Tania Lestal

Tania Lestal is a third generation Estonian born in Australia. Tania has studied media and communication and worked in film and television, as well as running various film festivals. She enjoys travelling and has lived in London, Berlin, Munich and Sydney. Currently operating a small online giftshop and freelancing in media.

20 romantic phrases in Estonian

If you have an Estonian boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife, no doubt there would come the time when you wanted to express your love and affection for them in their native language. Finding the right words is not easy – I know, for I have been looking for a suitable phrase list myself for quite some time and never managed to find a good one. So now I have taken matters into my own hands and compiled a list of my own.*

1. I like you a lot – Sa meeldid mulle väga

2. You’ve got a great smile – Sul on väga ilus naeratus

3. You’ve got beautiful eyes – Sul on ilusad silmad

4. You’re beautiful – Sa oled ilus

5. You look great! – Sa näed väga hea välja!

6. I have so much fun with you – Sinuga on alati nii tore

7. You are very dear to me – Sa oled mulle väga kallis

8. You make me (feel) very happy – Sa teed mind väga õnnelikuks 

9. You fill my heart with joy – Sa täidad mu südame rõõmuga

10. You’re the one for me – Sa oled mulle ainus ja õige

11. I love you more and more each day – Ma armastan sind iga päevaga üha rohkem

12. You are the most important to me – Sa oled mulle kõige tähtsam

13. I love you with all my heart – Armastan sind kogu südamest

14. You are my sun, my moon, and all my stars – Sa oled mu päike, tähed ja kuu

15. I dream of you day and night – Unistan sinust nii päeval kui ööl

16. I miss you – Ma igatsen sind

17. I am madly in love with you – Olen sinusse pööraselt armunud

18. I can’t live without you – Ma ei suuda sinuta elada

19. I love you – Ma armastan sind

20. Will you marry me? – Kas sa abielluksid minuga?


See also Tania Lestal’s blog, Estonia – Paradise of the North. Cover: An Estonian couple in the wintry forest (photo by Birgit Varblane/Visit Estonia Flickr). * This article was originally published on 11 September 2014.

Remembering Estonia’s WWII refugees

In the autumn of 1944, fearful of the advancing Red Army, approximately 80,000 Estonians left their country behind and escaped to Germany and Sweden, later moving also to the UK, the US, Canada and Australia; it’s time to look back and remember the plight of our Estonian parents and grandparents who fled their homeland to escape the terror and brutality of the Soviet occupation.*

In August and September of 1944, during the Second World War, tens of thousands of people were desperate to get onto any ship that stayed afloat, including tiny wooden fishing boats, to flee war-ravaged Estonia that would be occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. Many countries generously opened their doors to take in these refugees who went on to lead productive lives in their new adopted countries.

People fearing the Soviet Union

Estonians started fleeing to Sweden already in the spring of 1943, but the exodus intensified in August 1944 and achieved its peak from 19-23 September 1944, when it became clear that the German front was collapsing and the Soviet military forces were about to occupy Estonia again. The overwhelming majority of Estonians did not favour any occupying force – the country had simply been sandwiched during the Second World War between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had briefly occupied Estonia from 1940-1941 and caused more suffering to the population than Nazi Germany – which explains why so many Estonians feared the communist state more. The Soviet Union had deported over 10,000 people to Siberia and executed or imprisoned many of the Republic of Estonia’s former politicians, ministers, judges, priests, business people and land owners. Large property and businesses had been confiscated. The NKVD, the feared Soviet secret police that was known for extrajudicial executions, had committed at last one prisoner massacre also in Estonia (in Tartu), killing 193 detainees.

Not all the Estonian refugees made it. The stormy seas and enemy fire claimed the lives of up to 9% of the refugees, it is estimated. Of the people who managed to flee Estonia by 1944, the majority of them took refuge in nearby Sweden and Germany. Thousands found themselves in displaced persons’ (DP) camps in Germany, which became their temporary home for a number of years.

