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The photo shows my family fleeing, on September 22 1944, from the Noarootsi coast (near Haapsalu) aboard a small boat named "Ahti". This picture depicts the Ahti towing two boats filled with people. The engines of those boats would not start. The man in the center of the first boat, wearing a dark coat and a hat is my father, Ilmar Rakfeldt. My mother and my sisters were down below.

This is the story of my family's flight from Estonia on September 22, 1944. I wrote it in my mother's voice, from her experience and perspective.

The compass, however, is stuck. The glass is so discolored from being underwater that Saldvar couldn't read it even if it had worked. As we wait, my sister-in-law suddenly gets up and says: "We're  not going on this boat. Look at this (pointing to the water on the floor). We'll all drown. We won't make it to Sweden. I had a dream that Arnold was out plowing a field. I was in the house with the children, when all at once, the walls fell down onto us. Dreams are prophetic.


We're not going." She pulls her two daughters and son along with her and they get off the boat. Others who had been standing on the shore happily scramble into their vacant places. They were later able to get onto a bigger and sturdier ship. But, the Russians torpedoed it, and as Hilda's dream had prophetically predicted, only Arnold survived.


Soon we are actually moving. Fear and relief fill me. With Saldvar at the helm the boat moves out toward the open sea. There is a strong thump as we hit a sandbar. The wooden boards push up and water seeps through them. My God. Now we're stuck. We haven't even gotten out of the bay and we're in trouble. Men climb overboard to push us free. The water's cold. I hope Ilmar doesn't go in. He'll freeze all the way to Sweden. While we're stuck, it becomes clear that there's not enough room for everyone to sit. The floor sloshes with dirty water so we get ropes and tie suitcases to the cabin's roof. This gives us more room.


Soon the men push us free and we're moving again.


The engines of the other two boats on the beach won't start at all. We decide to pull them behind the Ahti. But Ahti's structure is weak from having been sunk, so we string long ropes around her bow leading back to the other two boats. With two boats in tow, we slowly make our way out from the protection of the bay. We move slowly, staying close to the islands so that we won't be seen by planes or submarines.


Then we break into the open sea and head west. The wind picks up right away; the waves swell. With no compass, we point Ahti's nose right into the wind, blowing west south west. This should lead toward Sweden. The Ahti's engine labors. At times, waves break over the top of the boat. Luckily, Saarits had had the foresight to tie an old tent over the top of the cabin. This helps us stay dry. The motor keeps stalling. We're so overloaded, pushing the stern so low, that when the motor stops, water splashes up into the exhaust pipe and douses the engine. Each time, Saarits pulls the motor's head off to dry it, while a man leans over the stern and closes off the exhaust pipe with his leather hat.


Whenever we lose power, the Ahti turns sideways and waves lift us high, and then drop us suddenly, sometimes ten meters or more, sometimes as high as our two-story house. In this storm, we clearly can't keep pulling the other boats, so the men drag them close to us and the passengers climb onto the Ahti, overloading us even more. We then cut the other boats free.


With more than fifty people now on the Ahti there's no place for many to sit. Some cling to the walls of the cabin. Since most are now sick from the storm, the floor sloshes with filthy water, filled with clay, cigarette butts, burnt matches, vomit, and excrement. People had brought enough water for only one day. We've now been out three days. Packs of food remain untouched.


Although warned not to do so, some drink sea water. One older man from Narva suddenly gets up, pushes aside the tent cover, says: "The General is going for his morning swim," and rolls overboard. He disappears into the waves before anyone can grab him. Later, a woman yells "Stop the bus! Stop the bus! I've got to go to the bathroom. Stop the bus! I've got to piss." She climbs over the edge too, but others quickly pull her back. With Tiia on my lap and Helle clutching my arm, I feel endless movement, up-down, up-down, up-down. All at once, I sense that we've stopped, that we're resting on the bottom of the sea. It feels like our ordeal is over. I feel calm. I don't know how long this lasts. I lose all sense of time.


Suddenly, I hear shouting. Aldvaak had grabbed an automatic rifle and is yelling: "Why prolong our agony? We're all going to die anyway! I'm going to shoot holes into the floor. Let's end this now!" Major Körgmaa slowly calms Aldvaak, who gives up his gun and sinks into the corner. His face is a greenish, yellow color, his eyes are vacant. This wakes me from my trance.


Again, there's constant movement. Still, the water pours in from above and from between the boards below. Ilmar uses a bucket to bail out the cabin. Others use tin cans, whatever they can find. But the filthy water keeps rising. Way up in the bow, a woman cries. She'd been trying to breastfeed her baby. Earlier, the baby had cried constantly. Now, there's silence.


The others discuss what to do. My heart freezes as I realize that the baby hasn't made a sound. The mother weeps, clutching her baby wrapped in a blanket. Others say, "We can't keep a corpse on board. It's bad luck. We'll all die." This goes on for some time.
Finally, a woman recites a prayer holding her hands on both the mother and the child. The mother then wraps the baby more tightly in its blanket, kisses it, and hands it to he person sitting next to her, who in turn hands it to the next, and so forth, until, a man sitting next to an opening pushes the baby out into the water. We all sit silently.


The next morning, our fourth day at sea, I hear the men shouting. They had spotted a ship. We don't know who they are—German, Russian, Swedish—but at last, it's a ship. The storm hasn't let up. Still the sea pushes us up, and then drops us down with a crash, water splashes over us, over and over again.
It seems like forever, but finally I hear shouts: "Rootsi! Rootsi!" It's a Swedish ship, thank God! If it had been Russian, we'd have gone through all of this, only to end up in Siberia anyway.


The Swedes slowly and carefully maneuver next to us so as to protect us from the waves. They drop ropes and rope ladders down to us. "We'll get the women and children out first!" Körgmaa shouts. A few men from on top of the cabin are lifted off first, though.


I look up and see a wall of gray metal that is the side of the Swedish ship. As the wave sweeps us up to the level of the deck, the gray wall disappears as Swedish sailors grab people, pulling them on board. They time it so that they only grab people when the wave lifts us up to their height. All at once, I see Mr. Triumph, who was head accountant for the Estonian Bank in Haapsalu, hanging onto the edge of the ship as the wave once again drops us down. He wears two suits and a heavy winter coat, which he hopes to take with him to Sweden. But with these wet clothes, he's so heavy that the sailors can't pull him on board. He slips and falls into the water and disappears beneath the waves.


I hand Tiia and Helle up to Ilmar. He then passes the girls up to the others, who then hand them to the Swedes. At that moment, I think: My God, are the buttons closed tightly on the big coat wrapped around Helle? An image flashes through my mind of a sailor grabbing the big loose coat as little Helle slips out and falls between the ships.


Ilmar grabs me. I sit stiffly, unable to move. I can't be budged. He shakes me harder. I try standing. My legs won't work. Someone then pushes me from behind, as others pull me forward. I'm dazed. Next, I feel the steel deck under me. Ilmar grabs my arm, pulls me into a cabin. Tiia's lying in a basket. Helle stands next to her, looking up at me. She says smiling:


"They've got hot chocolate! They've got hot chocolate!"

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