Why I work at the Archives – Reet Simmul

Reet Simmul

Early Life

I was born just one month before the first Soviet Occupation, so I could apply for an Estonian passport with my birth certificate. My mother, younger brother and I left on the “Minden” as Tallinn was burning. Since father was a mechanic as well as pilot he was ordered to stay, in case aircraft needed repairs. My aunt had married an Austrian, so we had a destination, Vienna. We lived there until the Soviets captured the city and had to flee to Bregens. At the end of the war we were able to get into a Displaced Persons Camp in the U.S zone at Haunstetten. My Father worked for the U.S. Army Transport Unit.

Migration to Australia

In 1949 we were accepted as migrants to Australia, where my parents worked for two years in the camp hospital kitchen. Then we moved to our new house in Bankstown, where I lived while attending school and university (completing a Science degree) and working in a virology laboratory. After sending the children off to school, I worked at a vaccine production factory.

Reet’s 21st birthday (with Uino her future husband) at Yagoona in 1961

Reet on Graduation Day at the University of Sydney BSc 1962

Reet Simmul park bench Brisbane

Reet relaxing on a park bench in Brisbane 1962

In Retirement

I had been going to the Sydney Estonian House since 1951, attending various activities such as Saturday school lessons, folk dancing and the Arts and Crafts association. After retirement from paid work, I joined Maie Barrow at the Estonian Archives in Australia when it was moved from Lidcombe. Books, documents from individuals, records from various organisations, photos , film reels and articles people had packed into their bags as they fled their homes in Estonia were some of the treasures we had to sort. Cataloging started later…

Reet Simmul

Reet (left) with Maie Barrow (right) at the Estonian Festival, Sydney in 2000

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Reet (8th from left) at The Baltic Heritage Network Conference, in Riga 2015

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Reet Simmul with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Maie Barrow at the Archive, Sydney 2018.

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Reet with Archives volunteers Leena Treffner and Eili Sulviste in 2019

Personal Papers

I have concentrated on organising the folders, sometimes even boxes, of materials of Personal Papers we have at the Archive. These are now accessible online at the National Archives of Estonia – EAA Personal Papers and everyone can now see what we have in our collections.

The Personal Papers catalog is available to search online thanks to the National Archives of Estonia

Some papers arrive into the Archive sorted and arranged by dates, others need more work to be entered into data base in English. We have documents in Russian, Gothic script German, Swedish and other languages so we need all kinds of language skills from our volunteers. The volunteers who knew the Estonians who settled in Sydney before the WWII are a great help, as are friends in other cities. We try to cross reference books and video interviews in Personal Papers records.

Other Archive Projects

Maie Barrow and I have collected the memoirs of Estonians who have contributed to the activities of the Estonian communities in Australia. Maie interviewed and I filmed with a simple video camera. Most of these are in English and give insight into how our communities were established.

I have also been involved in helping set up various outreach projects the EAA has conducted. We have invited members of Australian Federation of Friends of Museums to the Sydney Estonian House, where we had displays of various activities and an introduction to a migrant community, including cooking lunch from old Estonian recipe books.

Since most of the post war migrants had been in Displaced Persons Camps I am also currently compiling a database for this collection, so this can also be placed online . The databases are still a work in progress. 

Fleeing her homeland

Reet was featured in a joint exhibition of the NSW Migration Heritage Centre and Powerhouse Museum in partnership with the Wollondilly Heritage Centre,  “Our New Home,  Meie uus Kodu”  in 2007.

“An online exhibition of Stories of invasion, dispossession, and settling in a new home, told by the Estonian migrants who came here as displaced persons post-WWII.”

You can read the full transcript at Reet Simmul Interview, Our New Home,  Meie uus Kodu.

Source: Our New Home

What brings me to the Archive?

Since working in the EAA and documenting memoirs of so many refugees, I have learned to understand my own parents so much better and the history of Estonia during these turbulent times. My mother would talk about her childhood, but I learned from an early age not to ask about evacuation from Estonia and not knowing the fate of my father during the war. My father has never talked about his capture in Czechoslovakia and the time the family was separated when working for the US army as a mechanic. This information is something I have learned as a result of contacts from the archives. The courage and resilience of our parents is to be admired. They fled as far from war torn Europe, with the aim to educate the children so they could have a better life.

Reet Simmul

Paavo Järvi (centre) visits the Archive with Reet Simmul (right), 24 July 2001

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Raivo Kalamae, Reet Simmul, Piret Noorhani, Anne Valmas, Maie Barrow and Jüri Woan at the Balthernet Conference, Käsmu 2008

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Reet (left) with Archives volunteers Leena Treffner, Valler Lipping, Jüri Woan and Eile Annuk in 2015

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Reet (2nd from right) with the 2018 Archives volunteers, outside the Archive at Sydney Estonian House

The volunteers have formed a close friendship group on Wednesday and each one of us has a different experience and skill to bring to the Archive. The friendships we have made with archivists from Estonia and the summer schools and conferences enrich our lives.

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Reet Simmul at the Balthernet Summer School, Käsmu, Estonia in 2008