In war-torn Europe

After WWII Europe was in a state of total ruin. Approximately sixty million people had been killed; nations torn apart and between 11 million and 20 million Europeans were left displaced. Germany was occupied by the allies and divided into four sectors – British, American, French and Soviet. Millions of people were left homeless and had to rely on foreign aid for survival. Germany had approximately 200,000 Baltic people registered as displaced persons in 1945 with 33,000 of them being Estonian.

dpcampmapIn 1945 the military missions in the British, American and French sectors established DP camps to provide temporary shelter, nutrition and health care to refugees. Hundreds of camps existed all over Germany and in parts of Austria and Italy. Later in 1945, the running of the camps was handed over to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and then later to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1947.

The original plan for the DP camps was to repatriate people to their country of origin as quickly as possible. By the end of 1945, the military authorities managed to repatriate over five million displaced persons, but they soon realised it was not possible to do the same with the Baltic peoples. Even though the war was over, their countries were still occupied by the Soviet Army and returning home would mean persecution, deportation or even death.

Life in DP camps

When people first arrived at one of these DP camps they often experienced a sense of relief. The camps offered a degree of security; a roof over their heads, regular meals and the possibility of being reunited with their lost loved ones.

But people couldn’t afford to be complacent; they lived in daily fear of being extradited to the Soviet Union. Many Estonians had hoped the US Army might go and liberate Estonia from the Red Army, but this never happened; in fact it was never on the Americans’ agenda. For the Estonians living in the displaced persons’ camps, all they could do was wait and see what their future would hold. They had no choice but to get by the best way they could.

Estonian refugees celebrating Independence Day in DP camp in 1948

People were grouped together according to nationality in DP camps. Upon arrival people registered their details and were given a DP identification number. For example, this writer’s grandmother Hertha’s number was 064057. Accommodation varied from camp to camp, buildings such as military barracks, schools, hospitals, private homes, hotels and even airports were used to house people.

Camp life was culturally very rich, in particular for the Baltic peoples. As many of the DPs who fled the Baltic states were intellectuals, farmers, craftsmen and artists, they brought a lot of useful skills with them to the camps. They established their own newspapers, workshops, theatres and training centres that created a sense of community within the camps. The workshops produced some very fine handcrafted goods made from wood, leather and textiles.  Embroidery was also very popular.

In the beginning, when DP camps were first established, the living conditions were quite dire. Sometimes DPs had to use accommodation that was previously used by forced labourers or that was either very basic or substandard. Overcrowding was often an issue, food shortages were common and if camp life wasn’t challenging enough, people were faced with a new peril – the outbreak of tuberculosis.

Zoo camp

Tuberculosis was rife is some camps. In particular, Zoo Camp that was located in Hamburg, had many cases of tuberculosis which resulted in numerous deaths. The buildings these people lived in were originally built by the Blohn & Voss Company (a shipping and engineering firm) to house forced labourers who worked in their factory during the war. The timber structures were often damp and cold, prime conditions for tuberculosis to set in. The Baltic University had its origins at Zoo Camp until the students were relocated to nearby Pinneberg where the stone buildings were much better.

Not all DP camps struggled with health and welfare issues, for example, Geislingen Camp, located near Stuttgart (American sector) was described as “the Hilton of DP camps”. This writer’s distant relatives, Heino and Aili Lestal, lived at Geislingen after the war and said the conditions were very good. Aili, now a spiritedly 91-year-old woman living in Canada, remembers that Geislingen was a purely Estonian DP camp, consisting of approximately 2,000 people who lived in confiscated German houses. Each family occupied one room, Aili says, enabling them to have at least some privacy. There were 17 people living in the house where Aili lived; her future husband Heino lived in the house next door.

Finding new home

Many people found love while living in the camps, which would have come as a welcome distraction considering the perils they faced. This writer’s Estonian grandparents met and fell in love while living at Zoo Camp in Hamburg. They married shortly after arriving in Australia in 1949. Heino and Aili married at Geislingen and spent their “honeymoon” and New Year’s Eve on board the “Vollendam” as she sailed to Australia in 1948.

The announcement of new mass emigration programs offered by countries experiencing labour shortages triggered an out flux of people living in DP camps during 1948 and 1949. Belgium was the first country to offer large scale immigration, seeking 20,000 coal miners. The UK and Canada also offered a number of opportunities but required sponsorship.

