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Endla Saar

Endla Saar

 

One night, an American and a Canadian (both of Estonian descent) were wandering though the Barnes & Noble Store in Niskayuna, NY. They were in search of yet more books to add to their already burgeoning personal collections.

 

Being avid readers of the frugal sort and having already spent a substantial amount at The Open Door Bookstore the day before, they limited themselves to perusing the bargain book section. Ingrid, the Torontonian, stumbled across a book of Holiday Origami. "This might be a lot of fun to do with the Girl Guides!" she mused out loud as she leafed through the various models. Suddenly she stopped. "How odd! Have you ever heard of anyone named Endla Saar? That name sounds Estonian. She's the creator of an origami model called the Saar Star"

 

Her friend Hillevi popped out of the history section to come take a look. "Endla Saar? Hmmm? That name is vaguely familiar. When I was growing up in New York City, my parents used to be good friends with a Mr. & Mrs. Saar. Mrs. Saar was one of my kindergarten teachers at the Estonian School in Manhattan. To this day, I can clearly remember her smile and the way she used to stretch out her hand and roll her "r's" in greeting "Tere! Tere!" I don't remember doing any origami in kindergarten, but I do recall a summer several years later when the Saars rented a cabin just across the cove from my parent's summer place on Pachaug Lake in Connecticut. Mrs. Saar had invited my parents over for coffee. I even have a memory of sitting in a warm patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor playing with an origami frog Mrs. Saar had deftly folded out of a bright green piece of paper. I also remember being spellbound by the stories she told of her recent travels -- to Japan. I never knew her first name, but I'll bet it's her! I'll have to do more digging to be sure." Ingrid bought the book. Hillevi wrote a sticky note. She added this note to a stack of others clinging haphazardly to a precarious pile of papers on her desk. A year passed...

 

Ingrid arrived back in Niskayuna for another Thanksgiving. Attached to each of the early Christmas gift bags she toted along was an origami Christmas ornament – a Saar Star! To the delight of Ingrid's goddaughter Maarja, her bag contained  the instructions for making both four- and five- sided versions of that origami model. Ingrid had been busy! Hillevi had not. Well, at least not in the pursuit of forgotten Estonian origami wizards. Remembering her promise to pursue the  matter further, she sat down at her computer that very night and composed and sent out an e-mail. Over the next few weeks, an intriguing mix of clues began dribbling in from folks on the East Coast Estonian mailing list. Yes, Mrs. Saar's first name was indeed Endla. She often made hats and all sorts of animals out of paper. She worked with some people in an origami group in New York City. No, no one remembered its name. Her love of paper folding possibly predated her NYC days. Her original origami models had even hung on a Christmas tree in a museum somewhere – back in the early 1970's. No, no one remembered what museum. Another year passed...

 

This time Ingrid had forgotten, but Hillevi hadn't. Well, OK, she had – but a chance conversation with a longtime family friend who had volunteered to help her husband Sven haul a dock out of the frigid waters of Pachaug Lake in early November in exchange for a dinner of verivorstid, hapukapsad and eesti leib (Traditional Estonian Christmas Holiday fare) – had refreshed her memory. Not only did this friend know who Endla Saar was -- it turns out she was one of his late mother's best friends and his older brother's godmother! She was even there when his older brother was born! His mom, just a month away from her due date, was determined not to simply sit at home awaiting her first-born to arrive. With her husband away at sea, she decided to visit her good friend Endla in New York City. Whilst standing on the pavement near Macy's watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, his mom's water broke & Endla ended up rushing her to Bellevue hospital! In addition to this wonderful family anecdote, I also learned the name of the museum that had displayed Endla's paperfolding handiwork -- The American Museum of Natural History! In addition, I discovered that his brother may have the "Holy Grail" I'd been searching for -- photos of Endla and her origami! Another e-mail was sent. Another two years passed...

 

By this time Ingrid had totally forgotten that she'd ever even asked a question about origami! Hillevi had not! OK, she had, too, or she definitely would have if  she didn't keep stumbling across further clues -- sometimes quite literally! During the most recent summer, while digging out camping gear in the basement, Hillevi had accidentally knocked a plastic bag off the high storage shelf. It had been wedged tightly next to the sleeping bags and ripped open as it fell -- scattering its contents far and wide. The bag had been full of old Triinu magazines that her mother-inlaw Malle had given her ages ago. Groaning, Hillevi   bent down to pick up the mess and came nose to nose with Endla Saar! She was staring right out at her from page 22 of Triinu #75 (The Winter 1971 issue)!

 

Some might write this off as karma -- I think Endla just wanted to have her story told to a new generation. The title of the article was "Paberivoltimine -- Origami". It contained a wealth of information about the history of origami and Endla's as well.

