Estonia: a Winter Journey

In this newsletter:
*** Estonia: A Winter Journey
*** News, Website Updates & Current Projects
*** Travel sketches

Estonia: a Winter Journey

It's been well more than a week that the airplane deposited me safely back in Wellington after a 45 or so hour journey. I'm still recovering, and trying to step back into some sort of rhythm for my daily activities. Besides, the weather has been hideous! Ten days of scarcely interrupted pouring rain, that's most unusual for Wellington even at this time of year. Must be those pole caps melting, or something.

People have been asking me if the trip was a "success" - but how do you define success when the main purpose is to catch up with family and friends?

Apart from spending lots of time with my family - which was really the main purpose of the trip - the best bit about it was meeting up with lots of friends. Very old ones in Berlin and Bremen, and a bunch of new ones - people I had so far only met online - in Bern.

I have also finally found the perfect new home for my harp, met some fellow internet enthusiasts in Berlin, visited a bunch of art museums, wandered round Basel reviving old memories, soaked in the atmosphere in various old churches, laughed at street performers, drank lots of Hefeweizen, managed to see no alps in Switzerland, but lots of hills with castles on them in Germany, did a bike tour through the North German moors to Worpswede, saw a great opera performance starring one of my best friends in Rheinsberg, smelled the spring smells and walked the old tracks in our little Bavarian village, enjoyed my mom's cooking, hugged my parents more often than I yelled at them (I think?), let the warm April sun shine on my nose, got stuck in a traffic jam for a solid three hours, did a stack of pencil sketches, and took lots of photos.

The part of my trip which I had anticipated with the most mixed feelings was our journey to Estonia, on the tracks of my mother's family history. It is also the most difficult for me to write about. I was going to give you a brief overview of Estonian history and what happened to my family and why, and I've spent all afternoon browsing the net trying to find some useful information - which, incidentally, is not at all easy to come by. But I discovered that I find reading about these events, which mainstream history has been largely unaware of, deeply upsetting. Judging from most public discussions and evaluations of the years 1930-1945, the history of the Baltic States - and of the Baltic Germans in particular - never happened.

Perhaps this paragraph, found on the Estonian Foreign Ministry website, sums it up best - though I don't know if it includes the Baltic Germans, like my family, who where made to leave in 1939:

<<Direct human losses during the [Soviet and Nazi German] occupations (1940 – 1991) reached 180,000, which is 17.5 per cent of the nation’s population. 90,000 of these people were killed, while the other 90,000 left Estonia, either as deportees, or as refugees or émigrés. As a result of the two Soviet occupations, more than 33,000 people were deported from Estonia to the Soviet Union. Traditional Estonian ethnic minorities like the Baltic Germans, Swedes, Jews, and Romanies either left or were annihilated.>> Source: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website

The Wikipedia article about "Baltic Germans" has some sketchy information about the resettlements in 1939 and 1941, which agree with what my mother has told me.

The excellent website set up by Estonia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has heaps of information about Estonia's history, culture, customs and cooking, but most of the articles I've read about recent history make scarce mention of the existence of a Baltic German population. Still, it's a great website to go to for all things Estonian!

I found these articles of particular interest:

Information about Estonian citizenship - includes a concise summary of the Soviet "Russification" policies 1940-1949

Soviet deportations from Estonia in the 1940's - hair raising. If you didn't know, you should definitely read this. But take a chair first. Does "Molotov-Ribbentrop pact" ring a bell with you?

The Singing Revolution - Estonia's return to independence, 1987 -1991. I feel about this. It was part of the general crumbling of the repressive systems in Eastern Europe, and I was dancing on top of the Berlin wall in 1989.

We took the plane from Berlin to Riga, hired a car and drove up to Pärnu (formerly Pernau), where my mother was born and the family has lived. Berlin was already warm and springlike, but Estonia was still completely covered in snow. Impressions from the drive are mostly: endless birch forests, vast white spaces, and a wide sandy beach with snow on it. A very familiar landscape - the countryside outside Berlin and stretching up to the Baltic Sea does not look much different, minus the birch forests. Estonia just has a lot fewer people. And a longer winter!

