“Make babies and keep your heads up high” – an interview with 100-year-old New Yorker Juta Kurman

Juta Kurman is a well-known member of the Estonian community in the American northeast. She has been active in many global and U.S.-based Estonian organisations. Her current passion is teaching Estonian to Americans in the New York Estonian House once a week.*

Estonia’s first president Konstantin Päts complimented her on public speaking and American politicians are calling her a patriot. There’s an Order of the White Star* on her wall and books by Anton Hansen Tammsaare (one of the most well-respected Estonian authors) on her nightstand. At 100 years old, she is also older than Estonia. Kurman is a legendary lady. And today she is sharing her past with Estonian World and offering advice for the future over a cheesecake at her home in New York City.

Hi. Would you like to give an interview for Estonian World?

Sure. But let me first show you some pictures.

She brings a heavy picture album and starts on a book-worthy odyssey of her escape from Estonia in 1944, the subsequent adventures in wartime Germany and post-war refugee camps en route to America.

…And then, finally, in June 1947, I arrived with our two little boys to New York where my husband was waiting for me. I have been meaning to write a book about it all.

Did the trip change you as a person?

Definitely. When I got to America, I learned that nobody was going to give me a hand, unlike Sweden where they provided help for the refugees. You need to build yourself from ground up in this very individualistic atmosphere here.

So, how did you make it?

My husband walked into a fancy restaurant on Broadway and said: ”You need a cook, here’s one!” He had actually never learned the trade, but thought his experience of having been served good food would do. So he experimented, tried, sometimes getting himself fired and finding a new restaurant. This went on for three years before he finally found a job as an electrical engineer, which he was by profession.

Do you also have a “tiny New York apartment” story?

Apartment hunting was difficult. Nobody wanted tenants with children. We finally found a place on the Third Avenue and 82nd Street, a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our landlord was an old Irishman who earned his living from gambling on horses. He rented us a tiny alcove in his living room. The boys, five and three, couldn’t jump and wrestle there, so I had to take them to play in Central Park for two hours every day.

New York is not the best place to raise children. Why did you stay here? What does that city mean to you?

New York is a real metropolis. It has the best opera house, the best of any establishments you can find in America. There’s an abundance of choices for entertainment, achievement, education. It’s just more interesting than a provincial town.

How have you coped with tragic events in your life? (Ms Kurman has outlived two husbands and both of her children – K.L.)

I am a well-trained person. I’ve seen the Soviet occupation, remember.

She smiles, saying that.

Actually, there’s a trick from my education as a teacher that I find particularly useful. When a child is pouting and crying, distraction helps. Show them something fascinating to draw their attention and they forget about crying. I’ve been applying this on myself. One of the things helping me pull myself together has always been teaching.

She has been teaching Estonian for adults in the New York Estonian House since 1993 – K.L.

On a lighter note, what makes you happy these days?

Music!

She points to a radio playing classical music.

It soothes my nerves. Music has always been a big part of my life, especially opera.

What’s your favourite opera?

La Bohème. I’ve sung the role of Mimi. It was in Viljandi. Also, Madama Butterfly. I was a decent singer back in the day, but chose family over musical career. On my graduation day from the conservatory I received a bouquet of roses from my husband with a card that read bossily: “This is your swan song.” He was jealous and got upset with me when I sang in clubs and got home late. Hugo was a great husband for me otherwise and I wasn’t going to take this marriage lightly, so I ended up sacrificing my art. I feel the draw towards music even until this day though.

There’s a copy of A.H. Tammsaare’s “Truth and Justice” on your nightstand. Is it still interesting for you?

Absolutely. I share these mottos. I try to act truthfully and demand to be treated justly.

What were some of the most remarkable things you and the US Estonian expat community did to help Estonia?

In America, there was no censorship – one could talk, relocate anywhere, establish movements. We founded the Estonian Women’s Club in New York, a member of the General Federation of International Women’s Clubs. We were invited to yearly conferences to hold talks on the tragic fate of the homeland and raise awareness. The largest conferences were global, with speakers all the way from China and Korea! They only gave us four minutes there.

Four minutes? That must have been really well prepared!

Oh, yes! Public speaking is one of my gifts. As a teenager, I was selected to perform a birthday speech for President Konstantin Päts. It was just me and him in a ballroom at Toompea which made me very nervous! I delivered my thoroughly practiced address after which he walked up to me and said nothing but: ”You speak well.” Ever since I haven’t had any problems performing for hundreds of people. I’ll just remind myself what Päts said.

Coincidentally, around the same time of Estonian World’s interview with Juta, Estonian Public Broadcasting’s US correspondent Neeme Raud conducted a TV-documentary with Ms. Kurman. Neeme Raud commented his encounters with the honourable lady thus:
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“We never use in our new TV documentary on Ms. Juta Kurman the word “old”, since despite her advanced age – what a great way to describe politely 100 years of age – she is all but old.
Juta Kurman is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. Energetic. Opinionated. Still full of curiosity. And at 100, she is actually five years older than the Republic of Estonia. That is how our Estonian TV special on her starts (it airs on Feb 25, at 20.30 Estonian time on Estonian National TV). I first met Juta just a year ago when we recorded interview for Estonian radio’s program on Estonian language. I was interested on her on-going Estonian lessons at New York’s Estonian House. Our talk took right away a very patriotic-nationalistic tone: “this is our duty to spread our language, small and beautiful” –  she stressed.  As one of her pupil describes her in our TV documentary, come rain or shine, Juta is always present at the lessons.
The TV program is more or less her life story. But since it airs with a support of Estonian Job Board, we also try to tell our people of golden years that life can be very rewarding even when over 80. Juta, by the way, only started giving Estonian lessons in New York when she was 80!”

