Saturday, June 2, 2012

Uprooted: A Story of Estonia (Part IX)

This story is based on a true account of events in the life of Ralph Kand, a partially crippled young Estonian who survived World War II. For narrative purposes the time frame of these events has been condensed without — this writer believes — violating the spirit of that time.

September 1944: Beginning of the End

Like most people in Estonia, after the Germans had run the Red Army off their land, Ralph wasn't happy about the German occupation but believed it a whole lot better than Stalin's terror-style of rule. The world was at war and though nothing was normal, there was a greater sense of normalcy than before.

In 1942 many Estonian men left the country to fight with the Finns who were still under pressure from the Soviet army. But many more remained in their Baltic homeland to prepare for the assault that would eventually come from the East should the Axis powers fail in their bid for global dominance. Ralph decided to join the Estonian National Guard where he found that nearly all of the volunteers had lost a brother or sibling to the Red Terror. His withered leg had never kept him from anything else he put his mind to, from bicycling to skiing, and he was determined to do whatever was necessary should the Red Army return.

The following year was a famously bitter Russian winter, and the Nazis failed to achieve their aims due to gelled diesel lubricants and fuel in their tanks and transports, and the distractions of formidable Allied forces accumulating in the West and the South. Another problem was that trains in Russia operated on a different gauge railroad track than in the rest of Europe so that for German supply lines to be maintained (by railroads) the tracks had to be widened one mile at a time. It was tedious and time-consuming.

In the fall of 1944 Ralph was with his National Guard unit to the East when rumors began circulating the the Red Army was on the move. He had been trained to disregard rumors, which were often unfounded or driven by propagandists on both side. Nevertheless each passing day brought more stories.

The Estonian National Guard was embedded in the Nazi army at many of these outposts. One morning in the third week of September Ralph was standing near the pitched tent of Nazi headquarters when he overheard the Major giving orders to his captains. This was the second time learning foreign languages saved his life. The Major had just informed his men that the Red Army was indeed drawing near. The German army was being instructed to withdraw so as to have the paltry Estonian Guard put a short-term pause in the Red Army's advance. In other words, Ralph knew that the Estonians were being sacrificed so that the Germans could escape.

When the major and his officers stepped inside the tent, Ralph jumped on the major's motorcycle and drove off as fast as he could get away toward his mother's home on the outskirts of Tallin. He avoided all roads as much as possible, riding trails and paths through the woods and fields, terrified as he tried to sort out a plan in his mind.

Many Estonians had thought about the possibility of this day coming and were prepared to flee the country if necessary. As it turns out a full ten percent of the population abandoned their homeland in a matter of days. Ralph aimed now to be one of them, but he wanted his mother to come with him.

Ida's face was ashen as Ralph explained what must be done. "I'm too old, Ralph. I can't start again somewhere new."

Ralph pleaded,  then went to the barn and brought the horse and wagon to the back porch. Ida reluctantly began packing. Ralph hastily carried armloads of clothing and goods to the cart.

Suddenly Russian airplanes bore down on them and began strafing. Ralph held the horse as his mother ran inside. A bomb fell nearby and shook the house violently.

"Mom! To the shelter," Ralph screamed.

The shelter was essentially a hole in the back yard with an old door overtop it. As Ida climbed inside Ralph ran around grabbing branches from the trees and pulling shrubs to throw over the top of this makeshift safe place in an effort to conceal it. But no sooner were they in the ground than a banging commenced.

"Open up! Come out!" a high-pitched voice shouted in German. The Nazi soldier seemed but a boy, but his rifle was pointed at Ralph's face and Ralph had no choice but to climb back out into the open. He quickly calculated that the Russian air force was not wasting bombs on Estonian civilians. The retreating Nazi army must be nearby.

All of a sudden the sound of more aircraft caused the young German to turn on his heels, shouting, "Macht schnell!" In an instant he was gone.

Ralph ran to the cart and untied the horse from the post where he'd secured it. He placed Ida on the seat and instructed her to take the back roads into Tallin where they would try to catch a boat out of the country. Meanwhile Ralph, still in uniform, took off on the major's motorcycle, veering back and forth to see where the roads were clear and to make sure his mother was still safe.


CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

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