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The Immigration Story of Marje Suurkask (Estonian refugee)

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Estonian Diaspora

Part I

Many Canadians believe that the word‘Diaspora’ meaning dispersing people due to religious persecution pertains only to the Jewish people. This is true. However, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary it also means, ‘ people settled far from their ancestral homelands. This is the definition we shall use. The Second World War wasa great unstabilizing force for many ethnic groups. The wholesale displacement of many national groupings created many Diaspora. We shall concentrate on the Estonian experience or to be more specific on my family’s experience.

My family has experienced forced resettling twice in the last sixty years. Soon after my birth in 1940 in the tiny Baltic Republic of Estonia, the inhabitants of this independent republic were drawn into the developing geopolitical maelstrom. Before Germany invaded Poland an agreement was entered into with the Soviet Union. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as it was known, carried a secret protocol that divided the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea between the two parties. Germany was to get Poland and Lithuania; the Soviet Union was to get Estonia and Latvia. This worked great until Germany broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. For Estonia the result of all this was that we became a battleground that was over run sequentially by the Russians, then the Germans and then again by the Russians. Both sides conscripted all young men they found into their respective armies. I know of one example where two brothers were conscripted: one into the German army and the other into the Soviet army. When they exchanged stories after the war they realized that they had both lived through a battle where they had been on opposite sides. My father was a fisherman. Both armies needed fish, so he was allowed to continue fishing. The Soviet Union re-invaded us in September 1944. I remember being led into underground bomb shelters. Many of our neighbours were sent to Siberia. The Russian soldiers would enter the house at any time of day or night and state that the Estonians had thirty minutes to pack their bags. They were then placed into cattle cars and sent out to eke a survival in the cold barren regions of Siberia.

The principal targets of deportation to Siberia were all people with education, wealth or authority. Resistors were shot. My parents were warned by some compassionate neighbours that our family was next on their list. My father decided it was time for our family to pack up and escape to Sweden. At first my mother refused to go. She did not want to leave her parents behind. My grandmother insisted that we escape and that a wife’s place is with her husband. She kept saying that the war would soon be over, by Christmas at the latest, and that as an older person she would be fine. That was almost true, she was not given an overly long jail sentence. We escaped in a tiny fishing boat. I remember being told to be quiet because we did not want to be captured by the Germans. Many families who had boats or access to a boat, any kind of boat, left. Some tried to cross the Baltic Sea in a rowboat. Not all made it to Sweden; hundreds drowned or were captured.

Our family was lucky and arrived safely in Sweden. Between August and October 1944 thousands of small boats arrived in Sweden from Estonia. The Swedish shores were full of these tiny boats overloaded with tired, hungry and frightened refugees. The boat my family had come over on had been especially built to take thirty people on a short trip. We spent one night on the Island of Kihnu where we picked up more refugees. They tied their tiny boats to our slightly larger one. After we were safely dropped off in Sweden the same boat returned to Kihnu to pick up more refugees. This boat made about a dozen trips before it was decided that it was unsafe to continue.

Part II

Between 1944 and 1949 I lived in Sweden with my family and other Estonian refugees. We were hoping to return to Estonia when the Communists left. At that time we had no idea that they would stay for half a century. So gradually we settled into making a living and trying to make a life for us in Sweden. I personally did not enjoy my stay there. I was placed in the home of Swedish people so that I would learn Swedish. My parents lived on a small island. My father fished for a living. My so-called adopted family did not treat me well. I nearly starved to death. My teachers noticed my sickly appearance and I was sent to a hospital where I received sun lamp treatments. So when my parents mentioned that we were moving to Canada I was very happy.

My father and his fellow fishermen had purchased a 250 ton Canadian mine sweeper, approximately 125 foot. They decided to equip this wooden motor ship, a special vessel built during World War II to locate enemy mines for an unique trip to cross the Atlantic Ocean once more. What made this crossing unique was the fact that no one had a visa or landing papers for Canada. Canada did not hand out visas to Estonians until 1950-1951. We felt that we could not wait. Our people felt that they had to leave Sweden quickly and quietly before the Russians found out. The Russians had been trying to entice the refugees back to Estonia. They were claiming that it was safe to return and that they would take good care of us. Many of our relatives realized that if they did return they would be given a free trip to Siberia. So my family and approximately one hundred and fifty friends decided to look for a safer place. They chose Canada because they had heard about other refugees arriving safely in even smaller boats. My father convinced us that this Canadian built motor ship was safe for us to cross the Atlantic. Many of our friends would be in for quite a surprise. The Atlantic Ocean has bigger waves than the Baltic Sea that they had successfully crossed five years earlier.

My father, being the custodian, spent many months hiring a crew and arranging the details which included such things as: finding share-holders, finding reliable crew members including a captain, finding a cook, buying supplies and doing all this without attracting much attention. The captain he found was J. Suksdorf. Our boat was registered for fishing, not transporting illegal immigrants to Canada. A Swedish weather ship did see us leave but they looked the other way and let us go because they felt that we had a damn good reason for leaving.