The Australian program, known as the “DP Group Resettlement Scheme”, was viewed favourably by the IRO and DPs for several reasons. Unlike other schemes, which required DPs to have personal sponsorship from a friend or relative already residing in the prospective country, the Australian government took on the role of sponsor itself, hence making the process a lot easier for applicants.

In addition, Australia not only accepted single men and women into the programme but also welcomed families too. This provided peace of mind for those who feared being separated from their loved ones. The United States was late to adopt a refugee policy and had several exclusions. For example, they wouldn’t accept anyone who suffered from tuberculosis or who had served in the German Army. Many DPs preferred the Australian resettlement scheme for one very distinct reason – the country was very far away from Europe and its turmoil.

Upon departing DP camps people were issued with a “Good Conduct Certificate” stating their name, date of birth and the date they first started residing at the camp. The certificates also confirmed they had not been convicted of any crime or misdemeanour.

Land of tomorrow

Australian Government poster displayed between 1949 and 1951 in reception rooms and dining halls at various migrant reception centers in Australia.This writer’s Estonian grandmother Hertha had dreams of immigrating to America but unfortunately her application was rejected. She later joined her husband in Australia and it was there where they started their new life together. When they first arrived in Australia they had to stay at the migrant reception centre in Uranquinty in rural New South Wales. There they learned about the Australian culture and to speak English.

All migrants had to fulfil a two-year work contract to the Australian government; then, once that was complete, they were granted residency and had complete freedom of movement. Many migrants later took up Australian citizenship and permanently settled in Australia while others left and were reunited with family members in other countries.

The mass migration schemes after WWII were a great success. They enabled people not only to rebuild their lives and live in peace but also to contribute positively to society. They brought with them their skills, knowledge, culture and cuisine. Things we still enjoy today.

Australia has benefitted greatly from its migrant population and everyone lives in relative harmony. Many countries took in refugees, here are the total resettlement figures: Venezuela 17,000; Belgium 22,000; Brazil 29,000; Argentina 33,000; France 38,000; UK 86,000;  Canada 157,687; Australia 182,159; United States 400,000.

Cover: Estonian refugee children in Hamburg ca. 1945. Photos courtesy of Tania Lestal and Estonica.org. * Please note that this article was originally published on 14 September 2015 and amended on 19 September 2019.

Life in Estonia at the outset of the Second World War and the occupation

An eyewitness account of life in Estonia at the beginning of 50 years of Soviet occupation in June 1940 – Estonia’s darkest hour.

When World War Two broke out in September 1939, no-one could have imagined the horrific consequences it would have for Estonia and its people. At the start of the war, Estonia had declared itself neutral and for a period of time life went on as usual. The first people affected in Estonia by WWII were the Baltic Germans. They were an ethnic minority comprising 10% of the population who had lived in Estonia for centuries. They had deep-seated roots in Estonia but that swiftly changed as a result of the war.

Dorothea with parents, grandmotherm baby brother & cousin 1930

My grandfather’s cousin, Dorothea Niggul, was of mixed ethnic Estonian and Baltic German ancestry. News of the Baltic German resettlement programme came as a great shock, and although many Baltic Germans participated in the programme and left Estonia, many families chose to remain. Dorothea’s father was a patriotic Estonian who had fought in the Estonian War of Independence and later became a military judge based in Tallinn. As the Soviets tightened their grip on Estonia, her father’s life became increasingly endangered like so many others in government positions. Dorothea was sixteen years old when she and her family fled Estonia in 1941. Her memoir provides an insight into what people experienced in Estonia during those terrifying days.

Missed chance with Baltic German resettlement

September in the Baltic region was mostly a very beautiful month – the days were still bright and often sunny and the nights were already cool. Apples ripened on trees in all the gardens everywhere and their aromatic fragrance permeated the air everywhere you went.

Dorothea with brother Karl and cousin Alex

School began again in September after a three month break which most town families spent in the countryside. And if one missed the rather free life from the summer holiday, one would also be glad to back in the city and at school again. There were, of course, lots of school friends and the coming winter also brought with it a welcome change.

