Often notes were allowed to be hurled out of the cars, which were posted for friends and relative to find their loved ones. In a few cases mothers passed their infants to strangers and asking them to bring them up in their home country.
These were the exceptions. The average N.K.V.D. man was brutal and did not hesitate to apply his brutality upon the innocent and defenseless. More then three days had passed before the Tartu trains began to move toward the East. With each passing day the train waited there were multiple deaths reported. In most other parts of Estonia similar delays occurred until the funeral exodus finally began. The trains in the North were sent to Russia by way of Narva, those in the South by way of Irboska and Pskov.
Altogether 342 railway cars had left Estonia by June 17th with their cargo of human misery. The destinations, thought mostly only preliminary, clearly show that most of the deportees were sent to the cold regions of the distant Northeast and to the Urals and Siberia.
This initial gathering of unfortunate soles were soon followed by 50,000 more, and the dispatch of additional thousands were only interrupted temporarily by the German occupation of the Baltic States.
In the Moscow press and the Soviet newspaper, there was considerable astonishment at the indignation which the deportations aroused in some sectors of the bourgeois world. Similar amazement at our expressed horror of such cruel treatment of our citizenry came from many Soviet soldiers in Estonia, to whom such forced transportations had become a daily occurrence and a way of life. The official version expressed in the soviet press was to describe this deportation as a purely voluntary migration to the East. The Baltic nationals, it was widely reported, had left their countries singing songs of gratitude and joy.
It is perfectly true that some among them did sing, but certainly not songs of joy. They sang with defiant courage, the patriotic songs that were strictly banned by the Soviet regime. One such case was a friend of mine, a journalist, who had with him some brandy. He and his fellow deportees drank toasts to their motherland and did indeed sing to bolster moral among the despondent prisoners. They knew they were on a road that would lead them to almost certain death. Yet facing death, they drank and sang the forbidden songs.
Such defiance amidst desperation is when our nation lived its finest hour. Despite the fact that reality proved gloomier then their worst apprehensions our spirit survived the hardships of the years to come. No complete picture of it can really be drawn. Much less is known about the fate of the deported Estonians then about the fate of the more then a million Poles who were deported during the same period or somewhat earlier. Whereas thousands of Poles escaped to tell of their fate, only a very few of our own countrymen ever saw the civilized world again. Only a few heavily censored letters, which reached Estonia shortly after the first mass deportations, reported of only a few fugitives that had escaped during the war. Some of them had gone to India. They remain the only sources of first hand information. These accounts convey but a few of the necessary facts to bring home the appalling truth that our people were indeed sent to the East to perish.
The women and children had fared better then the men, since they were not “arrested” but only “deported”. Nevertheless the majority of them appear to have failed to survive the rigorous conditions to which they were subjected. Most of the small children were separated from their mothers to be brought up as Russians. Nothing more is know of them. The older children and women were used as slave labor under N.K.V.D. supervision on collective farms, quarries and forests. The provinces to which most of them were sent, the Kirov, Novosibirsk and Chelyabinsk districts, were among the most forbidding of the cold Eastern regions of the Soviet Union. It is no wander that the majority of them succumbed to the hardships which they were forced to endure.
A few extracts from rare letters and first hand reports concerning the early stages of their exile prove that, in the first two months after their deportation, these unfortunates soles were already reaching the limits of their physical endurance. Abandoned to their fate, having to work for more then any normal human being could tolerate and being compensated with much less then the sustenance minimum even by Soviet standards. They were patently doomed at a time when the Soviet Union was not yet suffering from the famine which resulted from the German invasion.
Much attention has been devoted to the suffering of the Russian people during the war. Yet the suffering of the deportees can only be vaguely surmised. For some unknown reason they have usually been kept completely out of the picture.
