Saturday, April 14, 2012

Uprooted: The Day It All Broke Open

On Saturdays I have been sharing serially the story of the peoples of Estonia through the eyes of a man with a crippled leg name Ralph Kand whom I met two decades ago on a beach in Duluth. The book, if completed, will be called Uprooted.

The Day It All Broke Open

Another of the early stories Ralph told me was equally dramatic. In August 1939 Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin decided that all the free countries of Eastern Europe should be divided between Germany and Russia, then called the Soviet Union. The following month the peoples of Estonia were forced to accept Soviet military bases in their homeland and in 1940 the occupation of Estonia began.

At first, nothing much happened. There were incidents here and there. But then things broke open on the day of the soccer championship between Latvia and Estonia, the biggest sporting event of the year.

Tallin Stadium was filled to capacity. Ralph was in the crowd with his two best friends, Eitsi and Mutti. Eitsi, an attractive twenty year old, had long dark hair and a round, pretty face. Ralph described Mutti as tall, handsome and a bit vain. With less than two minutes remaining the scoreboard showed Estonia leading one to nothing. Estonians were cheering and screaming.

Even though it was against the law to display an Estonian flag, some people had secretly distributed small flags to everyone in the stadium. As the time clock ticked down, a Russian army band began hastily assembling at the end of the playing field, lining up and preparing their instruments.

In the final seconds of the game, Latvia was charging. The tension was terrific because of the occupation and the intensity of the game. The crowd began counting down the final seconds. Five! Four! Three! Two! One!

Immediately, upon completion of the countdown, a gun went off and the entire stadium was transformed into a sea of Blue, Black, and White, the Estonian national colors.

Simultaneously, the Russian Army Band rushed out to the center of the field carrying a bandstand. The band conductor was a squat, chubby-faced man. He began waving his baton to get the band's attention. They were falling all over each other in their haste to set up in the middle of the field.

The Estonians began singing the Estonian National Anthem. The army band began playing the Internazionale, the Soviet National Anthem.

The sound from the stadium was so enormous it drowned out the army band. The red-faced conductor tried to make the band play louder. He began waving his hands like a madman. Ralph said it was comical, but sad at the same time. The louder they played, the louder the crowd sang. The singing was so loud and boisterous that no one could hear the band at all.

A few weeks earlier, the Estonian President had been placed under house arrest. Singing patriotic songs gave the people in the stadium a feeling of power and they decided to march on the Presidential Palace to set him free. They streamed out of the stadium and marched in a column as one mass of people. At the head of the column they held a national hero on their shoulders, an Estonian who had won three gold medals in the most recent Olympics.

The people did not know that machine guns had been set up by the Russians. As the parade of marchers approached the gunners waited, their weapons loaded.

There was a tall fence between the road and the Palace. As it came into view, the marchers rushed forward to the fence and began to climb it. Suddenly a blaze of machine gun fire burst from the guns and tore into the crowds.

Ralph was near the front of the column and when the Russians started shooting. It was the first time in his life that he saw and heard automatic weapons.

The crowds fell back, retreating to the streets of Tallin. Ralph had hidden behind a tree and became separated from his friends.

Grand Avenue, the three-mile-long main street of Tallinn, became flooded with people, shouting, demonstrating, singing. The Soviets ordered the Estonian police to disperse the crowds, but this was impossible.

Ralph's brother Carl, a handsome young man in his mid-twenties, was a Mounted Police Officer. Even though he knew it was futile, he had to pretend he was at least trying to break up the crowds. But the river of people remained untamed.

Ralph was amazed at the energy in the crowd. People grabbed the legs of the policemen's horses and lifted them high into the air, shouting, "Long Live Estonian Police! Long Live Estonian Police!" No one had ever seen such things.

Next, the fire department was called out to hose the crowds. The fire trucks slowly entered the streets, but no one would turn on the hoses.

Finally, the tanks were ordered out. Russian tanks rumbled into the streets, pointing their guns at people, but the crowd simply cleared paths for them and let them pass. "They were only sent to frighten us," Ralph said. No shots were fired.


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