Visit behind the Iron Curtain

Maie Currie was born in Estonia in 1939. Her mother escaped with her to Germany in 1944 and in 1949 they left for the United States. This is Currie’s emotional account how she went back to Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1968 for six days to meet her father who had been taken from her in 1941 to a labour camp in Siberia and eventually was made to go into the Soviet Army.*

Maie Currie was born in Estonia in 1939. In 1944 her mother escaped with her to Germany and lived for five years in a DP (displaced persons) camp.  In 1949 they left for the US, where Currie still resides. But her dad had been taken from them by the Soviets in 1941 and made to go into the Soviet Army. It wasn’t until 1968 when Currie had a chance to travel back to Estonia to see her dad again. At the time, Estonia was ruled by the Soviet Union, behind the “Iron Curtain” and foreign visitors were a rarity. This is Currie’s emotional recollection of her short journey back to her native land.

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Did I know or even care what was waiting for me in Estonia the first time I went back. Not at all since, I was more interested in meeting my father for the first time as an adult in 1968 than any of the unknown factors that might be looming in the dark. The fact that Estonia was behind the “Iron Curtain” had a certain mystery about it that was unfamiliar and scary to most in reality. We heard all kinds of stories, but as stories went, you never knew what was true and what was exaggerated.

The anticipation of seeing ‘Eesti’

The excitement within me was escalating as I boarded the ship in Helsinki for Tallinn. I would have really enjoyed a drink from the bar since that could have calmed my nerves. Since I was not sure how it would look if a woman walked up to the bar alone among all the joyful Finns and ordered a drink, so I refrained from it.

Helsinki-Tallinn passenger ship

The anticipation was peaking as I watched Tallinn’s silhouette get closer. I could hardly believe that I was going to be walking on the soil of the country of my birth, the country I had to flee from during the war, the country I loved so much, and the country that was occupied and suppressed by the Communism of the Soviet Union now. In spite of that, this was my “Eesti” (Estonia) and I always held it close to my heart. I had such a roller-coaster of emotions and they were hard to contain. So many questions ran through my mind – besides my father, who else was going to be waiting for me? Would I recognise them? How would I fit in? Would I be welcomed?

Detained by Soviet border control

I was the last one off the ship and I wondered if that was because I came from America. I had two very big suitcases and always needed a porter. I wanted to bring everyone something and that caused me to be detained in customs for endless hours. Every bag and piece of luggage was gone through with a fine toothcomb. Things were removed and my thrill of being there quickly changed to anger. No amount of arguing helped my situation. There was no winning with the “powers that were”. They were not even Estonian.

By this time, it was getting late and I had no idea where my family and friends were. Had they gone home? Did they last the hours of waiting and not knowing what was going on? The exhaustion was overtaking me and I could not think straight. Some items were confiscated, some were taken to the back room and inspected closer, there were questions, and heads were shaking. The bags were all a mess and the suitcases did not close properly. With no help, I had to struggle myself. “Oh, God!  Did I do the right thing in coming here?” I quickly dismissed that thought since I was already there and would still see my father.

Family reunion

As I struggled with my stuff and walked around the corner, I hear all kinds of cheering and greetings from a distance. “My God, they are all here!” I thought, as my heart could not have beaten any faster or louder in my chest. I still could not get to them since there was an eight-foot chain link fence separating us. As I was led into the fenced area, I quickly glanced to see where my father was.

I saw a very tall man, but I did not remember him from pictures to be looking like this man. In any case, I dropped everything, ran to him with an “isa” (father), and hugged him. Finally, I was here with my father. Once we let go and looked into each other’s eyes, the tall man said to me, “I am not your father.  I am your godfather.” It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck me. “Where is my father?” No one knew and everyone was almost as shocked as I was.