The following letter, the original of which I have with me, was sent by an old farmer’s wife to her children in the Estonian seaside town of Hapsalu. It represents an average case, and bears unmistakable signs of having been toned down for fear of the censor. Of course some obvious attempts has been made in the letter to describe the situation as tolerable. The letter comes from the Gadov (or Godov) peat-cutting center near the railway station of Strizhi in the Gorki district and it was written less then a month after the writer’s deportation and less then three weeks after her arrival. She must have reached her destination about June 24th, 1941. The letter is dated July 13th. Its main portion reads as follows:
Today is Sunday, even for us, though last Sunday we had to work. Now our people are doing their washing and trying to rid the walls of their inmates. We had five working days in June and now we have been paid 9 roubles 61 kopecks for our work. We were told we had not fulfilled our quotas. Our daily quota consists of turning 6,500 pressed peats, about a half meter long and 15 centimeters wide, which have been spread to dry on the ground. They always break, so we have to pile several tens of thousands of them into stacks. It is inconceivable that we could fulfill such a quota. If it were not, we should be paid 14 kopecks per thousand. We are given one kilogram (just over two pounds) of bread per day, which costs 85 kopecks. This is enough for me for we can buy milk at two roubles per litre (about 1.7 pints). There are no potatoes available. At first we were permitted to go to the village to buy them but now special permits are needed. Butter can be bought at 23 roubles per kilogram.
I have received the remittance card but have not yet been to the post office. Aunt Hilma is ill, her legs and arms are terribly burnt. All of us suffer from cold and diarrhea. We are not allowed to make fires to warm our food, and the refectory food is not nourishing and consists only of some cabbage soup and tinned soup with oil.
I was at the militia recently to receive my passport. I was told there that I had not committed any offence and that I had only been brought here to work because workers were needed and that we had to be saved from the war. Therefore if anyone at home could do something for me I might get back. My husband, they said, was an enemy of the State and could not be helped.
I don’t know what you are going to do about the farm. You will scarcely be able to run it very long without us. I shall not get away until after the war is over, that is, provided you can do something for me. Besides, my health has become such that I shall never again be able to do any work. I am old and have to keep my back bent eleven hours each day and carry peat baskets on my shoulder. I will try to go on working for a few more days, then I must go to the doctor to ask for permission to be x-rayed. I have always had back pain and now it has gone into my right breast. My veins are as hard as wire. The breast is hot and aches but is not swollen. Nevertheless I fear it may be cancer. Still it would be useless to go now, the doctors do not recognizes these slight disabilities.
If you get my letter, write to me at some length about yourselves and about life at the Vormsi farm. I have auntie’s letter. It is better if you send me no parcels, for people need so very little here. Don’t send me any money either until I ask you to do so since it is so difficult here to get hold of it.
We are 43 people in one room. Our bed serves us as kitchen, dining table and larder. All our beds stand in a row, five beds for every seven people. You must understand that human beings need very little room and few things…why did we not know before how to live like this ?
The above is a very mild case compared with another one described briefly, though in cautious terms, in a hurried note from a deportee belonging to the same “privileged” category:
It is, shall we say, nice here. The journey went well and everybody was kind and helped to ease our burden. As a result, of all our possessions, only one pot is left. Even that cracked. My little son is dead. We had no food and there was no doctor to tend to him.
One of those who subsequently escaped gives the following account of the arrival of a group of ordinary (not arrested) deportees at a collective farm north of Novosibirsk:
A large transport of deportees arrived by the Z. river on July 20, 1941. It included 26 families from Estonia. Most of these families had been split up with part of their members having been sent to other destinations. On arrival, every person able to work, received 12 kilograms of rye flour for the first month. All the infirm deportees and children received 8 kilograms. No other food was distributed. Many of the children and the aged died soon after their arrival. Few, if any, had winter clothes.
Such was the beginning. All that is known of the deportees is that a few Estonians had survived the ordeal.
Generally the fate of the deported men was worse then that of the women and children. After being kept in prison for some time, they were sent to N.K.V.D. forced labor camps in the Arctic regions of Siberia. Some also to the northernmost parts of European Russia, such as Murmansk and Archangel. They were made to work in manganese, tin, copper, iron, gold, coal, salt mines, oil fields, munitions factories and forests. The collective treatment they suffered appears from the following brief extract from a first hand account.
I was deported from Tallinn on June 28, 1941. More prisoners boarded the train in the town of Voru and proceeded to Kirov. In Kirov we were taken to the local prison. There may have been between 1,500 to 2,000 of us. The journey lasted 7 days. Many of us collapsed and died on route in the cattle cars for lack of water and food. The bodies were not removed until we arrived in Kirov. I saw 15 bodies being thrown onto a lorry and taken away.