What are your memories from August 1991?**

We were all following the events on television with great excitement. I want to give my compliments to the brave group of people who made the necessary arrangements, used the coup in Moscow to reinstate the independence without sitting around and waiting.

What would be one thing the US could learn from Estonia?

Oh, there’s plenty! And I haven’t been shy giving that advice either. Senators, congressmen, presidential candidates write to me and ask for money. And always by first name: “Dear Juta.” Imagine! They don’t even know me. And when they address me, I usually just write back that money doesn’t control everything – attitude is important. And the attitude in America is often rotten. I sign it ,“Juta Kurman, Estonian American, who knows about it.” So I did that for a while and they started noticing me, replying to my letters, thanking me for the advice. They’re calling me an American patriot, imagine that!

She smiles, obviously being proud.

The last one was Newt Gingrich during the last presidential campaign.

How would you assess the development of Estonia in the past 20 years?

I would say it’s positive. Estonian politicians still make mistakes sometimes, but they’re learning. We need to keep our heads up high, preserve the language and the land. Estonia has six thousand years of culture, America only 236. Politically, they have had it easy here – not even one occupation!

Having always followed the Estonian media, you’re probably aware of the demographic challenges the country is facing. What do you think is the answer?

The situation with birth rate is indeed really bad. What kind of a state is it that can’t even keep one million natives. Who will respect and support us? I have just one thing to say, and you can publish this wherever – make babies! It doesn’t matter if life’s hard, the cradles need to be full. Ladies, don’t be vain and think only about career.

How about immigration? You are teaching Estonian to non-native speakers in New York. Do you think it could be possible in Estonia? The Russian population is already integrating and learning the language. Can a future Estonian be, like many Americans, originally from somewhere else, living, working, raising a family in Estonia?

Don’t let just anyone in. Only if they really invest in the country. I’ve seen it here that while there are indeed many hard-working people coming, America also has too many immigration-related social problems.

What do you consider your identity? Who do you think you are: New Yorker, Estonian, American?

I am a US citizen, an Estonian and an Estonian patriot. I brought my Estonian spirit with me to America.

Did you feel homesick throughout the years?

Of course! What did you think!? I remember the blazing June heat in my first year here, lying in bed, wide awake, wishing I could go back. But there was no way, we had to swallow the bitter pill and readjust ourselves.

You’ve lived a remarkable century, seen two world wars, the advent of automobiles, television, computers, the internet, etc. What would you name as the most amazing developments in your lifetime?

Do you mean machines?

Anything. Can also be cultural.

Well, I’m not technologically savvy, but I do have to say it’s impressive what kind of gadgets we have these days. Even looking at household devices. I feel as everything there is to invent has been invented.

What about cultural and societal issues? Women have more rights, Communism has risen and fell, there is less racism etc.

Partnership! Partnership and education are most important. Keep giving the children proper education there (in Estonia – K.L.)! In America, money rules everything. But even here, if you’re educated, nobody can tell you off. You can walk up to anyone with your head high, regardless if they are businessmen, rich or cocky people. I married into a rich family, but because of being educated I earned my mother-in-law’s respect easily on our first encounters in Narva-Jõesuu. I proved to her that I can have a conversation about anything.

I’m sure everyone asks that all the time, but do you have any secrets on how to live such a long life?

Juta laughs.

Good genes. No, seriously, I’ve also been lucky. The title of my book will be about having to have luck, “Õnne peab olema” (“You’ve got to have luck.”)

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* Note from the editor on 24 May 2015

Juta Kurman died peacefully on 22 May, 2015 in Ithaca, NY. Born in Estonia on 7 November 1912, she emigrated to America via Germany with her family in 1947. She was a longtime leader in the New York Estonian community and taught Estonian at the New York Eesti Maja until she reluctantly retired at age 101. Her great loves were music and Estonia.  

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* The Order of the White Star is bestowed by the president of Estonia on Estonian citizens to give recognition for services rendered in state public service or local government and on foreigners for services rendered to the Estonian state. Juta Kurman received hers in 2003.

** Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union was reinstated on 20 August 1991.

Cover: Juta Kurman surrounded by old memorabilia, including messages from former US presidents.

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About the author: Kris Lillemets

Kris Lillemets is a Los Angeles based creative IT consultant and freelance photographer.

  • Raul

    Juta is an admirable lady. I respect her highly. Yes, she is opinionated, but this kind of independent spirit has, I believe, preserved her vitality and enabled her to reach that most respectable age of 100.

  • Mikka Olsen

    Woderful article. I am. Estonian American . My ema name was Irene ERS .. Half brother andrus Ers . I am 100 % Estonian speak but can’t write . I am Estonian first , American 2nd Mikka