Saturday, May 26, 2012

Uprooted: A Story of Estonia (Part VIII)

This story is based on a true account of events that occurred in Eastern Europe from 1939 to 1944. For narrative purposes the time frame of these events has been condensed without — this writer believes — violating the spirit of that time.

Arrival of the Nazis

The tension was continuous those two years of hell during the Soviet occupation. Though the Western powers never recognized Soviet authority over the Baltic states, the peoples themselves were powerless to do anything about it; so, too, the rest of Europe. While the German Reich flexed its muscles, the United States remained neutral, and watched from an idle distance.

In the summer of 1941 Hitler made Stalin his target and sent the German army marching East. Once again the people of the Baltics were subjugated by a new regime, a new landlord with new rules. The initial response by many was jubilation. The Nazis were liberators. The dark cloud of Soviet oppression had been lifted. But this sentiment was not shared by all.

In June, when the Soviet army retreated, so too did many of Estonia's Jewish families. Ralph might not have noticed except that a co-worker named Leo failed to show up for his shift at the brewery. The following day his absence began to cause a stir. When Ralph sought details he obtained the curt reply, "He's Jewish"

No question things had changed. There was no more fear of midnight raids to fill the plundered ranks of Red Army. There were no more visits by secret police whisking away agitators or accused enemies of the state. At least not initially. Eventually the Germans began pillaging goods for the war effort, but it was not very long before the rumors of executions were being circulated.

One weekend in early Ralph had gone to his Uncle Andre's to see family and to get away. While returning to the train station late Sunday evening he was startled by gunfire just beyond a small stretch of trees near the river. He feared missing the train but as the trains were often late he went to explore, creeping up to an embankment covered with brush. Below he saw German soldiers hastily shoveling dirt onto a line of bodies in shallow graves. An officer watched and Ralph slipped back and away, his heart sick with fear and confusion.

The next day, when he told his mother what he had seen, she replied, "They were Jews." Ralph then understood why Leo's family had fled.

As he listened for news from the BBC, a pinpoint of illumination began to pierce him in a strange new way. Despite his homeland's respite from the horrors of Stalinist oppression, these liberators were not heroes. This world as he understood it was very broken. And the freedom he had known only a few short years previous now seemed a lifetime ago.


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