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The Immigration Story of Alfons Suurallik (Estonian Refugee)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
Port of Arrival: 
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2016.354.1

Story Text: 

My wife , Hermine, and I were a newlywed couple. We met in Norrkoping after we each managed to escape from our homeland of Estonia in 1944 as Communist Russian troops were once again flooding into the country. From Norrkoping, we moved to the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. Initially we were in touch with foreign news via radio from Sweden as well as Germany and England but, in particular, we heard of the bad news about our Estonian homeland via Germany.

The Republic of Estonia had again, for the second time, been conquered by the Communist Russians and thus those of us who had escaped were concerned about the fate of those that stayed home. but that was not all, we worried too about ourselves in Sweden. The Swedish socialist government tired, in every way, to again gravitate towards the winner. Sweden, like many years before, had favored Germany when the German army was defeating might Russia but now, with the unexpected about-face, Sweden turned towards the victor, socialist Russia.

In particular what set me thinking was when Sweden turned over close to 50 Estonians to Russia. They had been conscripted by the Germans. Two of the Estonians were known to me, pilots belonging to the Estonian Air Force, who escaped to Germany before the Russians conquered Estonia and participated in the war against Russia. These two took flight to Sweden from Germany with their own planes. One of them was fortunate but the second was shot down by pursuing German planes. But since the escape occurred six months before the end of the war Sweden refused to turn over the pilot, at first to Germany and later to victorious Russia, returning only the plane to Germany. But those fifty uniformed Estonians were turned over to the Russians, despite protests by hundreds of Estonian in front of the Swedish King's castle and parliament buildings. That set the rest of us refugees thinking about what the Swedish government would do when the victorious Russia, led by Stalin, demanded that the rest of us should be returned. That was the main reason why the refugees in Sweden began to explore, just in case, opportunities for leaving for elsewhere. It was not only Estonians that had such concerns but also Latvians, Lithuanians and even Finnish citizens.

At the time there already was an Estonian newspaper in which I found an interesting job offer. Latvians in England had purchased a former convoy escort ship that was presently located in Goteborg and the Estonian ship's captain was looking for a fellow Estonian to be the ship's mechanic and boiler operator. At that time we (my wife and 3 year old daughter) were sharing an apartment in Stockholm with my wife's brother, Heino, and his wife and daughter who was also three years old. Upon reading this I looked at my wife's brother and we both decided to reply to see about the terms of the offering. A week later there was an answer from Goteborg indicating that the ship had permits for a trip from Sweden to Canada and after maintenance to the ship's boilers, they would begin the trans-Atlantic crossing to Canada and possibly even to the United States. The terms were acceptable to us and we sent our reply to the captain, indicating when we would arrive in Goteborg. We already knew what jobs awaited both of us, namely the boiler maintenance and fitting and preparation of the cabins. Because of that we left our families in Stockholm, and after resigning from our jobs we proceeded to our unknown future in Goteborg.

Upon our arrival, the ship from a distance looked like any other ship, but when we saw the engine room, it was like a trash pile before its removal to the dump, full of assorted junk. There we were met by another Estonian, the first mechanic, with a broad smiling face, looking as if he was asking "Now what did you expect to find...a clean shiny boiler room?" He was waiting for all the workers to arrive and then we would begin to put the machinery in order and the inspection of the boilers.

After introductions he produced a bottle of vodka, and after that had been emptied, we had a tour of the ship and we looked for a place where we would sleep. We had not met the captain yet because he was still living in a hotel and those cabins that were ready had been occupied by Latvian and Estonian passengers. In other words, the two of us had to find ourselves cabins where we and our families would stay for the trip across the Atlantic. Fortunately, we found two empty cabins in the bow section of the ship where we quickly moved our baggage before anyone else claimed them. You could not really call these cabins because they were really only empty storage rooms. But it was possible to make these into living quarters and that was our first priority the next day.

We found plenty of wood above on the deck to build bunks in both rooms. We found mattresses in the sailor's quarters and selected the cleanest one that we could find for ourselves. Even though we worked for longer than twelve hours, we could be proud of our accomplishment of having prepared our cabins for a comfortable sleep for the following nights. We were fortunate that we did not go hungry because the Latvians looked after the food at mealtimes very well and in a tidy way.

The next morning the three of us went to the engine room to decide from which end we begin to clean the room and put things in order. There was no question about starting with a broom, instead the tool of first choice was a shovel for the removal of the debris from the boiler. The captain had ordered a barge where we dumped all the unusable pans, containers and debris that we found in the engine room. At the beginning of the following week there arrived three stokers or firemen, a helper and trimmer who shoveled coal from the storage bunker near to the stoker who fed the coal to the boiler when the ship started its voyage. Now, at last, our engine crew was in place and we could breathe easier and begin to prepare the engine and of course clean the boiler.