The jails were full of prisoners but there were no beds. From the jails the arrested were gradually transferred to the camps covering some hundred kilometers on foot.
Many more failed to survive this ordeal. If they merely collapsed from the strain they were shot on the spot.
I saw many corpses along the roadside. Many members of our echelon also lost their lives there. When we arrived at a site, a steel pole was thrust into the ground and it was explained that we were going to live here. We had to make dug-outs for ourselves through the frozen ground. The work was exceedingly hard.
The guards had a canvas tent which was covered with moss and snow. We proceeded to also build a house for the guards consisting of an office, kitchen and a bathhouse. We had to sleep in the mud of our dug-outs. In the morning we were glued to the frozen ground. Men died like flies and always new prisoners were brought to replace them.
The majority of the arrested died during the winter of 1941/1942.
According to a few Estonian truck drivers, they had seen a group of Estonian officers who had been put to work in the mines at Ukhta. Of the 400 who first went there only 35 were alive when the railway men last visited the place. The rest had died of hunger, exhaustion and exposure.
In the Vyat camp, with 250 Estonians, almost 3 died daily. The dead were not buried immediately but were simply thrown behind the fence surrounding the camp to be interred in the Spring when all were dumped into one large hole.
In places so remote from the civilized world that escape was impossible. The camps were enclosed by high barbed-wire fences and guarded by heavily armed N.K.V.D. soldiers accompanied by bloodhounds. The prisoners spent their nights either on the bare ground or on hard bunks with no bedding of any kind after having worked 12 hours in the winter and 14 hours in the summer. Their daily quotas of work were enormous. If they fulfilled their required tasks the quotas were immediately increased.
In order to spur them to work more, the Bolsheviks had invented a complicated “soup kettle” system which consisted of ten levels of food rations. It went as follows:
1st Level was for prisoners placed in isolation or punitive cells – 100 grams of bread and some salt fish daily.
2nd Level was for sick prisoners – 200 grams of bread and some soup.
3rd Level was for too weak to work – 300 grams of bread and water.
4th Level was for prisoners who had fulfilled 50% of their quota – 400 grams of bread and half a litre of soup.
5th Level was for prisoners who had fulfilled 75% of their quota – 600-700 grams of bread and half litre of soup.
6th Level was for prisoners who had fulfilled 100% of their quota – 800-900 grams of bread and half litre of soup.
7th Level was for prisoners who had exceeded their quotas – 900 grams of bread, richer soup and porridge and a packet of coarse tobacco for every ten men per week.
8th Level was for brigadiers (foremen), camp leaders – normal food.
9th Level was for those in prison – 400 grams of bread and some soup.
10th Level was for those in the hospital – 500 grams of bread and some soup.
The bread was so damp that the water could be squeezed out of it and after 24 hours of drying it dwindled to half it’s weight. The soup consisted of water with some potato peel, sorrel stalks, cabbage leaves and millet grains. Instead of meat, the prisoners received fish heads and entrails. Most of the prisoners able to work were fed under Level 4 or 5 since it was almost impossible to qualify for a higher category.
Only cases of grave bodily injury or very serious illness were eligible for treatment in the hospital and even then only 5 patients per camp were allowed. It did not matter much because the medical staff were usually totally incompetent or very poorly trained which often lead to inadequate treatment after which the patient usually died.
Prisoners who were no longer able to work, particularly the aged over 75, cripples, the deaf and dumb, persons suffering from grave cardiac diseases or from TB were transferred to so-called invalid camps. Conditions there were such that they almost invariably died after a few weeks.
The deportations of June 1941 were only the beginning. By the end of the summer over 50,000 people had been deported to live or die under the conditions just described herein. This process was intended to affect all independent elements of the country. The focus was on all of our political figures with the exception of a few Communists. The only people to escape deportation were those already in hiding on June 14. Our social democrats were almost entirely wiped out. Only about half-dozen junior members of our foreign service were overlooked or simply managed to escape in good time. Most of our senior army and navy officers were liquidated. Very few of our judges remained at large. The best rural organizers of public activities were practically all arrested. So were our leading journalist, including most of the radicals. The workers who had struggled most energetically for the rights of labor were also nearly all forced into cattle cars.