Waiting to transport me to the Intourist Hotell Tallinn (the Soviet-era state-owned hotel in the Estonian capital) was an official car. Truth be told, now I was scared to death and asked if “tädi” (aunt) Erika could come with me. I had initially wanted my godfather also to come but I was allowed only one person. “Tädi” Erika mentioned to them where we would be going after the hotel but some had to go home and I would see them another time. I just went along with whatever was decided by “my people”.

hotel-tallinn-in-1960s

It turned out we were going to my godfather’s apartment, which was not far from the hotel. In sign language, I was informed that the walls had ears and to be careful what I said. Since I would be too upset talking to my father over the phone, my godfather called him to find out where he was. My father wept because he did not know I was coming that day and was upset that he was not there to meet me. You see, with the letters being censored “they” decided not to have my father receive my last letter in which I told him of my arrival date and time. My godfather arranged that my father take the first train from Kohila and come to the hotel in the morning to meet me.

Counting the crumbs

In the meantime, they sat me at the only comfortable chair in the small apartment in front of a small round table. “Tädi” Leida placed a pancake on a plate in front of me with a small jar of berry preserve. Immediately I asked, what about the rest of you? The response was devastating because this preserve was saved especially for me. They did not have the heart to eat it themselves. So there I was sitting and eating alone at the table with the six or seven of them just watching me enjoying this “delight”. It broke my heart. I came from the land of plenty and here in Estonia they were counting the crumbs.

With the secret code of “watch what you say”, I waited for one of them to start all conversations. My mother had warned me of this even when I was writing letters to Soviet-occupied Estonia, so it was not difficult for me to abide by the same rules during my stay. This gave me an idea of what I could expect in the next several days but there was more to come.

KGB everywhere

As “tädi” Erika walked me back to the hotel, it seemed as if she had to have eyes all around. She did have only two eyes, but they were moving everywhere. It made me a little nervous as well. I was sad when she left because I was not sure when I would see her again.

I needed to change into my nightgown but hesitated because of the known bugs. I envisioned they also could be lurking at me with cameras. With that thought in mind, I took my clothes off in the windowless bathroom without turning the light on. I too became paranoid.

Of course, everyone back home had warned me about the lack of toilet paper in Estonia, but I forgot to bring a roll. I checked earlier and realised they had a roll, but it looked like crepe paper and felt like sandpaper. Luckily, I brought some tissues, but saved them for special occasions and going out.

Praying for the blue, black and white flag on the “Pikk Hermann” tower

Estonia is so far north that in June the nights were very short. I marveled as the sky swayed from dusk to dawn and never got dark. I sat on the bed and looked at the round vase on the windowsill with the flowers given me when I arrived. I especially admired the buttercups since I had not seen any back home.

Looking out of the two large windows was what should have been the second most beautiful site after the silhouette of Tallinn. There in front of me was the wall of “Vanalinn” or Old Town.  A light projected on the “Pikk Hermann” tower aiming at the flag. It saddened me to see a red flag up there instead of the blue, black, and white flag. I prayed that someday there would be the flag of free Estonia flying again and that would be a beautiful site for all to behold.

Reunion

On the morning when I was about to meet my father, I had to get up early. I hurried downstairs for breakfast. It was not the quick service you would get back home but I did manage to get a cup of coffee after a while and a “pisi” ham sandwich. Since there was nothing that came with the coffee like cream and sugar, I asked the woman at the next table if she would pass me hers. Very rudely, she said, “no, you order your own”. Welcome to Estonia behind the “Iron Curtain”.

It took two bites to eat that sandwich and a couple of gulps to drink the coffee and I was done.  Surprisingly “tädi” Erika was waiting for me outside the door. She did not want to bother me in the dining room and she seemed a little afraid. She had come early to say, “good morning” and see how I was. She suggested we take a walk. That was how people were able to talk freely because of the spying.

She took me to a small store not far from there, called “The Dollar Store”. It was not to buy anything, but to show me that only a foreigner with foreign currency, especially American dollars, was able to buy anything from this store. Even if a local had the dollars, they were not allowed to buy anything. Apparently, this was the only store to get something worthwhile, even though it was overpriced. We quickly went back to the hotel and she left immediately knowing that I was expecting my father.

