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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.
Jaak Rakfeldt. (1999). Flight From Home. Connecticut Review. Volume XXI, No. 1, pp. 157-162.
Major Kõrgmaa crashes through the door. His face is red. He catches his breath. He shouts, "Get ready! I've got a truck. We're going to Noarootsi. There's a boat waiting for us." God! What should I do now? I never thought that as a twenty-two-year-old wife and mother I'd be leaving everything behind, fleeing from home, running for my life!

I grab what I can and stuff my daughters Tiia and Helle into their clothes. My husband Ilmar pushes photos and important papers into a box. "I'll bury these outside between the big oaks behind the house. We'll get them when we come back." We look at each other for a moment. Our eyes freeze. Ilmar's sad brown eyes stare back at me. Will we come back at all? I think. This is no time to let feelings slow us down. My mind races. What to take? What to leave? What would we need? I don't even know where we're going; how could I know what to bring?

Hilda and Arnold and their children are already outside. Ilmar comes back and shouts: "Let's go, let's go! There's no time. There's no time." The girls have on their coats, mittens, and hats. It's almost October; it's cold. We go out into the yard. The open truck is packed with people. How can I just leave everything like this? I haven't even said goodbye to my mother, to my family, to anyone. The words of my mother then come back to me. The last time I saw her, she had said: "Go away! Go away! You can't stay. They'll kill Ilmar. They'll send you to a slave labor camp." She's right. She's really right. She'll understand that I couldn't say goodbye. She'll understand.

Tears stream down my face. I can't let them see these. I wipe them into my blouse sleeve. We climb up unto the truck. I squeeze into the corner. Two-year old Tiia sits on my lap. Three-year-old Helle sits next to me, looking up into my face. I hope she didn't see the tears. Ilmar climbs into the box of the truck. He squeezes my shoulder. He wears a dark blue jacket and a hat. He never wears hats. I see a scarf around his neck. He's ready for a cold trip across the Baltic. I didn't even have time to see what he was doing, I was so busy with the girls and with my own packing.


He pulls out a black revolver from his pocket, shows it to me quickly so that others can't see. "We'll be all right," he assures me. The truck moves slowly out toward the road. For a moment, I almost look back, but instead, I stare straight down at my feet. Make myself numb, I say over and over again, numb, numb. Now's not the time to feel anything.

We drive to Linnamäe and turn left toward Noarootsi Beach. Soon we'll pass my childhood home. I stare at the floor more intensely. I sense the truck slowing. I look up to see my younger brother standing by the roadside. He's holding a loaf of bread for us.

The truck doesn't stop. He runs after us. Someone shouts to the driver to stop. "There's no time," the driver yells back. Bernhard runs faster but falls farther behind. I wave. He waves back. His light blond hair blows in the wind. Despair fills his face as tears well up in his green eyes. I sob. Tears burst through even as I struggle to hold them back.

A red glow fills the horizon to the north as Tallinn burns. I hear gunfire from the front, which is perhaps only ten kilometers away. The driver's right; we don't have time to stop, I tell myself. At the beach, dozens of people wait, some sitting on huge chests and suitcases, others with nothing at all in their hands, all wanting to get on the three remaining boats. I grab Tiia and Helle and lower them to Ilmar who is standing behind the truck. I jump to the ground clutching our suitcase.

Kõrgmaa ushers us toward a boat tied to a small pier. People shout and argue about who gets to go. Clearly, all of us won't fit.

Major Kõrgmaa says, "Rakfeldt must come. The Russians will kill him. His family needs a spot." What a relief. But, it's also hard to see people fighting, begging, pleading, doing whatever they can to get onto the boats.

Ilmar pushes me forward. I climb toward the low cabin with the girls. Before I stoop below the cabin roof to find a place, I notice Haapsalu burning across the bay. Soviet planes had swept in and bombed the city with its harbor. That's why they brought us way out here. Haapsalu Harbor's too dangerous. A deep red-colored water covers the floor of the boat. Cigarette butts, burnt matches, and wood shavings float in the water. I listen to the men talking as we prepare to leave. One says, "The Ahti (that's our boat's name) was in Tallinn Harbor and a mortar shell exploded next to her. She took shrapnel through the side and sank. She was at the bottom of the harbor for at least a year before they brought her up and fixed the hole."

This explains the cigarette butts, burnt matches, and wood shavings. The workmen butted their cigarettes in here when they fixed the hole, and nobody bothered, or had time, to clean it up. That's why there's all of this red clay caked to the walls too. God, we're going across the sea, more than two-hundred kilometers, in a boat that somebody just pulled up from the bottom of the harbor. I shudder.

They crank the motor over and over but it won't start. In the chaos, someone had put diesel fuel into the gasoline tank. Someone shouts: "First we need gas to start the engine, when it's warm we switch to diesel." This all takes time. Tempers flare. Shouts and cursing come from the engine area. I see what's going on from my seat. Tiia sits in my lap. HeIle's crunched up against me. People are packed in, pressed against each other. Ilmar is outside helping with the motor. I hear the men say that we're waiting for a naval lieutenant who will be our captain and take the wheel. He had been here earlier but had gone back to Haapsalu to get his wife.

Some say we can't wait anymore. It's getting dark. Finally, Saldvar, who had once been a sea scout, volunteers to take the wheel. Luckily Saarits had been a mechanic on a ship and is able to start the motor.


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'sengine 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 breast feed 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 he 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!"


Jaak Rakfeldt



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