Saturday, June 23, 2012

Uprooted: Part XII Westward Bound

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.

These Saturday blog entries are devoted to a serial novel titled Uprooted, a story about Ralph Kand, a young crippled man from Estonia during those difficult and challenging years from 1939-1945. Last week Ralph was able to secure a spot on the very last boat of exiles fleeing the approaching Red Army. On this historical day 10 percent of the population of Estonia fled their homeland.

Westward Bound

No one was surprised that there might be submarines off these coastal waters. The two torpedoes only confirmed what the captain had feared. As the fully crammed fishing boat splashed into the open sea white-knuckled hands gripped the railings all around. Prayers were muttered and a hysterical woman was comforted by her husband. Ralph only peered into the waters, anticipating the worst.

But the worst did not happen. The boat chugged on, sloshing through the murky, turbulent waters. After the first hour Ralph relaxed enough to look about at the weary travelers on board with him here. How far were they going? How far would be far enough? Very few had slept the night before but there was not enough space for sleeping on the wet, spray-drenched decks or below. They would have to take turns.

Like everything else it was the unknowing that Ralph found so disconcerting. He turned and wriggled through toward where he hoped to find the captain. As he ducked below he nearly smacked his face into the first mate's as he stepped up to climb up top.

"Here, here. What's our destination?"

The first mate shrugged. "Don't know. We'll be following the coast."

"Stockholm. It's not that far."

"Captain doesn't want to lose his boat. If the weather turns the open sea will toss us like a piece of driftwood."

Ralph threw his head back and turned away. Stockholm would be safe. Anywhere else here on the continent... it would only be a matter of time. The Nazis were going to be in full retreat and there would be nothing to stop the Red Army from rolling wherever it wanted. Latvia and Lithuania had no real armies. Poland might become a place of retrenchment, but the real destination had to be further.

As the day wore on the mood shifted from dread to relief to small clusters of people telling stories. The return of the Soviets was a monumental disaster for Ralph, but now Ralph could hear others telling their experiences during the Nazi occupation as well. One man told about his Jewish housekeeper who was taken away. Others talked about how young the German boys were. Ralph listened, said very little, wondered how his mother was, and thought about his brother.

At dusk temperatures dropped and the cramped, wet conditions resulted in family units pull in close together for warmth. Ralph, isolated as he was, began to shiver. He stamped his feet to get the circulation flowing. His socks were soaked through as were his pants.

"We've passed the Gulf of Riga," he heard someone say. They must be off the coast of Lithuania somewhere, he surmised. He wondered again how far they would go. Poland? Germany? He found a wall to lean against and nodded off.

The commotion woke him. It was still night, but alarmed voices were mumbling. Ralph stood and saw coastal lights off to the left. Then he saw what the agitation was about. Another boat was approaching. He saw lights but couldn't gauge the distance. Suddenly a blinding spotlight flared to life and he realized the approaching craft had been much nearer than it appeared.

A man with a loudspeaker, shouting in German, requested that the captain identify himself. The captain had already climbed to the forecastle, lifting his hand in a form of salute to shade his eyes. The German now requested permission to board.

Ralph watched the procedure as an officer and two soldiers climbed into the vessel, armed and serious. The captain welcomed them nervously, Ralph thought, and invited them to examine the contents of the ship which was nothing more than refugees. The Germans made a cursory show of it, and notified all on board that the were on the outskirts of Gdansk, Poland. The German patrol boat ushered them into a bay where the captain could unload his cargo of passengers.

Soldiers ordered their new Estonian guests to assemble in clusters to await transport to temporary housing. After a time three vehicles arrived to usher them away. As dawn began to break the weary travellers disembarked, wet and ashen-faced. Their new home was a large temporary encampment with row after row of buildings, muddy walking paths and very little greenery. A German officer approached and ordered them to listen up.

"These are temporary homes. You must understand the situation. You will have provisions and sleeping quarters until we can process your identification."

The camp was surrounded by double rows of fencing decorated with barbed wire. That first Ralph knew this was not the freedom he was seeking, and decided this was not somewhere he would stay for long.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

If you are enjoying these weekly installments of Uprooted: The Ralph Kand Story, you might also enjoy some of these other books by Ed Newman and friends.

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