Keeping the Flame Alive

The vital role of expatriates in regaining Estonia´s independence

By Ave Maria Blithe

I work as an archivist at the Estonian Archives in the United States, which is in Lakewood, New Jersey, about two hours outside of New York City. The Archive has been in existence for 50 years, I have worked there for the past two.  Even though I have lived in America for 25 years now, I was born and raised right next door - in Tallinn, Estonia and landed in the United States in 1990.


The topic I wish to speak on, is the contribution of my countrymen in America in maintaining the de jure recognition of the Baltic States in the West, especially the invaluable role of memory institutions like The Estonian Archive. Needless to say, this overview will be painted with very broad strokes. Going into great detail documenting the past 70 years condensed into 20 minutes is simply not possible.

From history lessons and human evolution, we learn that fire is life. It is important to keep fire alive, not just for physical survival but also to keep the flame of an idea burning. The Estonian epic ´´Kalevipoeg´´ concludes with these famous words



Aga ükskord algab aega,
kus kõik pirrud kahel otsal
lausa lähvad lõkendama!

Küll siis Kalev jõuab koju
oma lastel õnne tooma,
Eesti põlve uueks looma!

Translation by Triinu Kartus:

But one day there comes a time,

When all spills at both their ends

will start outright to flare up bright;

Flames of fire will cut outright

His hand from stone fetters loose –

Surely Kalev will then come home

to bring his people fortune true,

Build Estonia anew.  

Just like the war refugees of the 1940s never thought they would have to leave Estonia for long, I never intended to stay in my now home the United States. But by no means do I compare my journey to the tragic trails of the DPs. They were forced from their home by the communist dictatorship, I was quite used to it. But I did grab an opportunity to discover the free world behind the Iron Curtain. The DPs arrived in their destinations with a few remaining belongings of their former lives, I touched down at Dulles Airport near Washington DC with two duffle bags and 300 dollars to my name. As you all recall, in 1990 the times were uncertain, we did not know yet, if freedom will indeed dawn soon, or as the Soviet tanks rolled over peaceful protesters in Vilnius a year later, would the Iron fist come down on us even harder and the only trips we would be taking are in the cattle cars to Siberia again. So I stayed, started my studies at UCLA, met a man, got married, had two sons and made my home there. 


The post Second World War big exodus was however not the beginning of Estonians in the United States. As we learn from Pennar, Parming & Rebane book ‘’The Estonians in America 1627 – 1975’’, Estonians have been living in America since the early colonial times. The authors found documentation for two – a drummer and a saddler. Having been previously married to a musician myself, I am not surprised one wondered that far. As Estonia was part of the kingdom of Sweden at the time, the earliest location for Estonian settlers in mid16-hundreds became New Sweden on the Delaware River. Oddly, not far from my current home.

A multitude of Estonians arrived after the 1905 revolution in Russia. It caused the first wave of Estonian political exiles to seek refuge in the United States. It is interesting though, that they were all socialists fleeing the tsarist police. The Socialist Party of America actually created a special Estonian department in 1906.

This partially explains the reason behind a rift amongst some Estonian expatriate organizations, the WW2 refugees fleeing the Soviets, wanted nothing to do with the “old commies” in the new country.

The biggest wave of refugees arrived in the fall of 1944 when Red Army was about to re-enter Estonia.

A colleague of mine recounts a story of how her family escaped just in a nick of time. She was just a little girl then and her father had ended up on the undesirable’s list in 1945. When the Soviets banged on the front door, they quickly hid their father under floor boards, disguised further by an area rug. The next morning, some family friends arrived with mops and buckets and smuggled the man out of the house rolled up in that same carpet, carrying him on their shoulders, pretending like they were a cleaning crew. Un-doubtedly, most of us here have heard similar stories of narrow escapes and years of un-certainty.


The DPs were not able to bring much with them. Firstly, because many escapes included long treks on foot or hurried departures via small boats. Secondly, most hoped it would be a temporary exile and that in a few years at the most, they could return home. We know how differently that scenario panned out.

Overall, about 100 000 Estonians or 9% of the total population fled the communist rule and ended up settling in various Western countries.