Pärnu turned out to be a friendly seaside resort with a small but pretty old town centre, lots of wide alleys with old trees and neat green and yellow wooden houses, and an absolutely enormous beach. It is situated in a very wide and very shallow bay, and one can easily imagine that it would be the perfect place to spend the Estonian summer - especially for families with lots and lots of small children! My father, who had been in charge of booking the accommodation, had found us rooms in a stylish old-fashioned villa-hotel, which happened to be in the same street were my mother's family home used to be. We managed to ascertain that, even though street names have changed several times since, first under Soviet rule, and then again after the country's independence.

The weather was sunny that day, and it was good to see my mother walk around with a happy face and point out things she remembered from family photographs or letters. She had been only three years old at the time the family left, in the course of the resettlement of most of the Baltic German population to Poland in 1939, where Hitler used them to "Germanize" the newly occupied territories. She says she has no actual memories at all of Pärnu - though she was quite quick to point the right way to the beach!

We went in search of the old family home, which my mother had been told had been pulled down. She remembered the address from writing letters to an unmarried aunt, my grandmother's sister, who had stayed behind when the rest of the family left, and eventually died in an old people's home in Tallinn without ever seeing any of her family again. We found there was a little green house still standing there, after all - but of course, street numbers may have changed in the upheavals of recent history. The Lutheran church, anyhow, which we took to be the church were my grandparents had got married, and where the family used to attend Sunday service, we later found out had been the wrong church. The family church has been eradicated along with so much else. The beach promenade and the old bathhouse, which feature on many a family photograph, are still there though - and so is the beach itself, and the river.

When we attempted to find some information at the local museum in Pärnu, we were told that they didn't have much there, and that the place to look would be the national archive in Tallinn. People in Pärnu, it appeared, were quite used to bewildered elderly Germans coming along trying to make some sense, and to find out something about some of their roots. They generally reacted friendly, but not particularly interested or solicitous. And my mother decided that a week was too short anyway, to start digging in old archives, and that she'd rather have a look around and see what the place is like, now.

The next day, we drove on to Tallinn. No family connections there, apart from the aforementioned great aunt, but we did not know where she might be buried or if her grave is even to be found. So we behaved like proper tourists and had a look around the old town, which is well worth seeing. Tallinn's old city centre and medieval fortifications are well preserved, and the city banks on its medieval flair. It seems to be a favourite spot for weekend parties from Helsinki - it's just a short hop across the Baltic, after all.

The city museum in Tallinn had some interesting exhibits, including some information about the years of the Second World War, but most of it was only in Estonian. The highlight of our visit, though, was chancing into Sunday mass at the orthodox church. That experience beats any amount of sightseeing.

Our third stop was Tartu, Estonia's university city and intellectual center. It was also - as university cities tend to be - the first center of the civic unrest that eventually led to Estonia's renewed independence in 1991. My grandfather was born there, and lots of my family have lived there back in the old days. But my mother didn't have any information as to where their houses, homes or graves might be or have been, and after three days of sightseeing we were all a bit tired. Besides, the thaw was now setting in and all that snow was running away fast, which didn't make for great walking conditions!

Tartu doesn't have the kind of touristy attractiveness that Tallinn and Pärnu have, but I can imagine that it would be a pleasant place to live in and study. It features off-beat mural paintings, music venues, at least one film festival, several used book stores, a river promenade that looks a bit like London and where you can ruin your shoes in the mud in spring, and even a film and tv effects museum! To my great grief, the museum was closed that day. I would have loved to walk in there and say I'm from Wellington, New Zealand. :D

For a country with such a fractured history, and compared to other Eastern European countries I have travelled in, Estonia gives the impression of prosperity - or at least of being well on its way towards it. Tourism is evidently going well, and what is also noticeable is the deliberate push for people to use the internet. For instance, there is a tight network of free Wi Fi access spots in all the major towns - including the hotels we stayed in. Then again, there are all those old women trying to sell their hand-knit socks to promising tourists from plastic bags. But still - for much of my mother's life, it used to be impossible for us to to even think about visiting the country. Now Estonia is part of the European Union, and preparing to introduce the Euro!