Our family lived in Köie Street in Tallinn, a district only a few minutes’ walk from the Baltic Sea. The harbour was not far from our home and we often heard the horns and sirens of the incoming and outgoing ships. Our imaginations ran wild as we wondered where these ships came from and where they were going.

September in 1939 began just like any other autumn. We had certainly heard that Germany had declared war on Poland and subsequently invaded but the consequences of these events had not really affected anything in the comparatively remote Baltic region. However, suddenly we were also affected.

One morning at the end of that September my mother came into my bedroom clutching a newspaper in her hand. She said to me nervously that all Germans in the Baltic countries would be resettled to Germany. She said events were just beginning that would have far-reaching consequences but I couldn’t really imagine it.

My father, at that time, was in Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. He was a district judge in Tallinn who was required to travel to Kuressaare a few times a year to work through cases in the civil court. Dad was only too happy to make these trips – he loved the island of Saaremaa due to its unspoiled countryside and its somewhat rugged beauty which was typical of Estonia.

Dad was away on one of these trips to Kuressaare as news of the resettlement came. Since speaking to each other by telephone was nothing like as easy as it is today, my parents weren’t able to speak for several days to discuss what our family should do. We qualified to take part in the resettlement program due to our Baltic German ancestry but my father later convinced my mother that we should stay. When the time came to say goodbye to our German friends there were many hugs and tears and all of the German schools and churches were closed down. After the resettlement concluded it became apparent that many Baltic German families chose to remain in Estonia and life briefly returned to normal.

Grim reality brought by the Soviet occupation

The winter and spring of 1939/1940 passed. Most families went to the countryside during the summer holidays, among them my friend, Ined Pfaff, with her family. We later met up and travelled back to Tallinn by bus in the evening and laughed and bantered as we always did when we were with each other. In the bus sat an Estonian sailor who had been observing us closely. All of a sudden he said we ought to be happy and laugh while we still could because soon there will be nothing left to laugh about. The Russians were at the border and ready to invade Estonia.

There was nothing but disbelief from our side – why would they do this? Only John Anrich, who was somewhat older than us, seemed to pay attention and we saw that he looked really shocked. He began to ask the sailor about every last detail. We arrived home to find our parents extremely nervous. They sat by the radio listening for any new developments. It was first believed that Russian troops would not invade the entire country, but rather occupy key individual bases.

The Estonian government was toppled and a new government was installed consisting of hard-line communists who had been waiting for their chance for a long time. I still remember how the names of the new government ministers were read out on the radio in what seemed like an endless drone. At first, one was somewhat relieved that it was still an “Estonian” government but it was nothing more than a puppet regime.

The Red Army entering Estonia in October 1939, effectively occupying the country. Today's Russia behaves frighteningly similarly to the Soviet Union in the thirties.

After the bases had been occupied in strategically important areas, the Red Army now occupied the entire country as they did Latvia and Lithuania. The three small Baltic countries which had been established at the end of the First World War in 1918 after fighting tooth and nail for their independence had practically no chance of defending themselves against their enormous neighbour Russia. The Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians simply looked on in utter dismay as their own countries were bulldozed to rubble.

Grim days followed the Russian invasion of June 1940. The remaining Baltic Germans, my parents included, were completely shocked and bitterly regretted not leaving the country when they had had the chance. Even in the first days after the occupation groups of people streamed through the streets crying and chanting – unsavoury looking types, unkempt and in torn clothing. They were apparently meant to represent the “proletariat” which had never really existed in Estonia. Where had these people been pulled from? They were demonstrating that the so-called Big Brother, the Soviet Union had liberated them from their misery and were welcoming the occupiers. Virtually none of these individuals were in fact Estonians.

Soviet troops in Tallinn 1940

Mother and I were in town one day and happened to be surprised by a demonstration of this nature. We tried to get home via side streets, even when we got home I couldn’t be free of the shock. It was my father who suffered the most, he had been the driving force behind our family’s decision to remain in Estonia and he now had to carry this responsibility with him.