A week later it was the turn for the engine and boiler inspection and preparation of the bearings and the engine exhaust. Our worst discovery was that the boiler pipes had corroded and needed to be replaced with new ones. At last, all the repairs had been made and we were ready for a test run and were satisfied with their condition, it was time to announce the departure time for the ship from Goteborg.

Now, in the meantime, my wife's brother Heino, decided not to proceed with the trip to Canada, choosing instead to return to his family in Stockholm. After having worked two weeks on board the SS Sarabande he approached me to tell me that he would not stay for the departure of the ship and instead return to his family in Stockholm. When I asked why, he answered that he doubted that the ship would ever reach Canada. I know that at one time when we were drinking with the captain, he mentioned his concern about crossing the Atlantic, this being the first time that he would attempt crossing such a large body of water with so many passengers. Also for Heino, it would be the first time for him to experience the dangers of the powerful Atlantic currents. When I attended the Tallinn Marine School, we as mechanics had to learn about Atlantic currents because these originate in the south in the Gulf of Mexico and push all ships towards the North Pole. Therefore, ships assisted by compass readings, need to adjust their heading by degrees towards the south at the mid-point of their Atlantic crossing. I tried to change Heino's mind but this did not work and then he packed all his clothing back in his baggage and left Goteborg, wishing all of us good luck. Heino decided this voyage was not for him and his family.

Before our departure, when I returned to fetch my family from Stockholm and help them with packing our clothing, I tried once more to change Heino's mind but in vain. Leaving Erika, Heino and their daughter, Malle, was very difficult, but our dreams for a better future in Canada called for risk taking, and we had begun the process already and to change our minds at this point was unthinkable.

I understood that it was difficult for Hermine to leave behind her brother and his family together with whom we had begun our life living in Sweden, but we had to keep our resolve to continue what we had undertaken and therefore we departed from them, not knowing what awaited us in Canada.

Upon arriving in Goteborg to our mighty 'minesweeper' and stepping into our self prepared 'salon' Hermine and Lee looked at me as if to say "Is this the same cabin that you talked about all the way from Stockholm?" Of course on the train ride I had to enhance the description of my work, preparing this room, however, I had not promised them a chesterfield or piano, and with that both settled for this little room in the bow of the ship. After the tour of the ship and especially the introduction to the most important person on the ship, the cook, I began my job in the engine room. It took about a week for all the travelers (refugees) and after that we had to satisfy the harbour control that the ship was fit to cross the Atlantic including condition of lifeboats, life jackets and life rings. Somehow we satisfied the inspectors about the state of the life saving equipment (even though we were misrepresenting the facts) and we were given permission to sail from Goteborg.

Almost a week had passed before all the passengers had arrived and we were ready to leave Sweden. On the twenty fifth of July, 1949 at 8 a.m., the harbour pilot came on board, then steered us out of the harbour and then handed over the ship to our steersman and wished us luck on our long journey to Canada. Now, then began the new nights and days on the open and empty North Sea with our worries and adventures until we arrived in the Irish port of Cork. The shifts at sea were divided for both the deckhands and the engine room crew into three shifts with the first shift of four hours from eight until twelve belonging to the first mechanic, the second shift of four hours from twelve to four to the third mechanic and the the third shift from four to eight to the second mechanic. But normally all three mechanics are present in the engine room for the first few hours after departure and after that begin the shifts in the engine room and boiler room.

The first few hours passed quite calmly but the trouble began, not in the engine room but the boiler room because of the coal that had been purchased. Scrimping in natural everywhere, but for a ship, like the SS Sarabande with its hundreds of passengers, this was implicitly criminal and with this began the problems with the boilers because the coal was not even third rate but was some sort of discarded dusty rejects.