About 11 o’clock, there was a knock at the door. I knew it was going to be a tall handsome man that I had seen in so many photos. Yes, my father, for whom I longed all these years. It was the father with whom I made a pact when I was a teenager that each night we would look up at the stars and pretend we could talk to one another. That father was now on the other side of that door. Open Sesame!

maie-currie-reunited-with-her-father-in-1968

I wanted that magic to continue to the other side of that door; but once opened, the magic was gone. Instead, it was the shock of my life to see a man hunched over, frail, and thin but with a big smile on his face. We hugged without skipping a beat with both of our hearts pounding like crazy. It broke my heart to see him so old looking at 59 and not well. What a moment in time!

There was an added surprise around the corner. He had brought his wife Alide and two sons, Urmas (13) and Tarmo (11). I had known about them and had received pictures and letters, so I was happy to meet them now. I finally had my own family with these two boys as my brothers. I was elated. Since I was so much older, they wanted to call me aunt. I kept insisting I was their sister and not their aunt. Alide was very nice and my mother had known the family earlier and was happy that he married her, especially since she was Estonian and a good Christian.

Painful memories

We made all kinds of small talk and then Alide let my father and I talk and had the boys sit very quietly and listen. I wanted so much to know about his life, but did not know how or what to ask. I waited for him and it was apparent that he was afraid to say too much. I learned of him being shot in the neck, which hit a vital nerve during the war. His left leg and arm were lame and his left hand shook. His eyes twitched and his speech was slurred. No longer did he stand tall and proud, but hunched and broken.

I was holding back tears until the night when I was alone. He did not talk about the labor camps or the suffering he lived through in the forest when he was first forced out of our home.

Father and I in the friend's garden 1968

He told me of how he came back home after he was released from being in a hospital due to his injuries for many months. With joy in his heart and with the great anticipation of seeing the love of his life, Ilona, and the other love of his life, his daughter Maie, he had knocked on the door of his once apartment. To his shock and disappointment, strangers opened the door, but no Ilona or Maie. Now, not so happy anymore, but sad and bewildered he turned around and in his pain walked several more blocks to my grandfather’s house hoping for some better news.

My grandfather, of course, knew what had happened to my mother and me because it was with his convincing that Ilona fled with Maie, leaving everything behind hoping to return when all this was over. Ilona never got the chance to return when Estonia was free.

with-father-and-friends-1968

My father waited several years in hopes that we might return, but that too did not happen. Being an invalid and homeless, he reached out to old family friends and eventually married Alide. It was a heart-wrenching story and I was hurting deeply. What anguish and grief he must have felt.

Soviet reality

With me being there, he seemed to have gotten extra energy and strength. He insisted on all of us taking a walk and he showed me our former apartment house and my grandfather’s house. All these were in extremely poor condition and total strangers were living in them. Everywhere the paint was falling off, the fences and gates were in disrepair, nothing green was growing, and everything looked dead and gray. The people had either a sad or mad look about them, as well as a colorless hue. Their clothes were drab and no one seemed to care much about anything. This picture will come back to haunt me.

He also took us to many tourist sites, like the churches, towers, and walls of the Old City. He would tell me a little history of everything. My father would lean on my arm most of the time. Other times he would hold my hand, look at me and say, “my little Maie”, as if I were that little girl whom he missed so much. He missed out on watching his little girl grow up and I desperately missed my father. For him these moments were priceless, as they were for me.

My visa was only for seven days and I was not allowed to go outside of the city limits. All but one day was spent with my father. On another day, we went to a department store and I believe there was only one in the entire city of Tallinn. People would go there in hopes to find something they needed or wanted. The choice was extremely small and the sizes few. Most of the tables were empty and others had only a few items on them.

tallinn-department-store-in-the-1960s

My father also took me out to dinner. The menu had but a few things to offer, the waitress was unfriendly, and the wait time was extremely long. We decided on hot dogs and sauerkraut. I do not believe my father had been to a restaurant in a very long time and did not realise how things had changed. He was complaining and apologising to me about everything . . . the lack of food, dirty tables, the poor service, and no tablecloths. I think having been a refugee made it easy for me to adjust to this sad situation, but apparently, it was unpleasant for my father.

