Once again the whirlwinds of war had engulfed
us. After a long bloody struggle, from 1918 1920, the War of
Independence culminated in a free Estonia. We had cast off the
oppressive yoke of Russian domination, and enjoyed freedom,
and rapid prosperous growth. It lasted less than 20 years, and
as the Titans clashed, we were trampled under their feet. Hitler's
army being defeated, was in retreat as Stalin's hordes poured
across our borders, creating a wasteland of death and destruction.
Russia's cruelty to those they vanquished was legendary, we
knew our fate.
Those who could, fled with the retreating Germans,
and the survivors entered refugee camps there. Those who were
cut off from that route of escape, either by choice or necessity,
remained, or sought the only other route of escape; by way of
the sea. The boat by which we escaped had been in preparation
for this journey for some time.
When all was in readiness, word was sent to those
of us who were in hiding that the moment had arrived. From different
points the escapees materialized on the beach. It was getting
on toward evening before all was in readiness to move the boat
from the forest to the water. She was a refurbished coastal
fishing boat, called upon to undertake one final journey.
The cradle was on top of several logs, which
acted as rollers, and a tractor was used to pull the boat towards
the water's edge. The weight of the boat and cradle forced the
logs into the sand, nearly thwarling the efforts of the tractor,
but at full throttle, the was boat moved, and as a log became
free behind, it was carried to the front, and thus, slowly,
frustratingly slowly, or so it seemed to us, the boat neared
the water. The driver drove the tractor as far into the water
as he dared, then backed up, and positioning it behind the cradle,
pushed, until the boat was afloat. It was a terrifying space
Then it happened. A red flare ascended into the
darkening sky. We had been discovered.
In the still evening air, the sound of the tractor
struggling to get the boat afloat was deafening, and echoed
through the forest like gunshots, and for all I know, some may
have been, as there were partisans in the forest, whose purpose
was to eliminate any Russians who might venture too close.
The intent was to board, and silently row out
of earshot, and then start the engine. Estonia was basically
occupied, any activity that caused suspicion was harshly dealt
with. People simply disappeared. It was impossible to keep our
actions unobserved for any length of time. As we started to
board, mother took her shoes, and handed them to me and told
me to hold onto them. As I was the fat one, father picked me
up and placed me in the boat, and my brother, being the skinny
one, was put in the boat by my mother, and others started to
climb aboard. It was an orderly, though anxious process as people
started to climb on board and take their places. (The boat was
27', with a partial deck covering the front half, with thwarts,
or "benches" going side to side. On the deck were
lashed two drums of fuel, and a short mast in the middle, near
the coaming, the purpose of which is a mystery to me.
Then it happened. A red flare ascended into the
darkening sky. We had been discovered. Caution gave way to panic,
as people scrambled on board. Shouts mingled with gunshots,
a desperate push, and we were off the beach. Father started
the engine, and at full throttle we pulled away. Soon a Russian
vessel gave chase, and it would have been a short journey into
oblivion had they been able to apprehend us. By then evening
had become deep dusk, and as we were heading toward a dark horizon,
we were a difficult target to hit, or catch, as, in spite of
being dangerously overloaded with 33 people, we had a lot of
power, and speed. Too much of both, as that nearly accomplished
what the Russians could not.
As Sweden was a scant 300 miles away, we were
hoping to be there the following evening, and therefore little
if any provisions were taken along. People sang and laughed
in the elation of having escaped, mindless of the dangerous
situation that we were still in. An aging shell of Baltic pine,
called upon to undertake one more, and final, desperate journey.
Sometime in the night the starry sky disappeared, and a fierce
storm engulfed us (the ferry Estonia, that sank with several
hundred passengers a few years ago was on the way from Tallinn
to Sweden, and was overcome by a fierce storm. Human error contributed
to that disaster).
Dawn brought light, and a scene of utter human
misery. The elalion of successfully eluding the pursuing Russians
was replaced by dread. We were dangerously overloaded, and had
a scant 18" of freeboard, causing a continuous influx of
seawater over the rail. The bilges filled to the floorboards,
from where it was constantly scooped and tossed back. Seasickness
affected everybody, to a lesser or greater extent. Those who
were near the rail were able to vomit overboard. Those under
the deck, among them my brother and me, did not have the access
to the rail. For us, there was a chamber pot and a sea boot,
which was passed around, and emptied overboard.
A small motorboat, with three or four people
kept pace with us for a while, we waved and exchanged greetings,
and then were separated in the storm. What their fate was is
unknown, they were so small. Our craft was taking an enormous
pounding. We had too much power. We were too overloaded. Baltic
storms are more treacherous than storms on other oceans, due
to the shallowness of the sea. Instead of having rolling waves,
there is created a short chop, steep waves close together. We
had but one thought, get away quickly, before another Russian
vessel sights us.
