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Indrek Lepson

 

Ei tea kuhu viivad mind saatuse tiivad,
ja maha jäävad kodumaa rannad ja liivad.

 

Tens of thousands fled  Soviet terrorism as it swept into Estonia, and there are an equal number of stories, and memories, of the dangers of their journey to freedom. Sadly, few of those stories have been written down, to remind the latter generations what their antecedents chose to risk so that they could live in a free country, whichever one they chose to settle in.


I have written mine, which I have titled “Against All Odds”. It’s actually a trilogy: our escape, our stay in Sweden, and our departure from there in 1948, on a 72-foot old fishing trawler with 69 people; a journey of 59 days, surviving two storms, that nearly ended our journey.

If interested I will forward it. My email is  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Narva had fallen, the Germans were in full retreat, and there was no holding back the hordes of Russian soldiers and tanks that would  soon overrun the entire country, having breached Sillamäe defenses; and those who could, fled with the Germans on their ships, packed to capacity with their soldiers, the wounded and the fleeing civilians.


Those who were cut off from that route of escape, either remained to await their fate, or sought the only available other means of escape, by small boats, across the Baltic.


The means of our escape was an old 27-foot coastal fishing boat that was being readied for the journey, an aged shell of Baltic pine, called upon to make one more, final, desperate, journey.


The front third of the boat had a partial deck, and a mast, the purpose for which was a mystery to me, that was laid down the length of the boat, and made fast to the stern. The original motor was an old, small “put-put-put" engine, suitable only for coastal fishing that, even if working, wouldn’t be for long.

 

My father was an auto mechanic, among other trades, and stole a small truck from the Germans, and its motor was installed in the boat. Also, on the foredeck, were fastened two small drums of gasoline, with the hope of selling them in Sweden, to give us some funds.


While the boat was being refurbished, we, my brother and mother, were staying at my grandparent's farm in Nõva. Father was involved in getting the boat ready.


When word was received that the repairs to the boat were nearly complete, we moved to the coast, and hid in a burned-out farm building with some others, for how long, I don’t remember, but no more than a few days.


When all was ready, word was sent to those who were in hiding that the moment for departure had arrived. From different points in the forest, the escapees arrived at the beach in small groups, anxious people, clutching bundles of precious belongings and memories.


Even though all preparations for departure were carried out in secret, and the number of people who were to be on the boat had been decided upon, word had leaked out that there was a boat about to depart, and more people turned up, some carrying suitcases, and one even wanted to take his motorcycle along.


Loud arguments ensued as the time drew closer, and if everyone had climbed aboard, the boat would have sunk. It was finally decided on the maximum number of people that could fit on the boat, and most left the scene, while some remained, along with some relatives, to see us off.


It was time to haul the boat to the beach, a fair distance from its hiding place among the trees. The boat was on a cradle, on top of several logs that acted as rollers. At first, a team of horses and an ox barely moved the boat over the soft sand.

 

Someone knew a nearby farmer who had a tractor, and he agreed to haul the boat to the shore. The combined weight of the boat and the cradle forced the logs deep into the sand, but at full throttle, slowly, the boat started to move.

 

As a log became free at the rear it was moved to the front, and, gradually the boat neared the water. The driver drove the tractor as deep into the water as he dared, then backed up and pushed until the boat was afloat.

 

It was a terrifying space of time, as the tractor, at full throttle, sounded like gun shots echoing in the forest, and some of them might have been, as there were some forest brothers (metsavennad) in the woods whose purpose was to pick off any Russians that might venture too close.

 

In the late evening of September 22, we were ready to board. As I was the fat one, father lifted me up and put me on the boat first, then mother took off her shoes and told me to hold on to them, then lifted my brother, who was the skinny one, on board.

 

As we were the first ones, we were told to go all the way into the front, climbing over the benches, as the others started to board, in an orderly, but anxious process, as people boarded and took their places.


There were two long oars, the purpose being to row far enough out so that the sound of the engine would not be heard.


It was dusk when we quietly pulled away from the beach. We had only rowed a short distance when someone shouted that a red flare was shot up. We had been discovered.

 

Father gunned the engine, and at full throttle, we plowed a furrow into, the sea. Soon, a Russian vessel emerged from a nearby cove and gave chase, and it would have been a short journey into oblivion, had they been able to apprehend us.

 

By then, it was deep dusk, and as we were heading toward a dark horizon, we were a difficult target to hit, or catch, as in spite of being dangerously overloaded with 33 people, we had a lot of power and speed. Too much of both, as that nearly accomplished what the Russians could not.


As Sweden was a scant 300 miles away, we expected to be there the following evening and little, if any, provisions were taken along. People sang and laughed, in the elation of having escaped, mindless of the dangerous situation that we still were ill were in. Sometime in the night, the starry sky disappeared, and a fierce storm brewed up. Dawn brought light, and a scene of utter misery. The elation of eluding the pursuing Russians was replaced by dread.


We were dangerously overloaded, with a scant 18 inches of freeboard, the distance between the sea and the railing, causing a continuous influx of seawater over the railing.

 

The bilges, (bottom of the boat) filled to the floorboards, from where it was constantly scooped up and tossed back.

 

Seasickness affected everybody, to a lesser or greater extent. Those who were near the rail were able to vomit over the rail. Those in the middle, or under the foredeck, including my brother and me, who did not have access to the rail, had to use a chamber pot, which for whatever reason, was along, and a sea boot, which, after doing the rounds, was emptied overboard, or some simply vomited onto the floor.

