My Ten Year Journey of Survival
By Johannes Nomm
The End of the Estonian Republic
In June 1940 the Soviet Union submitted demands to the Estonian government to lease certain Estonian islands and part of the coast for use as Russian Army bases. Russia promised not to intervene in Estonian internal affairs. Of the three Baltic states, Estonia was the first one to receive these demands. Estonia, unable to get help from other countries, was only able to fight the Russian Army for a short time. Eventually the government decided to surrender, hoping perhaps that the Russians would keep their promises not to intervene in Estonian internal affairs.
On June 17, 1940 Soviet Russian troops moved to their new bases in Estonia. When this was accomplished the Russians then demanded that Estonia form a new government, which would be more receptive to the Communists. As a result of Russian demands the Estonian National Guard was liquidated, all weapons were collected from the people and new elections were proclaimed. Only Communists were permitted to be candidates for election. Many of Estonia's politicians, society leaders and important army officials were arrested. Our president was arrested on July 20, 1940 and taken to Russia. The new Parliament of Estonia, which consisted of only Communists, declared on August 6, 1940 that Estonia was to be united with the Soviet Union.
Life Under Communism
In 1940, I was a 32 year old police constable in the borough of Kehra, which was located 30 km from the capital of Tallinn. The police force of the Estonian Republic was initially permitted to continue its duties. But in August, after Estonia was incorporated as a part of the Soviet Union, the police force was replaced by militia which consisted of untrained Communist inclined men. I was forced to move out in just three days and leave my flat to the new militia officer.
The Communist Party declared me an enemy of the people because I had served in the Estonian police force. Prior to and during my police duties I was studying law at the University at Tartu, but after the Communists came to power I was no longer permitted to attend. I then relocated to the city of Tallinn, where I found a room in the flat of a former police officer. At first it looked like it would be impossible to find a new job. Everywhere I applied for a job I was refused employment when the employer learned that I was a former police officer. Eventually an acquaintance who was an architect hired me as a carpenter for construction work. While there I worked side-by-side with a former member of our government. However, once we were put to work in the office, coworkers suspected us of being officers of the old Estonian Republic and pointed an accusing finger at the architect who hired us. To avoid a scandal, the architect put us to work on another construction site. Soon after that however my coworker, the ex-government official, was arrested and his family had no idea of what happened to him. To avoid the same fate, I found a new job in a wool spinning factory thanks to the help of a relative who was working there. I worked in this factory for a couple of months. After this an old friend, who was a director of a state farm, hired me as a bookkeeper at the Kostivere branch, which was located 25 km from the city of Tallinn. This was a good place to work since no one asked any questions about my background.
On June 15, 1941 news quickly spread that many people had been arrested in the city of Tallinn. Later it became clear that the Russian secret police together with the militia had been arresting people all over Estonia. Trucks were driven to peoples homes and they were given half an hour to pack their personal belongings. Entire families were transported to the railway station where freight trains were waiting. It sometimes happened that the head of the family was not home when the secret police arrived but the rest of the family was arrested anyway. Untold numbers of trains transported Estonians to Siberian Gulag labor camps. Men were separated from their families and taken to different locations. It was later established that there were 10,157 people arrested on a single night. Among those were children under seven years of age, which numbered 1,510 and 16 people over 80 years of age.
The railroad cars were overcrowded and people were left in the hot sun without water. On their way to Siberia many of these people died, but the dead were left in the freight cars because the bill of carriage had to be in accordance with the number of persons initially loaded onto the cars. Among those who were taken to Siberia were people of every profession including farmers, office workers, factory workers and various professionals. In Siberia many of these people died of starvation or of disease.
It was a miracle that I was still free since most of my former colleagues in the police force had been arrested. However, later it became clear that somebody had been looking for me at my old residence but was unable to obtain my new address. Now, each night I was afraid that my turn would be next. My wife and I didn't want our daughter Anne, who was two years old, to be sent to Siberia with us. So we sent our daughter along with my wife's mother to my wife's relatives farm in the County of Tartu.
Many men who escaped arrest went into hiding in the forest. They equipped themselves with weapons and became Estonia's "Green Army". There was a widespread belief that fighting between the Germans and Russians would soon start and mark the end of Soviet occupation.
On June 22, 1941 the German army attacked the Soviet Union. Many Estonians welcomed this news and hoped that the Germans would save them from the Communists. The Estonian Green Army was already a problem for the Russians and there were many battles fought between them. The Estonian Communists along with the militia formed the battalion that set out to arrest the men of the Green Army. Many men were killed on both sides. The German troops advanced rapidly. By mid-July they had occupied a part of Estonia.
On July 23, 1941 Russia declared a mobilization for the County of Harju. Those who would not follow this order were threatened with the death penalty. I and the administrator of the state farm where I worked both received the order to report for Soviet Army service. We considered the possibility of not reporting. But the area surrounding the state farm did not provide a place to hide and all the roads and bridges were guarded by Communists. So reluctantly we decided to follow the order. Our decision was influenced by the knowledge that had we gone into hiding the Soviet secret police would torture our families to discover our location. In addition, the advance of the German troops in Estonia had halted and we had no idea of how long we would have to wait for the Germans to occupy the country.
We were required to report to the city of Tallinn. From Tallinn we were transported by ship to the harbor of Leningrad. Our mobilization was followed by many more similar shipments of Estonian men. All of these men were sent by ship to Leningrad. On the way to Leningrad the German Air Force sank a number of the ships carrying these men. In the summer of 1941, 33,000 Estonian men altogether were mobilized and sent to Soviet Russia. Of those, 20,000 men died on the way or later in Siberian labor camps.
I was brought to Leningrad in a cargo ship. During the voyage we were fired on from the coast, but were unharmed. Only one man lost his nerve and jumped overboard and disappeared in the waves. In the harbor of Leningrad we were loaded onto freight cars and started our journey into the unknown. We tried unsuccessfully to get some information about our destination from our guards. But they probably didn't know either. During our rail journey through the larger cities we were able to get some bread and hot water. The meager food ration wasn't a problem while everyone still had his own food bag. We had been traveling for one week because the train often stopped for prolonged periods. Our journey finally ended in northern Russia in the city of Kotlas.
Surviving the Gulag
Photographs and artwork from the Gulag
In the city of Kotlas part of our train was separated and taken on a route that ended in the forest about 10 km from the city, on the bank of the Dvina River.