The Lakewood Estonian community had its beginnings already in the 1930s, and got involved in poultry farming. By the late 1960s, there were about 600 Estonians in the Lakewood area. With the help of Lakewood Estonian Association and an Estonian Lutheran congregation, the Estonian Archive facility was built. Since many of post war Estonians had entered the building trade, the Archive building was literally built by the members of the Estonian community themselves, with member donated materials and labor.

But already long before getting its own building, the idea of the Archive was conceived in the largest DP camp, Geislingen, Germany. The idea was put forth by Ilmar Arens and enthusiastically supported by journalist Jaan Lõoke. There was ample evidence that the occupying Soviets were systematically destroying pre-war independent Estonia’s literature and preventing access to many written documents. Many refugees needed documents for pleading their case in applying for asylum.




In an effort to locate legal documents, an idea evolved of establishing a central organization to collect and preserve anything important what somebody may have been able to bring with them from Estonia, and making it accessible to all.



In 1950 an appeal was made in the “Vaba Eesti Sõna”, “ The Free Estonian Word” newspaper, for all the Estonian households to look through their home libraries and donate whatever they can. People were urged to write down personal memoirs.

A huge contribution was made by Ferdinand Kool, who organized materials systematically and who is considered as one of our official ‘’founding fathers’’.  All work at the Estonian Archive has been and continues to be done on voluntary basis, and the entire operating budget is solely funded by donations from the Estonian community.

The presidents of EAUS have been Jüri Toomepuu in 1969

Heino Taremäe 1969 – 1989 (20 yrs)

Olga Berendsen 1989 – 2003 (14 yrs)

Enda Mai Michelson Holland 2003 – currently (12 yrs)

As you can see, that brings the average tenure to 15 years, not a position that one accepts carelessly of takes lightly.

Our archive is unique in that it actually encompasses three parts:

The archival part collects and preserves documents, photographs, DVDs, CDs, vinyl records etc. All the ‘’flat things’’, as I call them.



The library houses tens of thousands of books, mostly in Estonian and English, but also German, Swedish, Finnish and other languages that we have closer dealings with. The main emphasis is on books published outside of Estonian borders but by Estonian authors, but we also collect books on topics related to Estonia: titles about its geography, biology, history, politics, customs etc. all the way to very specific fields like transportation or patternmaking.


The third is the museum part: although we do not have grand spaces for showcasing our collections, we do have hundreds of paintings, sculpture, artifacts, textiles, folk costumes and an extensive collection of war medals and insignia.

As in many expatriate communities, altruism is the driving engine of existence and progress of ethnic organizations. According to the data available at the time I was compiling this presentation, there were

21 active Estonian Houses or Estonian Societies

10 Estonian Churches

8 Estonian Schools

6 Estonian Choirs

In the USA.

I must point out that by Estonian School, we mean more of a Sunday School type of gathering to teach Estonian language and customs, not an officially sanctioned full time educational school. In addition to the aforementioned, there are a many student fraternities and sororities, boy and girl scout troops, sports leagues, seniors clubs, hobby clubs, political organizations and committees.

Very often, if a person is actively seeking the fellowship of other countrymen, they end up volunteering and participating in several organizations.  

The central organization of Estonian Americans is the Estonian American National Council, Inc. This nationally elected organization was established on July 19, 1952, in New York City by post-World War 2 refugees seeking to restore independence in Estonia. I am honored to be elected back to second term as a council member.

EANC also supports maintaining Estonian heritage and language and works to create awareness among Americans about all topics related to Estonia. One important task is collaborating with organizations like Joint Baltic American National Committee and the Central and East European Coalition to inform the United States Congress and Administration of various concerns related to current political issues.  

The United States first recognized the Republic of Estonia on July 28, 1922. The first Estonian diplomatic mission in the U.S. was opened the very same year and continued its activities throughout the illegal occupation by the Soviet Union from 1940 – 1991. The significance of this is huge as the United States government recognized Estonia’s diplomatic mission as the legal representative of the Republic of Estonia. This, coupled with the fact that the United States has never recognized the Soviet annexation, was the cornerstone of modern Republic of Estonia. The United States reopened its Embassy in Tallinn on September 4, 1991, soon after the restoration of Estonia's de facto independence on August 20, 1991.