Was this trip what I expected it to be? Did it answer any questions? Well, I hadn't really expected anything much in particular, apart from hoping that it would be a good thing for my mother to finally go back to her birth town, after talking about it and waiting for so long - and that it would get her to talk a little more about the family's history, and her own experiences as a refugee. But answer questions? I guess there are a whole lot of questions involved there which absolutely nobody has been able or willing to answer yet. There seems to be a whole lot of shame involved, and also a whole lot of not knowing anything at all for certain.

But I am not the only one who struggles with the unquiet spirits of a barely known past, whose implications we are only just beginning to grasp.

<<The legal definition of crimes against humanity was formulated for the purpose of the Nuremberg trials, although the fact that hostility towards civilians was forbidden had been a self-evident part of European civilisation for quite some time already. The so-named Martens clause of the Hague Convention of 1899 emphasised the demands of humanity in all war situations. For the purposes of the Nuremberg trials, the definition of crimes against humanity included deportations (Article 6 (c)). The Nuremberg experience makes it apparent that massive acts of violence against civilians are, with complete certainty, considered crimes against humanity. It is deplorable that Russia, the legal successor of the Soviet Union and one of the victors in World War II, has not recognised the deportations, which painfully affected the occupied nations as well as the Russian nation, as a crime against humanity.>> Source: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website

News, website updates and current projects

A couple of days ago I had a very polite email from a gentleman in the USA who is a committed collector of Tolkien-themed calendars. He had come across my Middle Earth New Zealand calendar on the internet, and is indeed one of the 15 people who have bought a copy. He asked my permission to feature my calendar on his website as "calendar of the month" for May - a permission I was, of course, more than happy to grant. It's a timely reminder that I ought to get on to designing next year's calendar, so it doesn't end up another last minute venture like this year! I'll keep you posted.

Asni the Harper now has a public profile page on Facebook, where you can find info about my CDs and things, and become my fan! Isn't that cool? Just what you always wanted! I'm still trying to work out the etiquette - and some of the technicalities - of this new place, but I hope this link will point you correctly to my public profile. Please feel free to send me a fan or friend request (or both) if you're on Facebook! And then, you know, tell all your friends, so they can become fans too, and buy lots of my CDs! :D

My new Myspace profile is also providing lots of fun. I hit my first benchmark of a hundred Myspace friends the other day! I still haven't gotten round to sprucing up the layout, but I've been uploading songs and updating the info on my profile. Again, I'd love to hear from you if you're on Myspace yourself.

Work on my own website has been progressing slowly but steadily. The latest update has been my favourite links page, which still needs some more work as of this writing, but at least it now exists. Please have a look!

On 22 May, I will be at the XMediaLab in Auckland, soaking in information and meeting some of the who is who's of the digital media industry. Last year's event was most definitely worth the while, and Auckland is a lot closer than Souzhou! I would have loved to attend the conference in China, which focuses on animation - and I might even have wrangled it with a bit of planning, after all I was stopping over in Hongkong on my way back from Europe on that very weekend. But for now, Auckland will do. Though I am already wondering if perhaps the Lab in Sydney in June might also qualify as "really close to home"? Their topic is Serious Games. That would be seriously interesting. This multimedia artist happens to think that it would be nice to get involved in developing some games that are not about shooting or chopping the heads off as many people as possible. There must be other things one can do with this medium. Well, we'll see about that.

But then again, after doing so much travelling in the last few months, I am entirely looking forward to being a bit more homebound, and getting on with my website updates and with properly setting up my new web design business. And painting some more images of Earthsea!

Travel sketches

Oh yes, and I have been busy sketching! Here are some of the pencil sketches I did on my trip to Europe:

I had set out to sketch mainly old buildings of various descriptions, since this is one thing that is not readily available in New Zealand. It was a challenge - I need way more practise doing that! But there are also some landscape and nature sketches from our short stay in Bavaria. My parents have put the flat on the market years ago, and I was fully expecting that it would have been sold by the time I came to Europe again. I'm very happy that I still got the opportunity to put this beloved place down on paper.

Arohanui, from Asni

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