Our housing consisted of two-story log structures, which numbered four in a group. I was placed in a room with eight other men. There were bunks for sleeping and also a little table. The camp kitchen was located some distance away at the edge of the forest. There was no dining room and we had to eat on primitive tables which were made of boards nailed onto stakes.
Our food ration consisted of a wooden spoon full of porridge in the morning and 400g or about 4/5 of a pound of bread and a little bowl of soup in the evening. Since the bread had a high water content 400g amounted to a very little piece of bread. The soup consisted mostly of water with a few little pieces of cabbage or a few grains of millet. The porridge was made of millet or tartar.
On the first night I was unable to get any sleep because of worry about my new life in the Gulag and persistent bedbug bites. The next morning we gathered on the courtyard between the barracks and there we were formed into squads and platoons. Altogether there were about 200 men in our camp. The men who could understand Russian were appointed the leaders of platoons and the commander of all platoons was a man who spoke good Russian.
The Russian political officer made a speech and asked everybody to fight against fascist Germany. During the first week, we had to take military basic training but we had some leisure time as well. It looked as if the Russians didn't know what to do with us. Were we to be soldiers or hard laborers?
For the first week food was not a problem because most of us still had some conserved food from Estonia. We were served the porridge of millet which many had never eaten before and many of us didn't eat it. One day we were even served spoiled codfish. We protested and brought it back to the kitchen but it was not replaced.
After the first week it became clear that we were hard laborers not soldiers. We received spades and axis and had to dig big ditches in a field which was already cleared of trees. We had to prepare this field for an airport. Everybody had a quota of what had to be completed before the end of each day. The quota was always too high and only a few men ever accomplished it. The Russian political officer encouraged the men to exceed the quota by promising 200g of more bread and letting them eat on a table which was covered with linen. There were only five or six men who ever exceeded the quota. When men became accustomed to the work and could meet the quota, then the quota was raised so everybody had to work harder and harder to meet it.
After about two weeks the NKVD, or secret police, started interviewing a few men at a time. The secret police were looking for men who would be willing to serve as spies and report everything they had heard in opposition to the Communists or the leadership. There usually was more than one spy in each platoon but they didn't know each other. So one spy was also watching the other spy. The spy system lasted throughout the time I was at the labor camp and later in the Red Army. As a result of their treacherous activity many men were arrested.
I was only able to work for about three weeks before I came down with bloody dysentery which spread throughout the camp. I was taken to a village hospital where I found 10 of our men there with the same illness. The treatment, such as it was, consisted of a violet colored liquid and our own will to recover. I had a high fever and during the first few days I didn't eat at all. I was in the hospital for about one month and then I was sent back to the camp on foot. I was very weak and I had to rest many times before reaching the camp. When I reached the camp I could not find any of my former companions, who had been transferred to another location. In their place where new men brought from the city of Tallinn. I was now placed in a new log barracks with double bunks around the wall. The capacity of the barracks was about 100 men. Since I was so weak I received one week of release from work. Because I didn't work I only received a half ration of food. "Who does not work, shall not eat"
After my rest period, I was assigned to saw logs for firewood and had to cut little pieces for the wood heated tractors and trucks. Naturally there was a quota that I had to meet, but I was still too weak to fulfill the regular quota. After two weeks, I was taken along with other men to work in the forest. In northern Russia winter comes early, usually by the end of October. When we had left Estonia it was summer and we were wearing light clothing, hoping that we would receive Army uniforms. Now in the cold winter, we were afraid that we would freeze to death without adequate clothing. When we asked for warmer clothing the answer was always "you will get them tomorrow". Tomorrow came but no warm clothing. This was a typical answer throughout my time in the Gulag, you never get what was promised. When I left Estonia I was wearing a good suit and also had a pullover and a pair of gloves in my knapsack, but I was only wearing light summer shoes.
In the labor camps there were Estonian supervisors who worked beside the Russians. In my group there was a man who was born in Estonia but by nationality he was Russian. We were assigned to cut down fir trees, cut off the branches and make beams and polls. The branches were burned in the same location where the trees were cut. We often tried to go by the fire to warm ourselves but if you stayed too long at the fire the supervisors marked your name down and told you not to eat that day. There was no one to whom you could complain, you just had to survive without food that day. On one particularly cold morning we all decided not to go to work if we didn't get warm clothing. The secret police were called to the camp and our strike leaders, which numbered about six men, were all arrested. They were put into a special cold room and left without food. The secret police threatened to kill anyone who did not go to work. The other men saved part of their bread ration and secretly gave it to the six imprisoned strike leaders. After two days of imprisonment they were released and sent to work. We didn't receive any warm clothing.
In the labor camp we had no opportunity to wash our bodies and we had to wear the same underwear all the time soon our underwear and our hair became full of lice. It became a common site to see men who had returned from work sitting on their bunks with their shirts off killing lice. We had an ongoing battle with lice through our our time in Russia, even when we were put into the Red Army.
Those men that smoked had a particularly hard time of it because we did not get any cigarettes or tobacco. In the camp black-market, smokers often exchanged bread for tobacco. If somebody was smoking, the unlucky smoker would offer a piece of bread for a puff of smoke.
In November, we were taken to a new location about 10 km further up the Dvina River. We were required to cut logs out of the river ice and pull them to the riverbank. The logs had been floated in the river but when winter came they became frozen in the ice. The riverbanks were high and we had to pull the logs with wire rings to the bank and deposit them in stacks 10 feet high. This was the worst work I had to do while in Siberia. The logs were wet and our cloths got wet which increased the likelihood of getting frostbite.
Of course once again there was a quota which we had to fill. However, we were lucky that our supervisor was a 16-year-old Russian peasant boy whom we could easily deceive. We soon found his weakness which was an interest in lighters, watches and pocket knives that he probably had never seen before. While we started a fire on the riverbank, one of the men would show his lighter to the boy. As the boy marveled at the lighter, all the men gathered around the fire to warm themselves. At the next opportunity someone else showed the boy his watch and again we would warm ourselves at the fire. But we still had to fill the quota. And we did it! Each evening the Russian boy marked the last logs in the pile with a red pencil and the next morning we had to start from that point. The next morning we wiped off his marks and made new marks further down the pile. In the evening the boy counted the logs in the pile until he reached the red marks and our quota was achieved. He never counted how many logs there were altogether in the pile.