The continuity of Estonian identity abroad depends not only on legal representation but also on cultural endeavors. From 1944 – 2000, more than 4000 titles of books were published abroad, 1500 of those were fiction.

Estonian expatriate literature is considered to be one of high caliber in a global context, as many eminent writers fled the Soviet regime. During the early days of DP life, Estonian language newspapers and journalism were the first publications to inform those who were not fluent in other languages, of current world events. As for books, it is noteworthy, that between 1944 – 1954 more first editions of Estonian literature were published abroad than in Estonian territory. 

Once again, a great example that being displaced from their homeland did not stop Estonians from actively upholding traditions of their culture and language, all as their own voluntary mission. The oldest ex-patriate publishing house Orto was founded in 1944 by Andres Lauri. Soon their editions filled the home libraries of all self-respecting Estonians abroad and we have to sort through the multitudes of those books gifted to the library in our archive to this very day.  


In addition to popular science, text books and fiction, an important genre in ex-pat literature are personal memoirs and historical compilations. They help to create an objective overview and a more balanced point of view of Estonian history.

One of the founders of the Estonian Archive in the United States, Ferdinand Kool has written an excellent , factual account of the refugee experience, called “DP Kroonika” and just last year, after many years in translation effort, we now have the English version “DP Chronicle” available to all who may be interested.

On the art front, some sources estimate that almost half of the artists fled Estonia at the end of the Second World War.  By 1950s, three major ex-pat art centers were Stockholm, Toronto and New York. During Stalin era, in Soviet Estonia, ex-patriate art or literature was not even allowed to be mentioned, so officially it did not exist. The death of one of most notable Estonian artists Eduard Wiiralt in Paris in 1954 however was a fact that simply could not be ignored and opened up a discussion about art created abroad. It is note-worthy however that the very first ex-patriate art pieces made it to Tartu Art Museum’s permanent collection only in the year 2000.



As already mentioned, in addition to government ministers, police force, clergy and military personnel and others, who would surely be persecuted by the Soviets, a large portion of refugees also included the better educated population of higher intelligence  who could foresee the dangers of communism and its unsuitability for acceptable living conditions. So in addition to writers and artists, many scientists left Estonia.

Their works eluded the attention of their countrymen remaining in Estonia even more, since very often the specific science field interests only others directly working in that discipline. Yet there are dozens who had very successful careers ranging from civil engineering to medicine to astronautics. Quite a few of them renewed their ties with homeland as soon as possible and were able to aid their Estonian colleagues. For example physicist Indrek Martinson, who hired colleagues from Tartu to work with him at Lund University and was crucial in organizing different funding possibilities for Tartu University to procure much needed scientific equipment.

Rein Grabbi had a great career in aerospace with NASA who returned to work in Estonia. Of the local New Jersey people, one must mention August Komendant. His textbook about pre-stressed concrete has been re-printed in the USA more than 10 times and he collaborated for decades with a world famous architect Louis Kahn, who was also born in Estonia, on the island of Saaremaa.

Understandably, I am partial to Jersey boys, so allow me to tell you a bit about two more. Heikki Leesment had no choice in fleeing Estonia in 1940.  He was only 28 days old when his mom scooped him up to escape the advancing Red Army. Heikki´s father had been a lawyer and an official in Tartu University before the war, so it was not surprising that Heikki followed in his footsteps.

In 1994 he returned home under auspices of the American Bar Association in the role of the ABA´s legal liaison for its Central and Eastern European Law Initiative. In practical terms – he took an unpaid leave from his New Jersey law practice to help rewrite the legal code of Estonia.  Mr. Leesment acted as a legal liaison between the Estonian parliamentary committee and the professors of the law faculty at Tartu University.