Normally coal burns on top of cast iron grids but this stuff burned between the grids and melted holes in the grids. Fortunately we had "old" spare grids numbering about fifty and that saved us from this foolish situation and we were able to proceed to Ireland. But this trouble was not the only kind for the engine room crew, and as the saying goes the first problem does not occur without a second and that is what happened in the engine room. On my shift from four to eight I had noticed that the engine had somehow begun to limp along and I noticed that the manometer or pressure gauge showed that the steam pressure was too low. My first thought was that this is a repeat of the grid problem, but when I reached the boiler room, I found the stoker unconscious on top of the pile of coal and the Latvian trimmer that shovels coal from the bunker to the boiler room was asleep beside an overturned water bucket. I emptied a nearby water bottle down the neck of the Latvian and sent him upstairs for help for the stoker and to call the next shift. There was no other choice but for me to take the shovel and start shoveling coal to raise the steam pressure. At last the next stoker arrived and took my shovel to continue my work to raise the steam pressure. Also some sailors arrived to carry the fainted stoker up onto the deck. How our first mechanic hired such a stoker, who had not even seen seawater from on shore and now was on a ship calling himself a seaman, I don't know. Later, it turned out that our third mechanic was a sailor but before coming on board our ship he had worked as a deckhand on a Swedish ship but before that he had seen a boiler somewhere!

We continued over the North Sea, through the English Channel. We arrived at last in Cork, Ireland on July 30th. A small port city, but still a very important stop for us ‘Viking-like’ sailors, who try to rest before they begin the long voyage across the Atlantic. But now began some critical workdays for our Latvian businessman because all the fire grates had to be replaced and besides that, they were also forced to buy more coal. A truism is that one continues to learn throughout life, and the same was true for them to understand where and how to economize because one could never rely on junk (coal).
Besides looking after bearings, pumps I did have some spare time left over to care for my family. Usually on Sunday we did not work when the ship was in port and then I informed the first mechanic that I would take the day off and go on a trip with my family to become acquainted with Ireland. That was one of the marine rules that one mechanic , the first or the second, must always be on board the ship, and if one has a day off he must inform the other. Our first agreed with this and then my wife and child and I went to see Ireland and nearby surroundings.

In order to get further away from our ship, we boarded the first bus regardless where it was taking us. In an hour’s time we stepped off the bus in a small city beside a lake and after a light lunch began to explore the surroundings. I had exchanged some money before leaving Göteborg at a Swedish bank and bought some English pounds, so why not spend some here. Some of that was spent on the bus fare and some was left over for food. After splashing her bare feet in the water for a half hour, my young daughter, Lee, already started to yawn, so we decided that it was time to think about returning to Cork. Then again, shoes on and back to the bus station to wait for the next bus. After about a twenty minute wait we were on the road again back to Cork and there we walked around and did some window shopping. Suddenly we noticed a sailor from our ship who gestured to us as he was hurrying towards us. When he neared us he informed me that the captain was looking for the ship’s mechanic and could not find one on board. When we returned we saw our angry captain marching back and forth and his first question was “Where are our mechanics when I need them for something?”

When I had left the ship I had told the captain that I was going on “vacation” in Ireland and the first mechanic should be on board the ship, since I had also informed him. Then I learned that the first mechanic had been invited by the stokers to go to the pub to drink some beer and left the engine room and boiler to an engine room apprentice and stoker’s care. Now, of course, all hell had broken loose. The engine room watch had been assigned to an apprentice. That, of course, was also a surprise to me since I had told both the captain and the first mechanic of my leaving the ship. I could also understand why the captain was angry because the first mechanic had broken all the marine rules by being in a pub, drinking beer with the men and even having enticed the third mechanic to join them.

The captain called up the Latvian businessman that owned the ship and in their presence appointed me the first mechanic and demoted the former to take my place (and my shift) for our Atlantic crossing. Of course, they agreed with the captain’s decision. I accepted the position to which I was appointed. My greatest wish was that we eventually arrive with our skin intact in Canada and that there, they accept us as refugees.
Now then, we were ready again to go to sea, this time with my family in a first class cabin location and the bonus of newly prepared coal grids from Ireland. The Irish donated a big pile of clothing for any who needed to take them. Several hundred Irish were waving to us on the wharf and wished us well as they were singing church hymns to send us off. That was on the sixth of August 1949 when we embarked on our way to conquer the hardships of the Atlantic Ocean.

Our fellow passengers had already learned about seasickness on the North Sea. Before leaving Cork, those, that had made friends with water buckets when we were in the English Channel, were moved to beds on one side of the ship so that others could sleep peacefully. My gang, Hermine and Lee, had found a sheltered spot beside a lifeboat and neither one moved from there except at mealtimes and for fear of darkness at night. Now again, I had more free time left over because the engine room apprentice took my shift and I could enjoy their company in the shelter from the wind. We observed passing ships all the time. Those modern freighters and passenger ships had been built for speed but the opposite was true for our minesweeper which during the war was used to explode mines. While observing ships we unexpectedly noticed one freighter slowing down as if to wonder what a former warship flying a Panama flag was looking for in mid-Atlantic. We were also sure that the Russians knew of our ship and at a distance, moving at our speed we could see a ship (but could not see what flag they were flying because of the distance) perhaps keeping us in sight, a “communist” presence. While in port each ship had its own watch, which changed every two hours, from ten at night until six in the morning to keep strangers and thieves from boarding. Because of this unknown ship the ship’s brass were forced, just in case, to put a guard on duty. A sailor was put on guard for the night on the deck. In the morning, we saw that this unknown ship had disappeared from sight.