During this time, we were housed in wooden barracks located 7 km from our worksite. Early each morning in the dark we had to march to our worksite where we received a spoonful of porridge with a little sugar on it. We only received wooden spoons with which we could eat. We worked until the evening, then we received 400g of bread and a little bowl of soup. Again in the dark we had to march back 7 km to the barracks. We eventually did receive a few old army overcoats and cotton and wool jackets but that was not nearly enough. Only those men whose cloths were in very bad shape received any of this clothing.
After weeks of exposure to the cold I became ill and developed a fever of 104°F. There were no doctors in the camp but there was a medic who had worked in the hospital in Tallinn. He now served as our doctor. He told me that I had developed pneumonia. I was satisfied with his diagnosis, although I knew I didn't have pneumonia. But this did permit me to go to our primitive camp hospital. The hospital was located near our barracks. It was an old wooden barrack in which there were cracks large enough to permit the wind to blow snow in. In the middle of this makeshift hospital was a wood-burning stove which we had to heat incessantly to keep a little warmth in the room. For firewood we used wood from a nearby wooden fence and some beams from our own barracks. One of the patients was an architect and he made sure that we didn't take too many beams off the structure so that it wouldn't collapse.
Hospital patients did not receive a full ration of food. What food we did receive we got from the nearby Russian workers kitchen. In the morning, I received a spoonful of porridge and in the evening 400g of bread. I exchanged half of my bread for a little bowl of soup so I got something warm into my stomach. The bunks we slept on were bare boards. I used my knapsack as a pillow and got an old army overcoat for a blanket. Our medic measured each patient's temperature every morning. While my temperature fell after a few days, I had to keep it at a proper level by rubbing the thermometer in my overcoat. Our medic had some mustard blasters from Estonia and he put those on my back to cure my pneumonia. To show that the treatment had been successful, after two weeks I let my temperature fall a couple of degrees. But I still complain that I had pain in my lungs and the medic believed that I still had pneumonia.
In our hospital there were 10 patients. I don't think that any of them were very sick with the exception of one man whose body was covered with ulcers and who was continuously groaning in pain. I had been there for about one month, when one morning a Secret Service officer came and told everybody to leave the hospital with the exception of the man with the ulcers, who was not able to walk. The Secret Service officer rode in a sled and we had to follow him on foot to another camp about 7 km further up the river. When we arrived there we found that our former coworkers and new plywood barracks were waiting for us. Our men had built these barracks. Each structure was assigned 16 men who had to sleep on double bunks. In the middle of the room there was a cast-iron stove which we had to heat constantly. On particularly cold nights those men who slept against the wall discovered upon waking that their cloths had frozen to the wall.
Our task at this new camp was to build a sawmill. I was designated to be a carpenter on this project. On the bare river bank I had to cut beams straight and saw them into neat sections. To warm ourselves we built a fire, but we were able to only gather there during our 10 minute rest break. If a supervisor caught you warming yourself during work, you would not receive food that evening.
I was wearing light summer shoes which could accommodate only one pair of socks, so my feet were painfully cold. On some mornings the thermometer read -40°F. To avoid frostbite and amputation of my toes, I got rid of my summer shoes and went barefoot which enabled me to stay in the barracks because the camp leader had no shoes to give me.
Among our group of men was a businessman who secretly went to the city of Kotlas to exchange a wide variety of objects for food, including watches, rings, pocket knives and almost anything small enough to carry. Our black market trader of course took his share from these transactions which enabled him to survive. I gave him my summer shoes to trade and I got a loaf of bread and some foot rags.
Every barracks in this camp had one caretaker who was called the commandant and who's responsibility was to get firewood and keep the stove hot 24 hours a day as well as keeping the barracks clean. To obtain firewood we had to cut birch trees near the barracks. I let myself be nominated as the commandant since I had no shoes and was barefoot. As a result I did not get a full ration of food and was deprived of soup at the evening meal. The dining barracks was about 2 km from our barracks and we had to go there twice a day. One evening I asked one of my fellow inmates to bring my bread from the dining hall, but when he returned without the bread he told me that when my name was called someone else had taken it. What actually happened I don't know, but I was without bread that evening.
It was in this barracks where I experienced my first Christmas outside my homeland. Since we had to work every day, naturally we didn't get a day off for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I cut down a small fir tree and put that into the snow near our barracks. When it became dark I brought that tree into our barracks. One of the men had made a little candle and we placed this on the tree. We kept watch to make sure that the political officer didn't catch us. Our camp medic, who also lived in our barracks, had saved one can of sprouts. He also had a couple of potatoes from which we made porridge. The medic cut his piece of bread into small pieces and to each piece added a little porridge and a sprout. Each of the men in the barracks got one of these little treats which was our Christmas feast. Among the men in our barracks was one who had been a student of theology and who had brought with him a pocket Bible. He read a part of the Christmas gospel and we sang Christmas songs. We spent most of the evening talking about Christmas in our homeland, especially about our traditional Christmas foods.
Every evening our most enjoyable conversations were about food including each man's favorite foods and special holiday treats. In this camp many of my fellow prisoners died of cold and hunger. It was hunger that determined who would keep their human dignity and who would run down to the kitchen garbage to collect potato peels, pieces of onion and other waste. As a result of the constant hunger, my knees became swollen and I became extremely fatigued. It got to the point that while walking one day I came across a log that blocked the road and I stopped to determine which would be easier to walk around the log or to step over it. The constant hunger was accompanied by bouts of diarrhea and dysentery.
By way of illustration, I had a friend who was a gamekeeper. He was lively and cheerful when we first came to the Gulag but he was a large man and needed more food than the rest of us. In this last camp he became weaker and weaker. One evening on the way to the dining hall he collapsed. Fellow prisoners brought him to his barracks, but after this he became indifferent to his surroundings. One day a fellow prisoner was drying a piece of bread on the stove and he stole that bread. He was caught, beaten and thrown out of the barracks. But this didn't deter him and he stole food again. At last he became so weak he could not walk. He was brought to our barracks which also served as the camp hospital since our medic lived there. He suffered from dysentery and lost control of his bowels. Then one day while sitting on the edge of his bunk he collapsed and died. We buried his body in the nearby woods and marked his grave with a simple cross.
