Children of the 1944 Estonian diaspora
I am in the process of making a series of portraits of the children who escaped from Estonia during World War II in 1944.
The Germans had seized the country but the Russians were closing in and thousands of Estonians made the precarious escape across the Baltic sea to Sweden, Finland or Germany in whatever vessels they could get hold of. My uncle and mother were seven and five years old when they escaped with their mother on the boat Juhan, which made nine journeys from Tallinn to Stockholm that year. Juhan was transporting Coastal Swedes living in Estonia back to Sweden. My mother and her family were Estonians rather than Coastal Swedes, so they had to be smuggled onboard without tickets. My grandfather followed a few weeks later in a small rowing boat together with three friends.
To this day, my mum can’t stand the smell of engine-oil as she was hiding in a tool box. My uncle has no memories of the boat journey itself, but remembers the soft white bread and hot milk they were served as they arrived in Sweden. This is what I am most interested in when pursuing this project – what memories do these 'children' have of the escape? There are many stories told from an adult point of view, but I am interested in how you process something like this as a child. What memories do you keep hold of? They are now all in their late seventies and early eighties but most of them have at least one clear memory from the escape.
However, as I met my subjects and they told their stories, my interest slightly shifted. It was fascinating to hear how differently they took to their new home. Some embraced their new country fully and - whilst still speaking Estonian at home and eating Estonian food - didn't worry too much about their children losing their Estonian identity. To others, it was much more important to keep the Estonian heritage alive with literature, newspapers, organized activities and Estonian school for the children.
I decided to make portraits of each child (siblings together if possible) but also photograph an object of their choice – something they'd brought with them from Estonia or something else that they had kept from that time.
I started the project summer 2017 in Sweden, and plan to find more subjects in Sweden this coming summer. I have also met 'children' in Toronto, Canada and on the US east coast during this spring. Many of the refugees were so concerned about the Russians that they felt they wanted to travel as far west as they could.
I feel this is a very timely topic as there are so many boat refugees fleeing across waters all over the globe today. I can see it becoming a really lovely book eventually.