He often said in the years that followed that these had been the worst days of his life. He himself was in grave danger because he was a judge for the independent Republic of Estonia. He went into town often trying to gather as much news as possible. Coincidentally he was present when the Estonian flag was lowered from the Pikk Hermann tower and replaced with a Soviet flag. This was a ghastly sight for Estonians to behold and they could only look on in desperation.

After a period of time my father lost his job as a judge and the senior government official roles were replaced with hard-line communists. He was able to continue work for a period of time but soon had a young communist as a boss who made his life very difficult and frankly wanted to get rid of him.

Russian women taken aback by the glamour and wealth of Estonia

More and more Russian military had come to Tallinn in the meantime. Many officers and soldiers brought their families with them. These families were housed with Estonians and Baltic Germans. Whoever had a large home was forced to give up several rooms or even leave their homes. We did not have any Russians come to live with us but uncle Paul had to accommodate Russians in his home.

The Russian women were mostly friendly and well-meaning and couldn’t do much about their situation either. They mostly got on well with the women who had to take them in. Their transfer to the Baltic countries opened up a whole new world for them. It is now almost unimaginable how people lived during the Stalin era but it is a fact that women had nothing to wear which we in the West take for granted.

Many had no idea what underwear or garters were. They looked at shop display windows in complete astonishment as they marvelled at things such as night dresses and ball gowns, and of course this immediately made them want to dress like the ladies in Tallinn. The Estonian women accompanied these Russians to the dressmakers, advised them about which underwear to buy and it was actually a pleasant experience for everyone concerned; a small glimmer of humanity during an utterly inhuman time.

Escaping just in time

The various German families who chose to remain in Estonia were now desperate to leave. Again and again they discussed the possibility of a second resettlement to Germany. There was a German diplomatic mission in Tallinn but all enquiries were met with an icy rejection. They were told “You had your chance” and “the last ships left practically empty”. After much persistence and a petition, people’s prayers were answered and a second resettlement was approved. We didn’t waste any time submitting our papers.

Dorothea 1970Since it was summer our parents decided to travel once again to the countryside, to our beloved Anija. We were introduced to Anija a few years before by my father’s colleague, Judge Laanekõrb. He had likewise spent his holidays here with his family.  I remember very well how he liked to walk along the river in his long white summer trousers.

In the summer of 1940 he was also there. One day a police officer came from Kehra, The policeman had known Judge Laanekõrb for years and told him it pained him to do this, but he had to take him in. Judge Laanekõrb did not take it seriously at all thinking it was simply a misunderstanding and that he would soon be back. So off he went in his white summer suit and we never saw him again. We learned many years later that he had been deported to Siberia where he presumably perished.

We heard again and again of deportations in Tallinn – people simply disappeared without a trace. There were some who returned after many years of exile but most were sick and completely broken, like our cousin Ralf who was deported not long after the second resettlement had taken place. Our father was also in very grave danger because of his profession. My parents, in fact all of us, knew of the danger and my parents had put together a precise escape plan should anyone come for us.

It was no longer pleasant in school, some teachers had been replaced, most were frightened to death and there were those who were aggressive and provocative – the wonderful mood of our past school years had completely disappeared. It was now expected that education should be carried out in the spirit of communism. The autumn of that year is very grey and dark in my memory, the atmosphere in our beautiful city had completely changed and everything felt so very repressive. People felt threatened by spies and uncertainty about the future was a very heavy burden to bear.

Months of tension and anxiety eventually came to an end for us when the competent authorities approved our resettlement. We were now free to go. It was now just a question of completing the last preparations as quickly as possible.

Our household was dismantled bit by bit. A few items were sold but most were simply given away. Our neighbours who lived above us, the Talivees, got a few things as well. Mr Talivee was an Estonian police officer who very kindly accompanied us to the port on the day of our departure. When I returned to Tallinn in 1978, I was very sad to learn that his family was also not spared the brutality of the Soviet occupation. In 1941, Mr Talivee was arrested and sent to Sevurallag in Siberia. He was originally given a ten-year sentence but that later changed and, in 1942, he was executed.