Only people of any influence remained wholly intact. Among them were the academics. The University of Tartu lost only a dozen members of its teaching staff. At the time it seemed a mystery why they should have been spared but later it became clear. They would have been deported a few months later anyway. They were needed simply to complete the technical preparations for a final change of authority in the University.
Under these prevailing circumstances the masses felt as threatened as the intellectuals but managed to show extraordinary loyalty by sheltering the later and helping them to elude the N.K.V.D.. Except for a few opportunists or Communists, the whole nation was repulsed by the deportations. Even the majority of the Communists appear to have been horrified at having been forced into complicity in this crime against humanity.
The effect of this tidal wave of disaster was shattering. It completely crushed all hopes of humane treatment . It was the nation itself that was going to be obliterated.
It was quite clear now that individual character and conduct mattered nothing. All those who had any alliances to their credit in the past, now refused to become active renegades and often betrayed their compatriots by playing them into the hands of the N.K.V.D. or publically denounced them. All that our people stood for was manifestly doomed by such cowardice. Those who participated in these betrayals might escape for the moment but it won’t be long before their own turn came. One could no longer hope to exist as an honest human being since so many had been deported who had nothing political or conspicuous in their past…completely colorless individuals whose only conceivable fault might have been to have friends abroad with whom they remained in touch. Who didn’t have such friends or relatives ?
We were a sea faring people keen on travel, and as such either blessed or cursed with the pioneering temper that naturally brought us readily in contact with our neighbors or other nations. We were an educated nation and basically “capitalists” or “Kulakes”. All we wanted was to manage our own affairs, which we had done more successfully then any alien rulers had ever been able to do for us. We were no shapeless mass but a nation of independent and critical individuals, which deemed us as dangerous in the eyes of the Soviet. Indeed Soviet invaders had always hated and persecuted our people for these traits. If they were to succeed in crushing us into a formless mass they would have to exterminate most of us first. There was too much knowledge, intelligence and tested courage among even the humblest of our citizenry for such a task to be performed without going to the most savage extreme such as liquidating the whole nation.
We knew this and anticipated the worst. There were hundreds of railway cattle cars at the station with carpenters working around the clock setting up bunks. This could mean only one thing. Besides, people were vanishing in alarming numbers. There was some opposition to the arrests by a few who courageously shot their way out of the situation and then quickly disappearing underground. One Estonian officer had fiercely resisted arrest by killing his captors, then his family and eventually himself. Other intended deportees gambled that the political police could not identify the subjects of their arrest and convincingly bluffed their way out of the situation by claiming that the party the police were seeking was not in. Of course they went straight into hiding.
Even though the police had openly arrested people at their place of work, they still preferred to take them by surprise in the very early hours of the morning. After awhile we began to adjust to the changing times. We as a nation became more nocturnal in our movements to counter the police raids. It became commonplace to see neighbors slipping out of their apartments at dusk with small briefcases containing a few necessities for spending the night away from home.
We too adopted similar methods immediately after the first day of deportations. My wife, who studied art, was able to find suitable lodging for herself at an abandoned studio. The nights were chilly for her but she could not have a fire for fear of being detected. I too slept in various places from time to time but most often shared a sofa with a colleague in a small room hidden away in the Faculty Library at the University.
One night we were listening to the wireless, which had not yet been confiscated after the outbreak of the war with Germany, for news from abroad. It was a dangerous thing to do but we could not still our curiosity. Suddenly out of the stillness of the night we heard someone knocking on the door that led to the landing.
We kept dead quiet. We could hear footsteps echo in the empty corridors. Then a key could be heard unlocking a door and the footsteps crossed an adjoining room in our direction. Suddenly the door to our space was thrust open. A uniformed figure entered the room, but to our amazement and relief it turned out to be the janitor. He indicated that if anyone should stumble by and discover us that there was a pail of sand and two water buckets on the landing near the sink which would allow us to claim that we were standing watch over the library in case there was an air-raid.