After many tiny mishaps like finding right engine parts, we left. It seems that we did have a problem with the engine before we finally set out for Canada on July 18, 1949, from the city of Malmö. Considering the fact that I was only nine years old at the time, I remember only events that a child would. I do remember that when the weather was good everyone seemed to be in great spirits. However, when it was stormy many were seasick and many quite worried. It was quite common to hear people say "I must have been out of my mind to even consider risking my life and that of my family to cross the Atlantic in a poorly built ship with a sea-sick crew...What are we to do if the Canadians send us back to Sweden, never mind to Estonia?... but we only have enough money for a one way trip!"

Our voyage took sixteen days and nights. As we survived the rolling seas and huge waves our moods became more optimistic. We seemed to get braver as we got closer to Canada. Nothing would bother us anymore because we had had close calls with icebergs, dolphins, waves the height of high-rises, crowded living quarters and the usual moaners and groaners. I was usually in high spirits. My uncle was teaching me English. I learned to sing“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." I was too young to worry about drowning or not being able to stay in Canada. I was looking forward to the Wild West. I had heard stories of Indians, huge plains and great big trains that would take us to our new home on the west coast of Canada where supposedly myfather would continue fishing for a living.

I was told that the Canadian immigration officials did not recognize the blue, black and white Estonian flag that our vessel was flying. They were amazed to find one hundred and fifty-four people on board. We noticed other small vessels carrying Baltic refugees. One small boat approached us and a woman called out: "Don’t argue amongst yourself - be polite or you’ll be sent back!"

The women and children were taken to the Immigration Building off the now famous Pier 21 in Halifax. The men were allowed to stay on board our ship. We were checked for illnesses. Each family had to present their reasons for coming to Canada without the proper documents. Their first reaction was to send us back to Estonia.

My parents were shocked when they first received their 'order for deportation' from the Immigration Board that stated that they had been examined by the Board of Inquiry and had been rejected. The reasons for rejection were: they are persons whose passports do not carry the visa of a Canadian Immigration Officer. Thus they are prohibited immigrants.

The Board of Inquiry also felt that we would likely become public charges and therefore we were to be detained and deported to the place whence we came to Canada or the country of our birth in the same vessel that we came to Canada. This order was dated August 9, 1949.

It took our people until September 28 to change the deportation order by explaining to the officials that by returning to Estonia we would perish in Siberia and that we would not become public charges because we had been brought up in strict European work ethic. We were not afraid of hard work.

Between August 9 and September 28 we were kept behind bars in the Immigration Building. Every once in a while we were taken for walks in an attractive park overlooking Halifax. We walked two by twos, one officer in front and another in back of the line. I remember being embarrassed. Some of us truly felt that we had become prisoners. We were given English lessons. The adults must have worried what the future held for them.

Eventually most of us were given clearance and allowed to stay in Canada if we found sponsors who would look after us the first year. Most families left immediately by train to Winnipeg and even further away. My parents had to stay in Halifax until our vessel was sold.

Our family stayed in Halifax for another year. My father did odd jobs to earn some money. We all helped. My mother bought flour, butter and sugar on account, baked pastries that my sister and I sold door to door. Then we paid the grocer and kept the profits. We made many friends there. It was not much fun going to school seasick. It could not have been easy for my mother. She had her hands full looking after three children, one cat and a husband while living on a ship docked in a rough neighbourhood. My sister and I attended a nearby Catholic school. The nuns treated us well. I remember they even gave us piano and tennis lessons.

After the ship was sold our family boarded a train full of immigrants and started another journey. This time it was a four-day trip across Canada. I finally got to see some real Indians. We arrived tired and hungry in Vancouver where our relatives met us and allowed us to live with them until we got established. It did not take my energetic father long to form his own construction company. We certainly did not become public charges. My father provided hundreds of people with jobs. Fifty years later my father was still providing jobs to others. He lived to the age of 84 and never did retire. He was working to the end.

We were lucky to survive our forced journey.

In closing, a few remarks are in order. This uprooting of the family was the hardest on my mother. She was kept so busy looking after her family that she neglected her own education. She did not adapt well to her new homeland. My father appeared to enjoy the challenges. He did not take long to pick up the pieces and start a new and successful career many times over.

My sister and I went on to receive a university education in Canada. My brother continued to work with his father and later took over the family business. At times I wonder how things would have worked out if we stayed and grew up in a totalitarian Communist country instead of here. Would we have survived or would we have perished in the Siberian Gulag? Often I think that my parents really must have wanted to escape Communism since they were willing to risk everything and take on such a dangerous trip in an overcrowded ship.

We are grateful for being allowed to stay and live here safely. Thank you Canada!

Written by Marje Kembi Suurkask, one of the children who crossed the Atlantic on the Pärnu.