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Helga Merits


What do you write someone when there is no chance you are going to see each other within a short span of time?


What are you going to write when borders are closed and the person you would like to contact is out of reach?


Does everything come down to the basic question: how are you?

During Soviet times this situation was even more complicated.


For those who had fled and for whom it was dangerous to return, but still decided to write to their family back home, there was also the question of censorship – trying to make sure you would not endanger the other person by the content of the letter, as receiving a letter was already a risk.

My father must have written a first short note in 1947, as he received a short answer to his letter in that year, sent to the Baltic University in Pinneberg where he lived at the time.


It was written in Russian, not by his parents, but by an aunt, who wanted to let him know how happy they were receiving the news that he was alive and healthy: our happiness did not have any limits.

His aunt writes to him that his parents are also alive and healthy.


What follows is a sentence which will be repeated in later letters, whether these are written by his father or his mother: “We all live like we have lived before.”


Because of the censorship not much more could be said, though it was possible to communicate some emotions: your parents are yearning for you very much.

When somebody from the KGB brought an elaborate letter written by my grandfather to my father living in Holland in the mid-fifties, it was clear from the length alone that there was something not in order.


The first sentence was still typical of a certain pattern of writing: “And now, when by accident, we heard that you are alive and well and studying in the university, we were exceedingly happy.


And we would be even happier if you would try to come home, so that we could see you before our demise.”

But what follows is quite different from the short notices and makes it clear someone must have been dictating the lines: “I think that your life there is not easy, you have to struggle with difficulties.


But in your homeland it would be easier and better for you. Here it is not like during old times any more, that you had to tremble in front of your master, lest he might fire you from the job.


Now we are all masters ourselves and there is no unemployment, and secondly there are no class distinctions like you have on the other side of the barbed-wire fence.

My father did not feel temp-ted to return home. But he was very much afraid – for his fa-mily, for himself.


He stopped organizing activities within the Estonian community.


He no longer wanted to be part of it.


And maybe this was just the result the KGB had been aiming for.

Some years followed without any correspondence, or at least I have not been able to find any letters, but by the end of the nineteen-fifties his parents started to correspond with him.


Short letters, sometimes a card: we are all healthy and living the old way.

In a last letter which he received from his father, in which his father wrote he was in need of an operation, a few simple words make a farewell almost tangible: “Be a good boy.”


Not long, after my father received the news his father had passed away.


The funeral had already taken place.


Not being able to go to the funeral, being so far away, made it painfully clear what it meant to be a refugee.

His mother continues writing, about the weather, about the health of her and the family, but also expressing her longing for the past as there is no chance to see her son again in the future.


Time has passed so quickly, only memories remain.

Her eyesight is deteriorating and fearing she will not be able to write any more, as there are not always other people around to help her – not yet knowing that it would be my father who would bring the correspondence to an end by his early death – she writes in one of her last letters:


Everything passes. Life is not eternal. And sooner or later, we all go the same way.




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