A few days later we heard shouts from the ship’s passengers that there was land diagonally ahead of us, but at the same time, we had a change in the weather, now turning into a storm. The ship’s captain decided to turn the ship to the left because darkness was approaching. We reduced the speed of the ship such that it just matched the oncoming wind and waves. The storm had died down by morning even though the waves remained but the island that we had seen the previous night was now gone. The storm and wind had carried us a fair way north and now in the morning we increased the speed of the engine to regain the lost miles. But how far was Halifax; we did not have a clue.

We did not know how far we had been pushed back by the storm that had pushed us overnight. Along the shore and while moving south, we spotted a fishing vessel and as we moved near it, we cried for directions: “How far is Nova Scotia and Halifax?” How the fishermen could understand with all that noise is again a good question, but we received our directions to continue ahead bearing south. Thanks for their directions, you could see the joy on all our faces and even tears in some eyes. In the evening twilight we arrived at the entrance to Halifax Harbour and waited for the pilot boat to guide us into the harbour and about an hour later we secured the mooring lines to the wharf. Now then at long last we had arrived and now we had hope that they would accept us in Canada as war refugees. Our voyage has lasted a long time, but as I wrote before, our ship was not built for speed but instead for finding mines, therefore I don’t believe that any of the passengers complained about this. We had left Cork, Ireland on the sixth of August and we arrived in Halifax on the nineteenth of August 1949.

It’s unlikely that any of the passengers or ship’s crew was able to sleep that night on the ship which was tied to the wharf, but we had arrived. The next morning immigration officials began their investigation and questioning about why we left Sweden, gathering all the passengers’ documents, certificates and Swedish passports for examination to make sure that amongst us there were no criminals. The initial investigation was simple because we did not have immigration permits to live in Canada and they were examining our documents for whom to admit or not. After lunch, busses arrived and we were sent to a building ten miles away, to rooms in a former hospital, to wait our fate.

Three of us had to stay with the ship as we made preparations to the boiler, engine and pumps to make them winter proof. We worked as fast as we could to join our wives and families. When I arrived at the hospital, there waiting for me was a beautiful, clean hospital with a mowed lawn with my bride along with Lee waiting for me. I had to get permission at the harbour to leave the ship and move to the hospital with my family. At the hospital offices, there was no objection to my plans, because there was already a spot waiting for me with my family. They managed to understand and promised to have the papers ready by evening and I could come for them and the next morning and leave the ship.

The next day my papers were ready and the girl in the office wished me well as I prepared to join my wife and daughter. Life at the refugee camp (hospital) was very nice but with that came duties such as helping the cook to peel potatoes and fruit and three times a day washing the dishes. This was shared evenly amongst all the people living there so that “sandbaggers” would not be allowed amongst the refugees and everybody was assigned to groups by the cook determining who peeled potatoes, fruit and who washed and dried the dishes. There was a dish drying machine but according to the cook this tended to go on strike and then it was necessary to dry with towels.

Now then “the great minds” amongst the Estonians, Latvians, Poles and Finns began to decide how to divide the dish washing work into groups amongst two hundred and fifty adults. Well, somehow they got on with this and formed twelve groups of ten Estonians, Latvians, Poles and Finns for washing dishes and peeling potatoes and fruit.

All the participants were in favour of this and that left free time for playing ball and folk dance lessons, an idea submitted by an Estonian woman who was familiar with such dancing. Volleyball was preferred and interested the men more along with the onlookers. So there were formed three national teams competing for the camp championship. We beat the Poles handily but when it came to compete against the Latvians, we had to get serious and put all our skills to play. Finally we gradually won the match three games to one. I, as one of the winners, was presented with a big bouquet of dandelions, accompanied by screams and laughter from both the winners and losers and with the presenter being my own dear wife. All of us tried to make life easier in the camp for the sake of our future in Canada, should we be accepted into this English colony.

Three months passed and then we were directed to board busses for a trip to a new camp near Toronto. That meant that our wishes were fulfilled regarding settling in Canada and that we were now able to choose work anywhere in Canada. The camp named Ajax was located near Toronto, about fifteen kilometers to the east and had bus service with the big city of Toronto. We had been accepted into Canada.