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Persecutions, arrests, executions, deportations and the scorched earth policy carried out by destruction battalions of Communist party members and the Red Army were fresh memories that spurred a massive flight from the oncoming Soviet hell back in 1944.


How massive was it? Here it would be like 25 million people got on the road at once to head for Canada or Mexico, and twice as many sought safety within the country.


The Great Flight was a disjointed journey. It was not a direct flight. There was flight within Estonia, and for many the flight continued in Germany, too. If you were not from Tallinn you had to come there from the south or the east. Coastal areas offered for some a chance for a perilous voyage in mostly small open boats, hundreds of them, across the stormy Baltic sea to Sweden. In Tallinn there was the chance to escape to Germany.


I would place the beginning of the Great Flight in early 1944 when the Leningrad front collapsed and refugees from the East reached my hometown, Tartu. Little did we know that half a year later we would be walking in their shoes.


By June, the situation was painfully clear – the Russians were coming. There was a glimmer of hope that Finland would accept Estonian refugees. An office was supposed to open in Tartu to register teachers who would resettle in Finland. Well, my mother was a teacher and she discussed the matter with us, my grandmother and me. My father was arrested during the first Soviet occupation. He died in a Soviet prison. A second Soviet occupation would be as good as a death sentence for us.

 

But nothing came of the Finnish solution. In any event, Finland was no safe haven. After making peace with the Soviet Union on September 3, Finland agreed to repatriate all Soviet citizens. The Soviet Union also demanded that Allies carry out forceful repatriation of USSR citizens. That is something we found out when were in Germany. Thanks to the efforts of many good men and women, the Americans and Brits agreed that we were citizens of Estonia, that Soviet occupation did not make us Soviet citizens.


Everyone who left then has their own story. They all deserve to be told. I was asked to tell mine today, on the 75th anniversary of that tragic event. The hero of my story is my mother. And her support was her mother. When they had to leave Tartu, they made sure that I would leave with them.


I had been badly hurt in July doing obligatory farm work as a fourteen-year-old boy. I was hospitalized in Tartu but as air raids became a daily affair, patients were evacuated to Ulila, a place about 20 kilometers from Tartu. I was sedated most of the time, because my pains were simply intolerable. Then in August the patients were brought back to Tartu because the Soviet tanks had broken through and were about to overrun the area. I was transported on a hospital bed in a cargo truck.


 I remember the view of Viljandi highway—it was like a twisting living organism, made up of farm families with horse-drawn carriages loaded with furniture and such, with cows and horses in tow. People were fleeing on bicycles, and on foot. It was a sight I never forgot.


Back in Tartu panic broke out as the Soviet tanks were now rumored to be only twenty-five kilometers away. It was night already when mother came to the hospital and demanded I be released. She had secured places for us three on a truck. Dr. Linkberg, the hospital head, one of the best surgeons in Estonia, was adamant. I was in no condition to travel. I had a very high fever, and needed daily procedures to withdraw quantities of pus from my injured knee. But mother prevailed.


My memory is blurry how I was placed on a stretcher and placed on the truck. But I remember well when the truck crawled up a hilly street toward the Tallinn highway, how people swarmed the truck and threw off the baggage. Desperation filled up every inch of the truck bed.

 

My memory is even clearer of that trip in the night when a Soviet plane dropped flares on that crowded highway. All vehicles stopped. People sought shelter in ditches. I remember lying in the truck, watching the flares floating slowly toward the ground. And I waited for the attack. It came in the form of three bombs. Not much damage, but it surely was annoying.


Early morning the truck broke down at a school house, in a place called Äksi. By that time I was delirious. A man who no longer could stand my cries, forced a bottle of vodka down my throat. By morning I felt nothing, I was stone cold. Mother managed to get transport to a nearby rail station, Voldi. The small station was crowded with soldiers. A military physician came by, looked at me, and declared me unfit for travel. As he had just set up an aid station nearby, at Saadjärve, he offered to treat me. He put me in his ambulance, took me to the aid station which at the time had no other patients.

 

He drained my knee, and did his best to stabilize me for two days. All that time my mother and grandmother stayed in that crowded, dirty station. They had no idea where I was. But the good doctor brought me back to the Voldi station, and made sure we were placed on a train carrying wounded soldiers to Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. The wounded were in box cars, on stretchers on the floor. And the doors were open.


It was a rail journey like no other. I watched passing freight trains carrying heavy artillery tubes away from the front, toward the Port of Tallinn. Nearing Tallinn I had a view of ruins, only chimneys standing, reminders of the air raids on March 9.


At arrival at the Baltic Station in Tallinn, the wounded on their stretchers were lined up on the platform. The chief of a military hospital conducted a cursory inspection, and all men on stretchers were moved to a military hospital that was set up in a building in the suburb of Hiiu that once was a home for orphaned babies. And I wound up in that hospital.

 

I was treated well. The operating room had three tables. I was treated there while wounded soldiers were also being operated on. I remember gory scenes when very young men were lying on their backs, with surgeons picking shrapnel from their intestines that were piled on their stomachs. They had been wounded on September 15 when a landing on a key Finnish island of Suursaari was repelled by the Finns, as required by the peace treaty with the Soviet Union. That failure opened the Baltic sea for the Red Fleet that had been bottled up for most of the war.


Soon our time was up again. The Russians were coming. The military hospital was made ready for evacuation to Germany. I was given a choice, go to a civilian hospital in Tallinn, or be evacuated to Germany to meet an uncertain fate. My mother told me that the choice was up to me. I added up the score: hospitals in Tallinn were bereft of doctors and nurses, and there was no mercy to expect from the Communists. We agreed that the uncertainty awaiting us in Germany was preferable to the certainty that would await us in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia. By then the Red Fleet had access to the Baltic Sea. Soviet submarines and airplanes attacked even hospital ships.


We traveled in a cargo ship that had a rather mixed cargo: munitions, gasoline, hospital equipment, and even cabbages. Plus the hospital’s nurses, few civilians, lots of Russian POWs, and a couple hundred soldiers.


When we arrived in the Danzig port of Neufahrwasser, everybody left. We stayed in the cargo hold and waited for the morning. Suddenly flashlights beamed. Military police demanded, “Who are you?”. Refugees. Soon six Russians POWs were summoned, four carried my stretcher, and two carried my mother’s and grandmother’s suitcases. We were led into a camp behind barbed wire, put in a barracks, with me on the stretcher on the floor watching lice crawling up the support poles of three-tiered bunks where mother and grandmother were resting on bare boards in the top bunk.


The next morning a physician took a look at me, and hung a ticket on me. The ambulance driver was a good Samaritan. He knew the destination well. He tore up the ticket and instead drove us to neighboring Gotenhafen, and put me in a municipal hospital. The flight continued within Germany for another seven months. Because the Russians kept coming.


The horrors of Communism were news to most Americans back in 1949. After all, Uncle Joe had been an ally. As a new arrival, I was asked about what went on in Europe before and after WWII. A lot of people said, it surely could not happen here. I believed it then. Today, I am not so sure.

 

Agu Ambre

 

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