 

A small motorboat, with three or four people kept pace with us for a while, and we waved and exchanged greetings, and then we were separated. What their fate was is unknown. They were so small.


Baltic storms are more treacherous than storms on other oceans. Due to the shallowness of the sea, instead of rolling waves, as during storms elsewhere, there is created steep waves close together. Such a storm sent the ferry ESTONIA to the bottom.


The boat was taking an enormous pounding. We had but one thought, to get away quickly, before another Russian vessel sighted us.

 

With the engine at its maximum RPMs, we had too much speed. We overtook the waves, and slammed into them with enormous speed, as if hitting a wall.


The boat was too old, too tired, to take such punishment for long and sprung a leak. Soon the floor boards were awash, and the water rose faster than could be bailed out.

 

Everything that was loose had already been tossed overboard in order to lighten the craft. Even a pair of binoculars that a man had around his neck was tossed over. Desperation supersedes reason.

 

The water rose, despite the desperate bailing using the chamber pot, sea boot, hands, anything that could be used to scoop water. The engine had long ago sputtered to a halt, and soon was under water.  We were wallowing in the sea, and slowly sinking.


Father pulled my brother and me out from under the half deck, and placed us to sit on the edge of the deck. With our feet dangling down, we held onto the mast, then he said “Look at the world for the last time, for we will soon sink. I don’t remember if my brother said anything, but I whimpered “Must we die now?”

 

Mother tried to reassure us, saying “Soon you will be with your heavenly father”. I was scared, terrified, at the sight and sound of the enormous seas cresting all around us.


Then father saw something floating, grabbed it and tossed it overboard, trailing water like a wet towel. As it plopped into the water, I saw that it was my coat, which had been overlooked while jettisoning everything that was loose.

 

My coat! I stared at it spellbound, as it rose and fell with the waves, and slowly drifted away. It was the only thing that I cherished.


To me it was a treasure. I did not have to share it with my brother. It was mine. One cannot understand the joy ow owning a simple thing like that unless one has suffered the deprivation of a war-torn country. As I watched my treasure disappearing, sadness overwhelmed me.

 

I was oblivious of the fact that soon I too would be in the water. I only thought of my coat, the only thing in the world that was mine.

 

Then father thought that if he was going to drown, it mattered not whether it occurred outside or inside the boat. He started to tear up the floorboards, and by Devine luck, groping in the water, he came upon the place where a plank was stove in.

 

He hollered that he had found the leak. A sudden wave of hope, where there was none before, surged through the people.

 

They tore off clothing and handed them to father.  He pushed and pounded the rags into the opening, and managed to staunch the inflow of water to the point where more could be tossed out than came in, and eventually once again the water was merely sloshing around on the floor.


We were afloat, but the situation was desperate. The storm had abated, but while we were out of imminent danger, there was no way of knowing of how much longer the boat would hold out after such punishment. We had no way of knowing where we were.


By now it was dark, and it was decided to make a distress signal. Rags were wrung out and stuffed into the chamber pot, and gasoline poured over them.

 

A man stood on the engine box, with two men steadying him. Wax coated matches were common, and the pot was set aflame. He held the pot high overhead, and the area was bathed in bright orange light, but soon the pot got too hot to hold, he dropped it, and flames engulfed the boat as the flaming gasoline spread.

 

For a few moments, we were one big fire, but everything was wet, and shortly thereafter, the fire was extinguished.  Again, we were in the dark, bailing and praying, waiting for the dawn, which was not long in arriving.

 

Then someone shouted “A boat!” We strained to see the flag. We feared that the storm had pushed us back to Estonia. As the boat neared, we could make out a cross. “Finnish”, someone shouted.

 

Thank God, we at least got to Finland, and we were safe. As the boat neared, the flag turned out to be Swedish.

 

Instead of the storm pushing us back toward Estonia, it pushed us toward Sweden. Our flare had been sighted, and a boat was already searching for us.


It was customary by the Swedish coast guard to make periodic searches on the outer islands, to find smashed boats and debris, and bodies of those who had perished.


We were towed to Sandhamn, the base for the rescue boat, and allowed to go ashore.

 

No one could stand, as we had been jostled about for so long at sea, that the ground seemed to move and sway, as if one with the ocean, and we stumbled about, as if being drunk, much to the amusements of the Swedes, as well as ourselves. We were asked to please sit and wait, and, and we burst out laughing, much to the puzzlement of the Swedes.

 

They said “Per sit och vänta”, which translates into “Fart, shit and crank”.


I was able to salvage a small victory. I had stashed mother’s shoes between a bench and the hull, and one shoe still remained, which I was able to give to her.


After being processed, bathed and deloused (standard practice under these circumstances) and given clean clothing, we were taken to Medevi Brunn, a former resort village, converted to housing refugees, which had a post office, a small store and a school house.


Everyone was given a small stipend by the government, which enabled us to buy essentials from the store.


Eventually, as work and housing were found, the early arrivals became self-sufficient and moved out, including us, and others took their place.


The storm that we, and many others, were in is referred to, and has been written about, as the “Great November Storm”.


I found out later, that the boat had been repaired, and made more trips to Estonia to bring out refugees.

 

As a finale to this saga; we departed from Nõva on September 22, 1944, arrived in America on September 20, 1948, and I buried my parents’ ashes in the Nõva cemetery on September 22, 2019, a scant ten miles from where we departed.


Their journey lasted 75 years. Mine is still ongoing.

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