Another man had gone out at night to a Russian collective farm, probably to steal some food. The next morning he was found dead on the road. However no one was interested in what caused his death. We buried him at the same makeshift graveyard in the woods which eventually became the final resting place of 10 other fellow prisoners.
Bread was our main food and helped us to stay alive. We didn't have the heart to eat the entire piece of bread at once. One man cut his bread into small pieces and dried them on the stove so that they became biscuits which he later ate one by one. Another prisoner boiled water and put the bread into it to make bread soup, which filled the stomach better than bread alone. The men called this soup "murderer" and it was very popular in the camp.
You may wonder why we didn't just escape since there were no guards at the camp. When we first arrived at the Gulag in the summer some men did escape. However a couple of weeks later the political officer read the verdicts in which the escapees who had been captured were sent to jail for many years. The likelihood of escape even in the best of weather was not very good since the camp was surrounded by swamps and forests inhabited by wolves and bears. To make matters worse most of the prisoners could not speak Russian.
Surviving in the Red Army
In March of 1942, a Red Army commissar came into our camp to select men for service in the Red Army. This was our only hope to save our lives. Remaining in the work camp meant certain death. It was widely known that the commissar did not want to take sick or barefooted men because they would have to walk to Kotlas. To increase the likelihood of being selected, I had our camp black marketer buy me a pair of tarpaulin boots. When the commissar lined us up for review he saw only live skeletons, yet still found everyone fit to serve in the Red Army.
Two days after being selected we had to tramp through the deep snow to the railway station at Kotlas. It was a hard and strenuous march but we all survived. Arriving at the railway station we saw men more miserable than ourselves. There were hungry men in rags limping and some of them assisted by their comrades. But they all wanted to join the Red Army. Many of these men were coming from camps further north in Russia near the city of Archangel. At the railway station we were loaded on freight cars with 40 men to a car. In the cars there were double bunks and in the middle of the car there was a cast-iron stove. The train also included one car that served as our kitchen.
The train went south through the Ural Mountains to the railway station in the city of Chelyabinsk. Our journey lasted a total of two weeks. When we disembarked at the railroad station we had to march 3 km into a wooded area where we found soil huts prepared for us. The huts were dug into the earth and the roofs were covered with soil and turf. There was no stove and we had double bunks made of split logs for sleeping. There was no mattress and no blanket, you had to use your knapsack as a pillow and cover yourself with an army overcoat. After we were divided into groups, we were sent to the sauna. It was a pitiful sight to see each other naked since we were all just skeletons.
We were assigned to the second division of the Estonian Corps. Men for the Estonian Corps were brought from labor camps throughout the Siberian Gulag. There were also Estonians who were born in Russia. They had been indoctrinated in communism and were appointed as Red Army political leaders. Many of the men lied about their previous military experience, saying that they were of a higher rank than they had actually ever achieved. There was one commander of a battalion who had been a PFC in the Estonian Army but now he told the Russians he had been a first lieutenant and as a result he was appointed commander of the battalion.
Each battalion had one squad of medics, which consisted of a squad leader one medic instructor and four medics. I was appointed to this squad as a medic. The leader of our squad was a construction worker from the city of Tallinn who lied and said that he had finished army medical school in Estonia. Later it became obvious that he had lied when he didn't know anything about first aid. The man who was appointed as the medic instructor had actually finished army medical school. I became the clerk of the medical squad. Along with other duties I had to send a report to the battalion office every morning stating how many men in the battalion had been found with lice. These men were sent to the sauna, where their cloths were placed in a room with high heat while the men were washing themselves. Despite these precautions, bloody dysentery and typhus soon spread throughout the camp. One of the huts was prepared as a hospital which had a capacity for 200 men. But this hospital was soon filled with patients. So many men died that the funeral crew could not bury them fast enough and additional replacements were always being requested. The dead shed where bodies were kept until they could be buried was filled with layer upon layer of dead men.
Our hospital was run by the medical battalion and soon the medics who worked there also became infected. Medics were sent from other battalions to serve in our hospital. I was among the medics sent to help in the hospital. The hospital was a grim site. Those patients with high fevers were vomiting on the bunks and the vomit and diarrhea from the top bunks dripped down into the bottom bunks. I was fortunate not to become infected myself.
Spring arrived suddenly and in only a few days the snow had melted and all the roads, which were made of dirt and clay, became impassable mud. The water from the melted snow came running through the doors and windows of the huts and formed large puddles that covered the entire floor.
Our troops were trained from morning until evening and then they were given political lectures. All the training was done with rifles and machine guns made of wood. Our squad of medics did not have much basic training and only received special training in first aid. While the infantry troops were undergoing basic training in the hot sun, the medics were able to take shelter in the shade of trees. The weather that summer was very hot and many men collapsed during training. Almost everyone was waiting for the time when we could go to the front.
The food here was much better than it had been in our labor camp, but there still was not enough. Most meals consisted of grains comprised of millet and tartar, cabbage, black bread and very little meat. As a result, a new disease spread among the men which manifested itself first by a drying of the skin on the top of the hands and later turned into diarrhea and loss of the mucous lining of the intestine. It usually ended with death. The only treatment for this disease was a soup made of germinated grains of wheat. I prepared the sick list for our battalion and I eventually put myself on this list because the skin on the back of my hands was beginning to dry. I was fortunate in that the disease did not run its usual course with me and I eventually recovered.
The smokers among the men suffered badly from a lack of tobacco. Once in a while we were able to get some tobacco but it usually was not nearly enough. Consequently, the smokers exchanged their bread for tobacco. To make matters worse there was also a shortage of matches. Every day you could find someone walking around from hut to hut to see if anybody was smoking so that they could get a light.
To no one's surprise, we learned that just as in the labor camp there were spies among us. Men very often disappeared from the battalion. It was rumored that these men had been taken further into Siberia and assigned to a labor camp where they would never be heard from again.
At last, in the early Fall news spread that we were going to the front. We were loaded onto freight cars and began the next leg of our journey west through the beautiful Ural Mountains. However, the train stopped about 100 km from Moscow in the city of Kolomna. We disembarked from the train and marched about 5 km into the neighboring forest. When we arrived there we had to dig huts into the earth and once again begin the routine of military training and political lectures. Almost to the man, there was general agreement that it would be better to fight at the front than to endure this training again. The training and lectures went on for about two months. Finally, we were again loaded onto freight cars and started the journey to the front.
