Estonian Archives in Australia

The Great Escape 1944

Have you ever wondered why you are living in Australia and not Estonia where your ancestors lived?

Do you know why and how your parents or grandparents came to Australia?

The majority of young Australians with Estonian heritage are the children of the post World War II migration from Europe to Australia.

  • September 2019 - Current
  • Estonian House Sydney, 141 Campbell St Surry Hills NSW 2010
  • Black & White Photographs
  • Photos from "Eestlaste põgenemine kodumaalt , pagulaselu Rootsis sõnas ja pildis 1944-1946" (Estonian people fleeing from their native country and refugee life in Sweden in word and picture 1944-1946) complied by Hans Vilper and Estonian Archives private collection
  • Exhibition created by Estonian Archives Volunteers and Lachlan Bell

During World War II, tiny Estonia was caught between two great powers, Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1939 the Soviets entered Estonia, dismissed the legal government and put in a new order. In 1941 tens of thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia or died on the way. These were not only purported “enemies of the state”, prominent and influential people who were a threat to the Soviets, but also the elderly and babes in arms. People who had, for one reason or another, been accused of being anti Soviet or just those randomly caught up in the sweep.

When Germany invaded during autumn 1941, Estonians hoped for a better life but that was not to be. 1944 saw Germans in retreat and the Soviets advancing again. People remembered earlier deportations and some felt they had to choose: leave and go west, or stay risking deportation to the east or worse. With a Soviet future looming, many could not stay.

Most fled by sea, others by land through Latvia. Ships took refugees to Germany and small fishing boats and motorboats plied the route to Sweden. Both were perilous journeys. The ships were bombed and many of the small, often unseaworthy boats failed to reach their destination. People paid dearly for the passage.

The last convoy of ships left Tallinn harbour on the evening of 21 September 1944 just as the Soviets were bombing Tallinn. Those on board could see Tallinn burning.

Smaller ships and boats left the western coast and islands up to early October, until the Soviet forces reached those shores. No one knows how many people left Estonia that year, they only know how many reached the West.

There were many tragedies on the way. The hospital ship “Moero” with at least 3,500 people on board, bound for Germany, was torpedoed and only about 650 people survived. A small ship, the “Nordstern”, again on its way to Germany, was sunk by a submarine and only 42 out of 400 passengers survived. These were not isolated instances. The fate of many is unknown.

The refugees who fled to Sweden were accommodated in camps until they found jobs and moved on. In Germany the war was still raging and it was up to the refugees themselves to keep moving west, away from the advancing Soviet army.

At the end of the war Germany was divided into 4 zones, British, French, American and Soviet. The fate of those in the Soviet zone is mostly unknown. In the other zones, the estimated 6 million refugees and other displaced persons were cared for by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Repatriation Association) which was set up by the Allies to repatriate these people to their homelands. Most of the eastern Europeans went home but the Baltic people refused on the grounds that their homeland was occupied by the Soviets and therefore was no longer the same country. The Estonians were mainly housed in camps, some of which were multinational, some only for the Baltic nations and others just for Estonians. There they soon set up committees, schools, cultural and sporting organisations, waiting for the opportunity to return to Estonia. As time passed it became apparent that there was no going back and people started to look for a new home. Australia, USA, Canada and England were the most popular destinations.

About 6000 Estonians came to Australia after World War II. They eventually settled in the bigger cities and formed strong Estonian communities which still exist today.

These photos reflect the journey undertaken by thousands of Estonians in September 1944.

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Tallinn was bombed extensively in March 1944

Tallinn, Estonia

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Tallinn, Estonia

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

People made their way to the harbour by any possible means

Tallinn, Estonia

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Some travelled across Latvia to the west, often escaping by horse and cart

En-route Eastern Europe

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Crowds gathered at the harbour hoping to board any remaining ships

Tallinn, Estonia

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Small boats left from many coastal towns and villages bound for Sweden

Baltic Sea (Estonia/Sweden)

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

After the war ended the refugees were often housed in camps. Geislingen was the biggest Displaced Persons camp for Estonians

Geislingen, Germany

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Metalwork class. Men learnt practical trades to prepare for the future.

Germany

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Queuing for food. Meals were often prepared centrally and then distributed to families.

Germany

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Communal eating. Meals were shared by people living in the same rooms.

Germany

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

Refugees were often moved from camp to camp.

Germany

The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21st September 1944

The resettlement centre was the last stage on the way to a new home

Germany