Mrs Talivee also came very close to being deported but one night, out of the blue, a soldier appeared at her door warning her that her name was on the list. Naturally she was extremely frightened by his words but she heeded his advice and went away for a few days. Before the soldier left he wanted to point out that he was not Russian, but Ukrainian. Perhaps this gesture was his way of doing something good in the evil world in which he found himself.

We left Tallinn on 17 February 1941 on board the second ship, “The Brake”. Taking any money out of Estonia was strictly forbidden. It was not until we had left Russian occupied soil and found ourselves in German territory that everyone felt a great sense of relief. We were finally safe! We later discovered, shortly after we left that Soviet soldiers had come thumping on our door to take father away. We had managed to escape just in time! We eventually got used to life in Germany but our hearts never really left Estonia.


Cover: Karl, Dorothea, Ellinor, Karl, and Alex in 1939.

15 quotes by Anton Hansen Tammsaare

It’s not easy to find quotes by the Estonian author, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, written in English. Although he was a very intelligent man who could speak six languages – French, German, Finnish, Estonian, English and Russian – he only wrote his works in Estonian. For those of us who can’t speak Estonian but want to explore the works of Tammsaare, here are fifteen of Tammsaare’s most famous quotes taken from his novels, including Truth and Justice and I Loved a German.

1. “Maybe we should never read in the morning what was written at night; morning and midnight, they either misunderstand each other or do not understand at all.”

(Võib-olla ei peaks kunagi hommikul seda lugema, mis südaöösel kirjutatud: hommik ja südaöö ei mõista teineteist või nad mõistavad võõriti.)

2. “If a man is married to the right woman, he will not fail to meet important deadlines.”

(Kui mehel on õige naine, siis teeb ta kõik õigel ajal.)

3. “While I am writing these lines, I believe quite strongly that I loved you before we met; only that I did not know that it was you whom I loved.”

(Ma usun neid ridu kirjutades üsna kindlasti, et ma armastasin Teid juba enne meie tutvumist, ainult et ma veel ei teadnud, et just Teie see olete, keda ma armastan.)

4. “A student must be sober because it is more difficult to learn than to teach.”

(Õpilane peab kaine olema, sest õppida on raskem kui õpetada.)

5. “Young people’s words can never be taken too seriously, because they are bad at reading people, especially when it’s about themselves.”

(Aga noorte inimeste sõnu ei või kuigi tõsiselt võtta, sest nemad on halvad inimesetundjad, eriti kui küsimuses on nad ise.)

6. “Wealth is closer to the truth than poverty.”

(Varandus seisab tõele lähemal kui vaesus.)

7. “Land and nation, as a wife, must be won over every day, lest they slip into another’s hands.”

(Maad ja rahvast, nagu naistki, peab iga päev uuesti võitma, kui ei taha, et nad libisevad mõne teise kätte.)

8. “A person may have more than twenty friends when he is not demanding or overly proud of himself.”

(Inimesel võib ka üle kahekümne sõbra olla, kui ta aga ise pole liig uhke ja nõudlik.)

9. “Nothing is impossible as soon as a person starts thinking seriously about it.”

(Miski pole võimatu, niipea kui inimene hakkab sellest kord tõsiselt mõtlema.)

10. “Everything I have learned can be reduced to this: I want to be what I am not.”

(Kõike, mida olen õppinud, tunnen ainult sel määral, et tahta olla see, mis ma ei ole.)

11. “Suffer with joy, young one, love would not come if there were no pain.”

(Kannata aga rõõmuga, noorik, ega armastus muidu tule, kui valu ei ole.)

12.  “The right mistress’s voice is sweeter than another man’s rye.”

(Õige perenaise hääl on magusam kui teise mehe rukis.)

13. “The greatest fortune is love.”

(Suurim õnn on armastus.)

14. “Work hard and love will follow.”

(Tee tööd ja näe vaeva, siis tuleb armastus.)

15. “A poor man can see days of toil all around him.”

(Päevi saab vaene inimene igal pool näha.)


This article was also published on Tania Lestal’s blog, Estonia – Paradise of the NorthPlease consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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