Our journey ended near the city of Kholm in a small railway station where we were unloaded. At this point we were given rifles and machine guns. But there were not enough rifles and many men were left without a weapon. We were told that we had to capture enemy rifles in battle. Our squad of medics received two rifles. By way of food we now received biscuits instead of bread.
We had traveled only a few kilometers before German planes began to attack the railway station that we had just left. It was likely that some of our troops were still in the railway station at the time. The station was bombed and began to burn.
Now we began our march toward the German front. We made our way during the night and rested in the forest during the day. The weather was turning colder and the earth was soon covered with snow. We started our journey with horse carts, but now in the snow the horses were weak from hunger and could not pull the carts. We didn't have enough food for the horses so we stole hay from the collective farms we passed. Eventually we discarded the horse carts and took sleds from the collective farms. Many of the horses became so weak that they collapsed on the road and died or were shot to put them out of their misery. With the horses now gone the men had to carry the entire load. Fortunately our medical squad was able to keep its horse alive.
On our way to the front we passed a church which was used as a storage room for harvest. Many of our men went into the church to get some rest and warmth. When we left the church started to burn. Someone had probably left a burning cigarette butt in the grain harvest that was stored there.
After our nearly 200 km journey we were finally given a weeks rest. We had to use old abandoned earthen huts for shelter. One of these huts was in such bad condition that the ceiling collapsed killing one soldier.
When we renewed our march we began to move parallel to the German front. This became the worst part of our entire journey. The men were tired, sleepless and their feet were rubbed raw or frostbitten. Some days we marched all day without food because the kitchen wagon could not follow us. Occasionally the kitchen didn't have the proper ingredients to prepare soup for the battalion so they used horsemeat. At our rest periods during the day we were not permitted to build fires but we were so cold we ignored this order and built a small fire to warm ourselves. Some men were so tired that they fell asleep near the fire and burned their overcoats.
After another 200km march we approached the front head-on near the Russian city of Velikije Luki. The landscape was bare and entire villages had burned to the ground. A few days before we arrived at the front line, our Battalion, which traveled at night, stopped for a 10 minute rest break. I was so tired and sleepy that I decided to make the rest period a little longer. I walked off the road and sat behind a little hill in the snow. As soon as I sat down I fell asleep. When I woke from the cold my battalion was gone.
I was confused and didn't know which direction the battalion had taken. As I walked along the road a Russian officer on horseback approached and asked where I was going. He told me that my battalion had moved in the opposite direction in which I was traveling. I then turned around and started to walk to catch my battalion. I saw a light twinkling in the distance near the road I was on. I walked toward the light until somebody in Russian ordered me to stop. I was taken to a small farm house that was occupied by a squad of Russian soldiers. I explained to them who I was and asked if I could stay with them overnight. They let me in the house. I exchanged what little tobacco I had for the Russian soldiers biscuits and lay down underneath the table to sleep. The next morning the Russians woke me up and I continued on my way to search for my battalion. After a few hours walk I met up with my medical squad. They had been lying on the bare field and had no sleep at all because of the cold. My absence from the battalion did not result in any disciplinary action against me.
It was here that we were exposed to our first enemy fire by two German fighter planes, but no one was hit. After lying all day on the field, the battalion began to move closer to the front. We passed a crossroads where we heard a squeaking noise. These were soon followed by explosions caused by German landmines. Some of our troops had been injured or killed by these mines but due to the confusion among the ranks I don't know how many men were actually hurt.
The next day when we were resting we could clearly hear the sound of rifles and machine guns in the near distance. That night we moved closer to the front and in the morning we took our positions on the front line. Our battalion was ordered to dig in on a hillside opposite the German troops. The earth was still frozen and our squad had only one small spade which made it very difficult to dig. When we had dug the foxhole about 1 foot deep, the Germans began to shell our position. One shell exploded in the middle of our battalion killing one man and wounding several others. After this explosion our medical unit began administering first aid to the wounded men and sent them back to the division hospital. When the shelling stopped we continued digging our foxhole.
In the evening our division received an order to attack the Germans. In the dark our medical squad did not know where our battalion staff was located. I got an order to find our battalion staff. I walked only a short distance before the Germans began to fire on us with tracer bullets. I jumped into a bomb crater where I found two other men who had jumped in before me. The machine gun fire continued for some time and was soon accompanied by rockets and artillery shells. It was then that I heard someone call in Estonian from the German side "Estonians come over". I figured this was probably my only chance to save my life and I surrendered to the Germans.
The German troops ordered us to throw our rifles into a pile. It was only then that I noticed that I had a rifle on my back. I threw it into the pile of other rifles. A German tank then drove over the pile of rifles making them useless. I soon found that my battalion commander, with all his staff, was now on the German side. And so it was that I had fulfilled my squad leaders order to find my battalion staff. I had also complied with Stalin's order to "only move forward, not a step backwards."
Surviving the German Prisoner of War Camp
On the German side of the front line it became clear that more than half of our division had surrendered to the Germans (over 1,000 men). Now I saw that the Germans had a group of tanks behind the village. And we were ordered to overrun the village even though none of us had a rifle. Eventually we were put into columns and started to march off the front. After our column had walked about 2 km an artillery shell from the Russian side exploded near us. We broke up and ran for cover. No more shells came. I learned that one of our men had been killed. It was only then that I became afraid of getting killed, after I had left behind the hardships in the Gulag and on the front line.
We finally arrived at a major road where trucks were waiting to take us to the prisoner of war camp at Polatsk in Belarus. On the way we spent one night sleeping in the barracks of another prison camp. The next morning we continued our journey. We were amazed at the difference between Russian and German transportation. In Russia we didn't have enough horses to move to the front, but on the German side they were transporting prisoners with trucks! We arrived at Polatsk at midnight before Christmas. Once in the camp we received a piece of bread which was made with very little flower since it rustled as we ate it. I had never eaten such horrible bread. But since we had not gotten any food during the last two days, we ate the bread very quickly. This was a big prisoner of war camp and most of the prisoners were Russians. Our housing consisted of a large brick Army barracks. The food was about the same as it had been in the Russian labor camp perhaps even worse. Some days we were served half rotten potatoes. After one day of rest we gathered in the courtyard where German soldiers selected crews and sent them to work. The German soldiers probably thought we were Russians since they treated us very brutally. They kicked prisoners at almost every opportunity.