KGB interrogates

I had requested permission to go to my father’s home in Kohila and one morning I was called down into the office.  I had my hopes high, but quickly they were shot down. I was asked to sit down. The room was long and narrow with two desks, some file cabinets, empty walls, and a bare window. The two men began questioning me by first telling me about the shooting of Robert Kennedy, waited for my reaction, and continued to question me for several hours. Why I left Estonia, what was going on back in the USA, specifically in Lakewood (where large expat Estonian community lives in the US – editor) with the Estonians, the Estonian House, church, school, and much more. I was scared and wanted to make sure I was able to leave Estonia.

I got back to my room before my father and family arrived. I was somewhat unnerved, but composed myself. We visited all the possible grave sites of the family. This was part of visiting the past, giving it meaning, and making that far-away land real after all. Even after so many years of being in foreign lands and finally making a home in America, I still felt a strong attachment to Estonia.

Leaving occupied Estonia

The day to depart arrived sadly and too soon. Getting to meet my father and all the family members and friends was a dream come true even if this dream was in a dark place where fear prevailed and nightmares occurred. Everyone was sad and crying on that last day, but I had brought them a few days of relief, happiness, and smiles. I was relieved to go home though.

Maie with her dad in Tallinn in 1968As we gathered on this side of the gates and fences to say our goodbyes, I was given a bouquet of flowers. I took out a red rose and pinned it on my father’s lapel. I knew I had to turn my back soon, walk through the gate and possibly never see them again. Oh, so painful. There were many secrets that could not or did not have time to come out and they will stay locked behind the “Iron Curtain” forever.

After some persuasion by my godfather, they allowed my father to walk with me to the ship. We walked in silence as we listened to the Oral Roberts Choir sing “Nearer My God To Thee” from the ship. They were in Tallinn for a concert, but were not allowed to sing religious songs. Now as they were departing, they sang as many as they could.

Last walk together

Our last walk together came to an end as we got to the steps of the ship. How do you say goodbye to your father, knowing you will never see him again? We hugged, we kissed, we cried, and then I had to leave my dear, poor father. I rushed to get up on deck from where I could see him. The tears were rolling down my cheeks uncontrollably as I looked down at him. I felt so much love, sorrow, and pity. I could not imagine the pain he was feeling to have his only daughter return into his life after so many years for seven days and then watch her leave again forever. I could almost see him losing his strength and getting weaker and weaker.

father-and-i-before-i-leave-1968

The ship started to pull away from the dock very slowly. My eyes filled with tears and I wiped them constantly in order to see my father waving. I took out my scarf and started to wave, so he could see where I was. He was standing alone on the dock with my rose pinned to his lapel. He was getting smaller and smaller but I could not take my eyes off him. Finally, he stopped waving; he turned and I watched a broken man limp further away until my eyes could see him no more. He did not turn around, he did not wave anymore, and I knew he was crying his heart out, as was I. All I could do was to stand there and watch the skyline disappear.

Gone! It was all gone. It was with regret and sorrow that I was leaving my loved ones. How I cried for my father and how he must have cried for me. During the 3½-hour ride back to Helsinki, I reflected back to where I had been and what I had seen.

The happiness was understandable. It was the depression, sadness, and feeling of doom of the Estonian people that will be etched in my heart. It was the importation and forced mingling of foreigners, the lack of food and clothing, the devastating ruins from the war, the disrepair, the fear in people, and so much more that changed a once beautiful country to a country with wounds and scars and a people in pain and in a state of hopelessness.

Unless you have lived there or visited during these hard times, you could not begin to understand. You read or hear their stories, but you cannot fully comprehend until you have been there and seen and heard what I have. The mental and physical struggles of suppressed people cannot be put into words, it is a feeling that stays with you once you have seen it and felt it…

I

Cover: Maie Currie visiting Tallinn in 1968. Photos courtesy of Maie Currie and Estonian World. * This article was first published in two parts on 1 May 2013.

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About the author: Maie Currie

Maie was born in Estonia in 1939. Her mother escaped with her to Germany in 1944 and in 1949 they left for America. This is Maie's emotional account how she went back to Estonia in 1968 for 6 days to meet her father who had been taken from her in 1941 to a labor camp and eventually was made to go into the Soviet Army.