Saturday, May 5, 2012

Uprooted: A Story of Estonia (Part VI)

THIS IS A CONTINUING STORY ABOUT ESTONIA DURING WORLD WAR II FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF RALPH KAND, A YOUNG MAN WITH A WITHERED LEG.

The Kand house was situated in a sparsely populated rural area outside the capital Tallin. Before the invasion, Sunday dinners were a feast of both good food and good story telling as the dining room swelled with cousins, aunts, uncles from the extended family, and friends as well.

Ralph’s cousin Uno was a regular visitor. So, too, was Ludi, the older brother of Eitzi, the girl Ralph had his heart set on. Ralph became acquainted with Eitzi through Ludi who was best friends with Ralph’s older brother Karl. Both Ludi and Karl joined the police force together when they came of age in 1938. Now that Karl and Ludi were gone, as well as Ralph’s best friends Eitzi and Muti, the mood had become more somber.
Most days the house belonged to Ralph and his mother. His father had passed several years before and was spared the grief of watching his country dismembered. The country had been a free sovereign nation for hardly two decades before the Red Army arrived. Now, indignities were the norm.

Uno was still too young to be abducted by the Russians, but unless things changed it was certain that one day his turn would come. Ralph's handicap was his sole salvation from this threat.

Before Karl was taken he and Ralph had a radio that they kept upstairs under the bed. Because of the media blackout they spent their evenings lying on the bed with the radio tuned to the BBC where they would learn about things that were happening in the broader world. What surprised them was the Russia's illegal annexation of Estonia in the autumn of '39 was not even mentioned by the Western media, as if the West were utterly unaware of the plight of Estonia's people.

The BBC did provide daily accounts of the Red Army's invasion of Finland. No newspapers or radio stations in Estonia said a word about what would be called the Winter War of 1939-40. These BBC stories put a fire in their bones. In the dead of winter the Baltic is typically frozen clear across and many young men from the Baltic states were leaving home to join the fight against Stalin. Ralph and Karl likewise discussed this many times, but Ida would have none of it and they stayed home that winter.

Now Karl was gone and it was Uno who joined Ralph to keep in touch by means of the radio. Before Karl gave himself up the NKVD once again surrounded the house, entered and conducted a search. A great tension was in the air. They were attempting to locate Karl and knew he was armed. Ralph could hardly breathe as they had not had time to turn off the radio and owning a radios was a crime in the new Estonia.

Men in long coats scurried quickly about the house, pistols drawn. The only sound was the clamor of jackboots and that damn radio. At the end of the search the men left as quickly as they had rushed in. Ralph nearly passed out from fear.

"Did you see their eyes," Ida said. "They were as scared of us as we were of them."

Ralph hadn't seen their eyes, blinded as he was by his own fear. He learned something from his mother that day.

***
Because Estonian cuisine is chiefly structured around a foundation of meat and potatoes, and potatoes were in ample supply, Ralph had become a fussy eater. His mother often chided him for not eating the peelings. He found them bitter, but she said they were nutritious. Before the war was over Ralph had a pair of experiences involving potato peelings that made an impression on him. We'll share those experiences much later in the story.  (In literature, this is called foreshadowing.)

***
There were many scenes from those days that made an impression on Ralph. On another Sunday gathering before Karl's departure Mutti wanted to know how Estonia could be taken over without a fight. This feeling was exacerbated by the remarkable efforts undertaken by the Finns to hold off the Red Army that winter. "I want to know why we didn't fight," Mutti said. "The Finns are fighting to the death. Estonia simply surrendered."

"Mutti, Estonia has no army," Karl replied. "What could we do? Our leaders did what they felt was best."

"What kind of army does Finland have? They will fight and they will stay free," Mutti said bitterly.

Ida broke in, "Boys, you don't know what you're saying. Do all young men think fighting and dying will fix everything?"

TO BE CONTINUED

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