On the first day I was assigned to work in a field where I had to cut holes into the frozen earth for a barbed wire fence. I explained to the soldier that was guarding us that we were Estonians and that we want to fight with the Germans against the communists. He told me that he had once been in Estonia and he praised the Estonian people. During the day he came to talk with me on numerous occasions.
Some of our men had gotten jobs in the Army kitchen. They were the lucky ones because there they could eat the leftover soup. Our officers tried to speak to the camp leader and convince them to let us go back to our homeland, but were denied.
In the beginning of February 1943, I was with a group of men in the Polatsk railroad station loading freight cars when I spotted a German soldier with Estonian colors on the sleeve of his uniform. We spoke with him and learned that he was Estonian on his way home on leave. We asked him to speak with the Estonian government on our behalf to see if they could arrange to have us freed from the prisoner camp. We gave him letters for our wives and asked him to deliver them.
Soon after this I was assigned to work in the Army kitchen and I had no more worries about adequate food. I continued working there until we were eventually released and sent back to our homeland. The Estonian soldier we met had been a good man and spoke to the authorities in Estonia about us. The end of February we were notified that we were to be released and sent back to Estonia.
We arrived in Estonia in early March and were put in quarantine at an abandoned prisoner of war camp in the city of Viljandi. Since some of our troops had acquired an infectious disease, we were kept in quarantine for one month. But we no longer lacked for food since in addition to our regular food ration we also received some meat and other products from Estonian Aid, a private organization. Some of the men also received food packages from their relatives. We all began to regain our lost weight.
I received a letter from my wife who was living with my daughter in the city of Tallinn. Soon my wife and daughter came to visit me. We could talk through the barbed wire fence. Since I was wearing an old Russian Army uniform my wife at first did not recognize me. And my daughter did not remember me at all because she last saw me when she was only three years old. Some of the men learned that their wives had forgotten them and found other men.
When our quarantine came to an end we were all gathered on the courtyard between the barracks and were addressed by the leader of the Estonian government and the German General Commissary Lietzmann. We were told that we now belonged to the German Army. This came as a very unpleasant surprise because we had all hoped to be united with our families. A few days later a German Army commission came to our camp to select men for military service. Attached to the commission was one German police officer who had asked me where I had worked before. I told them that I had been a a police officer. He appointed me to the Estonian police force. I was very happy that I didn't have to go to the front again. I received one month's leave and after that I had to report to the city of Tallinn. I didn't wait for the end of my leave and went to see the commander of the Estonian police. It turned out that they were my old police coworkers. I was appointed as a Constable in the County of Harju.
While in the police force I received a list of men who had not gone into the German Army. Among others there were many men who had been with me in the prisoner of war camp. I was supposed to arrest them. Fortunately I didn't find any of them, but I also didn't search very hard. Several months later I was appointed the Vice Commissioner of Police of the city of Viljandi. I held this position until the second Russian occupation in 1944.
Leaving Home Forever
In September 1944, the Russians had begun their counter-attack. As Vice Commissioner of Police, it was my responsibility to insure the evacuation the police officers families. The first stopover in the evacuation was the borough of Vandra, which was about 50 km from Viljandi. Among others I sent my own family to Vandra, which included my wife, my five-year-old daughter and my mother in-law. I myself could not go because I hadn't finished the evacuation. On
September 21, 1944, I sent the last group of families by truck to Vandra. I didn't have any idea where the front was, because the telephone lines had been cut. I stayed behind with 10 police officers to keep order in the city. On September 22 in the morning I received notice that Russian tanks were close to Viljandi. We prepared to leave the city. I sent a man by motorcycle to find out if the main road from Viljandi to Vandra was still open. The motorcyclist soon came back with news that the Russian tanks had cut the road. We decided to ride to Vandra by bicycle using small side roads.
In the evening we arrived at my friends farm, about 12 km from Vandra. My friend's wife was home alone since her husband had gone into hiding. My friend's wife discouraged us from our plan to go to Vandra, because all our families had already left Vandra. We could not reach Vandra by telephone. We decided to stay overnight at this farm and the next morning to get more recent information about Vandra. We were preparing to go to sleep when an Estonian soldier came in and told us that Russian tanks were already in Vandra, and that the Russians had captured an Estonian soldier near the farm. We then took our bicycles and started to ride in the opposite direction to get to the nearest harbor, Virtsu. On the way we tried to get some information about the Russians but all the houses near the road were empty.
We rode through my home county just 1 km from my birthplace. About 10 km from Virtsu, my bicycle broke down and I stopped to repair it on the roadside. Just then a truck came driving down the road in the same direction. My wife happened to be on that truck which stopped and picked me up. I left my bicycle on the roadside and road with my wife toward Virtsu. I learned from my wife that our daughter was still with her grandmother in Vandra. My wife told me that the police truck driver on the evening of September 22 had been ready to drive to the borough of Keila, about 50 km from Vandra, with female office workers, to bring the police officers and their families luggage to Vandra. My wife's mother had asked my wife to go with them and bring her (my mother-in-law's) winter coat and other clothing to Vandra. My wife and her luggage were already in Vandra. The driver was sure that he could be back by the next morning, while his wife and child were left in Vandra. But on the same night the Russian tanks had arrived at Vandra and were on the way to the capital of Tallinn. So it became impossible to drive back to Vandra. My wife asked the driver to take her to a nearby farm were my wife's relative had been working as a bookkeeper and where she might find a hiding place until the Russian had passed by. But when they arrived at the farm they found it to be empty. After that they drove to the harbor city of Virtsu, and on the way came across me repairing my bicycle on the roadside.
We stayed overnight in a farm outside of Virtsu. My wife wanted to stay there until the Russian front had passed by and then to go back later and find our daughter. However I could not stay in my homeland, which meant certain death, because I had been a police commissioner during the German occupation. I convinced my wife to escape with me, since she had no place to stay and there were reasons to fear being raped by Russian soldiers.
At this time there was still a popular belief that the Russian occupation would be only temporary. The German propaganda had been saying that they had found a new weapon which would enable them to win the war. The Germans were probably working on the atom bomb.