Arno Liivak was a bit older when fleeing from Estonia. He was already 7 in 1949. He grew up in Trenton area, and earned a law degree at Rutgers University. Mr. Liivak served on the Governor´s Commission on East European Affairs, reviewing the way East European history was presented in textbooks used in New Jersey schools. As we know, all history is written by the ´´winners´´.  As a side note, I would like to point out the importance of Freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. American Estonians have often exercised their right to speak out and correct mis-representations perpetuated in public forums when Estonians in the homeland were silenced for decades. From such seemingly mundane exapmles as sending letters to editors correcting superficial observations of travel writers to organized lobbying in Washington D.C.

The pivotal moment in Mr. Liivak´s significant role in campaigning for Estonian independence was a result of researching the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, going through the archives in Princeton Library and other local archives (Archives Are Important!). As we know, the secret protocols were never officially acknowledged by the Soviet Union. (Shocking, I know.)  But when in 1987 the Estonian independence movement started to gain momentum, Mr. Liivak was contacted to establish the existence of the document, proving once and for all that Estonia´s rights as an independent state were blatantly violated. In an interview with Joseph F. Sullivan for The New York Times on March 1st of 1992, Mr. Liivak recalls the following:

“Mikhail Gorbatchev had appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate whether such an agreement was ever made and the Soviets said they were unable to find such a document in their files. In 1989 shortly before Christmas, the commission met in Moscow. The members from the Baltic states offered two or three documents, including those found by Mr. Liivak for each one the Soviets produced.

The Soviets were stonewalling and finally the Baltic representatives stood and strew computer printouts of their evidence across the carpet and at that point the Soviets smiled and said “Ok. Let’s talk.” Soon after the Soviet officials said they had “discovered” a copy of the Pact in their own files.”

If you recall, world attention was brought to the secret pact on its 50th anniversary, on August 23rd, when hundreds of us Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, 25% of total population in fact --- joined hands in the 360 mile long Balti Kett ( Baltic Way). The Soviet news program “Vremja” denounced this peaceful protest as a “nationalistic hysteria, fanned by extremist groups that discriminate against ethnic minorities and such criminal activity can bring catastrophic results.” (Sounds alarmingly familiar and current, doesn’t it?)

But greatly thanks to Mr.Liivak’s research and procurement of the evidence, the Congress of People’s Deputies accepted and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the report by Yakovlev’s commission condemning the secret protocols of the Molotov Ribbetrop Pact. Since this occurred on December 24, it for once, it was a nice Christmas present from the Soviet Union.



In conclusion --- the Estonian expatriate community in the United States is a pretty tight-knit community, despite of not living close together as opposed to Little Russia in Brighton Beach New York or Chinatowns in any major U.S. cities. Perhaps the parallels can be drawn here with how Estonians prefer to live in their homeland – a perfect place would be a nice farmhouse in the middle of the woods, where you cannot see the neighbors but are close enough to run for help in an emergency. 

And even though, as the saying goes – if there are two Estonians present, you have at least three different opinions – the common theme of expatriate existence binds. Fostering the survival of the Estonian language and culture has been the main contributing factor toward the eventual restoration of the Estonian Republic. The stubborn resolve and love for our homeland has endured through centuries. And hopefully continues for many more.



Thank you very much! Liels paldies!

Copyright - Ave Maria Blithe 2015



A presentation for Baltic Heritage Network Conference

in Riga, Latvia


Source materials:



‘’The Estonians in America 1627 – 1975. A Chronology & Fact Book”

Compiled and edited by Jaan Pennar in association with Tõnu Parming and P.Peter Rebane, 1975 Oceana Publications, Inc. New York


“Väliseestlus kodueestlaste silmade läbi” by Kaja Kumer-Haukanõmm, Tartu University

´´Tuna´´, March 2007


´´Deputy AG Leesment will write new code for Baltic homeland´´ by Glen Kaplinsky

New Yersey Lawyer, March 28 1994


´´How professor helped Estonia win freedom´´ by Joseph F.Sullivan

The New York Times, March 1 1992


´´Uusi avastusi väljapaistvatest eestlastest läänemaailmas´´ by Uno Veismann

´´Horisont´´, May 2011


And various documents from the archival collections of Heikki Leesment, dr. Tõnu Parming, Ernst Jaakson, Arno Liivak, Ferdinand Kool, Rev. Thomas Vaga and Enda Mai Michelson Holland, Estonian Archives in the United States, Inc.