With the engine at its maximum rpms, we had too
much speed. We overtook the waves, and slammed into them with
enormous force, as if hitting a solid wall. The boat was too
old, too tired, to take such punishment for long, and soon the
floorboards were awash, and the water was rising faster than
could be bailed. Everything had already been tossed overboard
to lighten the craft. Even a pair of binoculars that one of
the men had around his neck went over. Desperation supersedes
reason. The water rose, despite the desperate bailing, using
the chamber pot, the boot, hands, anything that would scoop
water. The engine sputtered to a halt. We were wallowing in
the seas, and slowly sinking.
Father reached under the half deck and pulled
my brother and me out and placed us on the edge of the deck.
With our feet dangling down, we held onto the mast with one
hand. Then Father said, "Look at the world for the last
time, for we will soon sink." I don't remember if my brother
said anything, but I whimpered "Must we die now?"
I was scared, terrified at the sight, and sound, of the enormous
seas cresting around us. Then father saw something floating,
grabbed it and tossed overboard, like a wet towel, trailing
As it plopped into the water I saw that it was
my coat, which had been overlooked during the jettisoning of
everything that was loose. My coat! I stared at it transfixed,
I followed it as it rose and fell with the waves, and slowly
drifted away. It was the only thing that I cherished. During
the war, a new item of clothing was almost impossible to acquire.
How mother was able to get that for me I don't remember, but
to me it was a treasure. I did not have to share it with my
brother, it was not someone else's passed down. It was mine.
One can not understand the joy of having a simple item as that
unless one has suffered the deprivations of a war torn country.
Then Father said,
"Look at the world
for the last time, for we will soon sink."
As I watched my treasure disappearing, sadness
overpowered me. I was oblivious of the fact that soon I too
would be in the water. I only thought of my coat, the only thing
that I had in this world that was mine. Then father thought
that if he is going to drown, it mattered not whether it occurred
inside or outside. Frantically he started to tear up the floorboards,
and by divine luck, came upon the place where a plank was stove
in. He hollered that he had found the leak.
Like a Tesla Coil, an electrifying spark of hope
surged through the people. They tore off clothing and handed
them to father. He pushed and pounded the rags into the hole,
and managed to staunch the inflow of water to the point were
we were able to toss out more than came in, and eventually the
water was once again merely sloshing around the floorboards.
We were afloat, but our condition was desperate. The storm had
abated some, but while we were out of imminent danger, we had
no way of knowing how much longer the boat could hold out after
By now it was dark, and it was decided to make
a distress signal. Rags were stuffed into the chamber pot. I
can't imagine anything being dry, but it's possible to wring
cotton to semi dryness. Gasoline was poured into the pot. How
a dry match was found is beyond my recollection, but the pot
was lighted, and the surrounding area was bathed in orange light.
One man stood up on the deck, and with arms around the mast
stump, he took the pot and held it high. Shortly thereafter
it burned his hands and he dropped it. It fell on top of the
engine, and flames engulfed much of the immediate surroundings.
Nothing caught on fire (how could it?), and although the burning
gasoline floated about, it was soon extinguished, and once more
we were in darkness.
Bailing and praying, we waited for the dawn,
which was not long in arriving. The storm was over, but the
weather was still leaden, with threatening waves. Then someone
shouted, "A boat!" With apprehension and hope, we
strained to see the flag. We feared that the storm may have
pushed us back to Estonia. As the boat got closer, we could
make out a cross. "Finnish," someone shouted. Thank
God, we at least got to Finland, we were safe. As the boat neared,
the flag turned out to be Swedish. Instead of pushing us backward,
the storm pushed us toward Sweden. Our flare had been sighted,
and this boat was already searching for us.
We were towed to an island, and allowed to go
ashore. No one could stand, for having been jostled about for
so long at Sea, the ground seemed to sway and move as if one
with the ocean. We stumbled about as if drunk, much to the amusement
of the Swedes, and ourselves. After this ordeal, I was able
to salvage a small victory. I had stashed mothers shoes between
the bench and the hull. One shoe still remained, and I was able
to give that to mother.
We were then taken to Stockholm, where we were
scrubbed and deloused (standard practice under these circumstances),
given fresh clothing, oh how wonderful that felt, and then taken
to a military base in the harbor, where we were housed in barracks,
and fed, and fed, and fed. Our bodies rebelled at such rich
food, with the result of intestinal mutiny. Most of us suffered
from diarrhea. Being a military base, and somewhat primitive,
there were several two or three hole latrines, which were in
After a few days, I don't remember how many,
we were taken to a refugee village, with a post office, a small
store and a school house. To us kids life could not be better:
eat, sleep and play. I had had a small pocket knife in Estonia,
with which I used to carve little pine bark boats, or make whistles
and squirters, out of bamboo. I lost it, probably in the woods.
While walking along a street, I found it again. I knew it was
mine, because I just knew. Whoever found it had also made it
to safety, whether one of us, or on another boat.
In due time, after the winter, work was obtained
by the adults, and as the earlier arrivals vacated the camp,
new ones took their place. A new life, and the start of a new
adventure began, which eventually culminated in a clandestine
departure from there.