We discovered that there was no boat in Virtsu going to Germany, so we took a small motorboat on the same day to the island of Saaremaa. There we hoped to find a way of crossing to Sweden. But the Germans had confiscated all the boats and were not allowing anyone to go to Sweden. We had only one option left, to take a ship traveling to Germany. We were fortunate to find a cargo ship that was willing to take us to Germany. At this time, Russian fighter planes were attacking many of the escapee vessels. Our boat was not hit, but the boat ahead of us was hit in the stern. The smoke was rising from the stern all the way to Germany, but that boat and our boat were able to reach their final destination, the Harbor of Gotenhafen (Gdynia, Poland today).
Surviving as a Refugee in Germany
We began our journey through Germany in the city of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) where refugees were well received and treated. Most of the refugees were quickly taken to a temporary camp. But those who had relatives or knew influential people in Germany could leave immediately. We stayed in the temporary camp for only a few days. We were then sent to the employment camp in the city of Brandenburg. It was the responsibility of this camp to find everybody a job in Germany. I, along with 10 other police officers, was appointed as a fireman at a chocolate factory in the village of Dallgow-Döberitz, about 20 km from Brandenburg. It later became clear to me that this was actually a dynamite factory underground and a chocolate factory above ground. Fortunately, during the time that we were there, the dynamite factory was not hit. My wife and I were housed in a room in the German laborers housing unit. We received food stamps to buy food, but to purchase clothing we had to get a permit from a government agency.
While we were living in Dallgow-Döberitz an Estonian newspaper was published in Berlin on
January 27, 1945in which there was an announcement from the former Estonian government leader that all Estonian men who were born between 1908 and 1927 had to enlist in the German army. The Estonian men in Dallgow-Döberitz also received the order in writing to go to the local draft board in Berlin. Some of the men reported to the draft board but still refused to go into the German army. I didn't go since the order was given by a former Estonian government leader and it was therefore unlawful.
At this time, my wife and I visited the Swedish Consulate many times in Berlin seeking an exit visa to Sweden. But despite our pleas the answer was always no. Since we had lost our child, the time in Dallgow-Döberitz, was very hard for both of us and especially so for my wife because she had to stay home alone while I was at work. My wife was crying day and night and was in constant despair.
In March of 1945, we received a notice that our factory would cease to operate due to a lack of raw materials and we would be taken to a similar factory near Breslau. But at this precise time the Russian troops began a massive attack on Breslau and the Germans were withdrawn. I did not want to risk being captured by the Russians so we decided not to go.
Instead we went to Berlin, where we had to change trains. We left the railway station and went to the Estonian relief committee. There we received papers with our new identities. I became Jaak Nurmi-Nystrom and my wife became Milla Nurmi-Nystrom and we were on our way to Schleswig to work.
In Schleswig, which is near the Danish border, we were able to obtain new passports with the Nurmi name. We found work in a dairy in the village of Klappholtz, about 30 km from Schleswig. I worked as the dairy owner's helper and my wife worked as a housekeeper in the farm owners' home. We had plenty to eat since we ate with the owners family.
At this time we again tried to get a visa to go to Sweden, but now under the name of Nurmi. We hoped to get closer to our daughter and thought that maybe somehow we could get her over to Sweden. The answer again was no.
Two weeks before the end of the war, I received another order to report to the draft board for service in the German army. I was sure that the war could not last long, so I decided not to report to the draft board. We did tell the farm owner that I was reporting for the draft, but instead we went to a neighboring village, Boklund, where we registered and received food stamps. Here it was comparatively quiet, with only an occasional machine-gun attack by English fighters. We stayed here until the war ended on
May 5, 1945.
Life as a Displaced Person
The war in Europe was finally over. As a result, a new class of persons came to be, the displaced person (DP), which totaled over 10 million people. The refugees who were from Western Europe went back to their homeland. But there were only a few refugees who wanted to return to communist Russia. Since the Western allies still considered Russia as their ally, they first wanted to send the Baltic refugees back to their homelands which were now occupied by communist Russia. But the Baltic refugees, not wishing to go back, started to organize in some of the big cities and formed their own committees. They submitted petitions to General Eisenhower's headquarters requesting that Baltic refugees not be forced to return to communist controlled countries. Subsequently, an order was issued that Baltic refugees cannot be sent back against their will.
After the end of the war we stayed in Boklund and enjoyed the peaceful nights and days. But the food we received for food stamps was not adequate and we didn't have money to buy any food on the black market. I started to look for a job. I looked for work in many of the local dairies but all jobs were already filled by discharged German soldiers. In July news spread that camps were to be set up in major cities by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. At first many DP's didn't want to go to the camps because they were afraid that they would be handed over to the Russians.
One DP camp was formed in Flensburg near the border of Denmark. We registered at this camp under our real name, which was not a problem since we had kept our real passports. Life in the DP camp was not pleasant. Housing consisted of wooden barracks with about 20 people in one room. We slept on double bunks. In our room there were 18 men and two women since my wife was pregnant our situation did not look very promising.
In the camp we also received cigarettes. Since I didn't smoke I used my cigarettes to travel around in northern Germany looking for a better camp. There was no regular bus or train service, so people gathered on the edge of the cities by the roadside to wait for a truck which was going their way. Since DP's had cigarettes they were sure to get a ride. For a couple of cigarettes a driver agreed to take me to one of the next cities. The cities in northern Germany were comparatively little damaged by the bombing, except harbor cities like Hamburg.
I visited many cities in northern Germany, but I could not find a better camp. I was told that there were better camps in the U.S. Zone, where every family could have its own room. Thus I asked the Flensburg commandant, an English officer, for a permit to move to the U.S. Zone. But permission was denied. We decided to go without permission. Since there were no passenger trains running, we had to wait in the bombed out railway station for an occasional freight train. There were so many people waiting that we were happy to get any place on the train. On one occasion we climbed to the top of a coal car and sat on the coal. Our destination was the city of Kassel which was located in the U.S. Zone about 10 km from the border of the English Zone.
The trip to Kassel was a difficult one. Once, we found a place on a freight car which had no walls. The car was near the locomotive so the smoke and soot was constantly blowing on us. We had to hang-on the wooden floor planks of the railcar so we would not be thrown off on curves.