“Should we fear the N.K.V.D. finding us,” I asked.
I knew him to be a decent man and could be trusted with our safety. Also, ever since his appointment as Warden of the University, he had performed many good deeds for people I knew despite the fact that he was suspected by the Bolsheviks.
“There is the possibility,” he answered.
“The attics of several public buildings have recently been searched by the N.K.V.D. and now they have moved on to the churches. They have already been to the University Church. Who knows were they will go next, and by the way…please remember to tone down the wireless and make sure that the glow from the dial is not seen outside. Someone may be keeping an eye on this place.”
We thanked the man for his consideration. Indeed, he may have been a member of the “proletariat” but remained whole heartedly sympathetic to our nation’s cause and was thoroughly reviled by the invaders. He fought valiantly and steadfastly against the German occupation and was significantly instrumental in saving the University from the Soviet scorched earth policy. Such deserving tribute cannot cause this brave man any more harm, for he is dead. It was during the re-occupation of Tartu by the Russians that he fell in battle. A brave man to the end.
It seems that the strategy of changing one’s abode for the night proved effective. In Tartu it became unlikely for the N.K.V.D. to make as many successful arrests as they had before. Besides they were persistently bogged down with their own bureaucratic machinery. Still the arrests went on even though the authorities were not always certain of correct addresses. This did not stop the nightly raids on offices, school buildings, factories and even churches which continued to result in numerous arrests. It wasn’t long before the police abandoned its exclusive night raids and began to invade offices in broad daylight. People where known to go to work in the morning and were never heard from again.
Safe refuge could only be found in the forests that covered a large part of the countryside. This is also where a small number of armed groups of Estonians had been organized since the beginning of the occupation. They consisted of all those who had been included in Soviet black lists. They were peasants, policemen of the national regime, intellectuals, professionals and factory workers, who had all experienced the systematic oppression of the N.K.V.D.
After the mass deportations had begun and the need for refuge underground had become an obvious necessity, the numbers of those ready to resist in any way possible, steadily increased. Particularly when the police threatened to shoot anyone caught sleeping away from home unless by special permit. Soviets even made public announcements offering amnesty for fugitives who gave themselves up voluntarily. There were those who believed such promises and vanished never to be heard from again.
It was then that the authorities began an extensive campaign to promote the lie of amnesty using unsuspecting naive recruits, preferably non-party men, who were still idealistic and willing to tour the countryside to convince fugitives to give themselves up. Finding men to engage in such treachery was not easy but they managed to lure candidates into their service when sufficient pay was in the offing.
N.K.V.D. detachments were also sent to comb the forests for their prey. In so doing they were often attacked and killed to augment the inadequate arsenals and equipment reserves of the “forest brothers” as they had begun to be called.
Open warfare had erupted in many parts of the country. Finally the underground armies of the persecuted Estonians had turned on their oppressors.
My wife and I had also planned to leave town but by then it was too late. All the roads were now well guarded and movement to leave required a valid N.K.V.D. permit.
At that point we decided that if I should ever be captured and we were separated from each other that she would have a better chance of escape if she did not bare my name Livia “Oras”. It would indeed be better for her to visit the Registry Office to initiate divorce papers and assume her maiden name of Livia “Luus”. No one would seek her under that name. The proceeding at the Registry was all a matter of fact and no reason was necessary. The charge was only fifty rubles. By Soviet law she would regain her status as a single woman in 12 days. I was then notified by postcard that my marriage with the Livia Luus, former Livia Oras, was dissolved.
Our marriage was of course duly re-solemnized during the German occupation. We later learned that such divorces initiated under Soviet law would have been null and void under Estonian law.
This document is a transcribed and edited version of an original document entitled “Deportation in Estonia” by Prof. Ants Oras. I can’t imagine coming across this document anywhere except at one of my “Korporatsioon Fraternitas Estica” meetings back in the mid 1960s. It may have been required reading at the time, but since it was so unstructured and tended to ramble on...I must have put it aside. Well I found it again recently. Now that I am retired, with time on my hands, I decided to rewrite as much of what I could understand of the text, paraphrasing almost every sentence to make it readable without losing the intent of the author to describe conditions surrounding the deportation.