Most of the cities in middle Germany were destroyed and we had to sleep outside on benches or in ruins on window sills. Sometimes we had to walk many kilometers between ruins without seeing a single human being. The situation was complicated because my wife was seven months pregnant. We finally reached Gottingen where we bought two train tickets to the border of the U.S. Zone. We could not buy tickets to Kassel in the U.S. Zone, because we didn't have permits to enter the U.S. Zone. We were afraid that we would be taken off the train at the border to the U.S. Zone.
We were lucky however because this time there was no control at the border to the U.S. zone and we were able to make it all the way to Kassel. In Kassel we had to show our tickets on the passage out of the railway station. The officer in charge let me go through and probably didn't notice that my ticket was only good to the border. My wife did not make it. I went out of the railway station and found a gate in the fence which enclosed the platform. I opened the gate and let my wife out. The city and the station itself were in ruins and there was no place to stay overnight. Near the railway station we found a big Red Cross tent and my wife, because she was pregnant, was given a place to sleep. Once my wife was inside I was able to talk my way in as well. We were happy that we at least were in the American zone. Now we started to look for a suitable DP camp. We went through many camps but couldnt find adequate housing. We finally heard that there was a good camp in Augsburg, in southern Germany not far from Munich, and that became our next destination.
The camp in Augsburg was for refugees from the Baltic States. The housing consisted of three-story apartment buildings that were formerly used by German workers where each family had its own room. When we arrived I went to the Estonian Committee and was told by the camp director that it was closed to newcomers. I left my wife with a well-known Estonian family and went to nearby Munich to find a place to live. In the meantime, my wife had been to the Estonian Committee and because she was pregnant she succeeded in getting a room.
Since my wife was already in the camp I could now also register. We received a room in an apartment where we had to share the kitchen with two other families. In Augsburg, in a German hospital, my wife gave birth to our son, Rein. We received enough food because my wife got extra food rations due to her pregnancy. Later our son received full food rations although he didn't eat that much. We could even save some items like condensed milk, cheese, chocolate and bread. Since I didn't smoke, I could also save all my cigarettes which at the time were worth more than money. Once in awhile the MPs searched all the camps and when they found surplus food they took it away. I was able to successfully hide my surplus food and sell it in Munich.
Food rations were often changed and later we didn't get enough food. DP's were constantly trying to get food on the black market. In our camp, each nationality developed its own specialty. The Lithuanians specialty was speculation with meat. They purchased cows from Germans and sold the meat to DP's. The Latvians established a black market store where one could buy almost everything. The Estonians specialty was making and selling liquor. The Estonian committee and the camp police tried to hinder that enterprise but without much success.
In the camp there were people of many different professions, which enabled us to develop our own cultural enterprises. We established an Estonian grammar school and high school, a chorus, an acting group, and an Estonian newspaper. We also organized art and handicraft exhibitions, concerts and religious services. Every nation has its own doctors and there also was a drugstore. For all the DP's in Augsburg there was a DP hospital near our camp.
To administer the camp, every nation had its camp committee which consisted of individuals chosen by election. There was also a Baltic committee which consisted of representatives from every nation's committees. The highest power in the camp was the camp director appointed by the UNRRA.
Many people were working inside the camps as schoolteachers, police officers, doctors, tailors, shoemakers, kitchen workers and so on. Outside of Augsburg many men went to work for the American Army. I got a job as a police officer in the DP camp hospital. I also worked in the camp as a house painter. I got paid for the painting work by the city of Augsburg.
It became clear that the DP's could not stay under UNRRAs care forever. No one wanted to stay in Germany because Germany was destroyed and poor. The years in the DP camp seemed like a great waste of time. Everybody hoped to emigrate to Western Europe or the USA. But it took two to three more years until the first DP's could emigrate.
England was the first to accept immigrants from the DP camps. First they took immigrants only from their own zone, but later they took them also from other zones. After that, Australia started to take immigrants. I succeeded in getting a landing permit to Australia. But then the United States opened the gates for immigrants and I applied for a visa to the U.S. However, in order to go to the U.S. you had to have a sponsor there who was responsible for ensuring that you could find employment. An Estonian pastor who had been a displaced person but had immigrated earlier to the U.S. helped Estonian DP's fine sponsors. He found a sponsor for me in Detroit. My sponsor promised me a job as a gardener and butler. I wrote a thank you letter to my new sponsor. I received a reply in Estonian in which my sponsor explained that he had signed a form on my behalf but that he was a factory worker and he had no job for me. Since I was certain that I could find a job once I arrived in the U.S., I was not that concerned about this news.
The day before we received our visa we had to go through screening and health control. In the DP camp we had been screened many times, now we had to remember what we had said before. Men who had been in the German Army or were criminals were rejected outright. Later this regulation was changed and former soldiers were allowed to go to the U.S. I was worried about my wife's lungs. She had had tuberculosis when she was a girl. She had recovered but the illness left scars on her lungs. In the camp she had been under a doctor's care and there were x-rays taken every six months. The films showed no change and the immigration commission decided she was fully recovered. To my surprise I got a call to go back for another x-ray. It became clear that there was nothing wrong with my lungs and that there'd been a technical defect with the film.
At last, on
December 2, 1949we left Augsburg in a transport truck to go to an immigration camp near Hamburg. We arrived there just before Christmas but no ship was leaving Hamburg for the U.S. before the holidays. We had to stay in the Grohn immigration camp for two weeks over Christmas and New Year's.
In early January 1950 we were loaded on to the troop transport ship General McCrae and began our voyage across the Atlantic. Aboard ship families were separated and men and women were placed on different floors. Our son Rein who was four years old at the time, stayed with his mother. My wife and I both became seasick and could not eat. But our son was never seasick and wanted to eat regularly. This was a problem. How could we take him to the dining room when even the smell of food caused us to become sick? I was most comfortable just lying on a lounge chair on the deck. On board ship everybody had to work because we didn't pay for the voyage. But I was not able to work since I was so ill. One day when I was laying on the deck a control official came and took away my food card because I was not willing to work. I was not unhappy about that since I could not eat anyway. A few days later I got back my meal card.
We encountered a bad winter storm during the crossing which delayed our arrival in New York City. We arrived in New York on my wife's birthday
January 16, 1950.
Exactly 10 years later in January of 1960 on my wife's birthday we were able to bring our daughter to the U.S, from Soviet occupied Estonia thanks to the assistance of then Vice President Richard Nixon.
© Copyright 2015 by Rein Nomm