 

Endla's interest in this art form began long before she ever came to America." Of all the activities in a kindergarten curriculum, I consider arts & crafts to be one of the most important. Whilst working in a kindergarten in Estonia, one had to find ways of calming the children during the wartime bombing raids of WWII. Singing, show & tell and story time were not enough to quiet the children's fear. However, working with their hands got children to forget the air raid sirens and the roar of incoming airplanes. So much so, that upon one occasion an extremely  nervous young girl named Liina even wished that the air raid sirens would sound already, so that it would be possible to go into the basement and fold paper!" (Triinu #75 Winter 1971)

 

Four Sided Saar Star Photo 1

Four-sided Saar Star

 

Hillevi knew that Endla Saar was part of the wave of war refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation of Estonia in the fall of 1944. The generation that had watched the country of their birth and young adulthood go from being a free democratic state to a bloodland fought over by rival dictators -- Hitler & Stalin. What she didn't know is how Endla got to America.

 

Another piece of the puzzle fell into place a few months later as Hillevi worked on an Estonian translation project. She'd just pulled a book by Ferdinand Kool entitled the DP Chronicle: Estonian Refugees in Germany 1944-1951 in order to do a fact check. As she was running her finger down the index, she happened across a familiar name: Saar, Endla p. 158.

 

Somehow Endla had managed to make it to the United Nations (UNRRA) Displaced Persons Camp in Hochfeld, Germany by the summer of 1945. The chronicle's entry said that a kindergarten class had been set up on July 16 of that same year just two weeks after the DP Camp itself was established. The  kindergarten had no classroom, so the children simply gathered outside in the open grassy area between building sections 41 and 10. On the first day, 106 children showed up ranging in age from 1 1/2 to 10 years old! 30 of these children were of primary school age! The kindergarten class was taught by 3 people -- one teacher and two assistants. Endla Saar was one of the assistants. At first, the kindergarten could only meet when the weather was nice. By the middle of August, the kindergarten was given two 2-room apartments in building section 41. These were completely bare rooms -- just four walls -- and were used only in rainy weather. A fourth assistant teacher joined the group in late September. The teachers were all volunteers. They received no slary! Only their work and the children's progress was their reward. The classroom space was in desperate need of renovating, as well as basic furniture. A three member PTA committee was set up and with their help, the first set of child size tables and chairs (handmade in the DP Camp's own workshop) arrived in October. The items were just perfect, only there were too few of them. There also were no school supplies. None. Zero!

 

A list had been submitted to UNRRA, but there was such great demand and so few resources that small quantities of needed materials arrived slowly in dribs and drabs. Among the first supplies to show up were 50 slate blackboards, a few pieces of chalk and several reams of colored paper. As a result, in addition to learning the alphabet and numbers mostly through songs and dances -- one of the main kindergarten activities was paper folding (origami)!

 

Now our story might well have ended here, if it weren't for Hillevi acquiring an iPhone and learning to GOOGLE. One of the first internet searches she did was "Endla Saar Star". Expecting to find a newspaper obituary & a few genealogical or archival websites on the topic, Hillevi almost fell off her chair to discover that Endla was very much alive on the internet. Her creations appeared on FaceBook, Pinterest, Instagram & websites and blogs of all shapes & sizes! Not only that -- but Endla was global! These posts were made from all over the world and in  more languages than Hillevi could ever hope to recognize. There were pictures, too! And tutorial videos! There was even a recent video by Martha Stewart!

 

Hillevi wondered why that particular item had popped up, since there was no mention of the Saar Star highlighted anywhere in blue in the search result description section. Just for fun, she clicked on it anyway. The video was exquisitely filmed, in high definition no less, and took viewers on a tour of beautiful origami Christmas trees around New York City. One of the stops was the origami Christmas tree at the American Museum of Natural History.

 

As the camera zoomed in on the tree, Hillevi squinted at the star at its very top! Maybe... just maybe... could it be? Nope! That star was huge and didn't appear to look anything like the Saar Star. Hillevi sighed and was about to click the video off, when the camera started to zoom in on individual ornaments on various parts of the tree. There were origami dinosaurs and animals of all shapes and sizes. Suddenly, a bit of motion and a flash of silver caught Hillevi's eye. Something was suspended on an arched wire about a foot or two away from the tree branch that supported it. A small silver star! A Saar Star! Hillevi blinked! No wait - - not just one! An entire galaxy of them! Make that several galaxies! An entire universe -- shimmering and swirling around the tree from top to bottom!

 

https://www.marthastewart.com/926561/christmas-treesnyc-origami-ornaments

 

One day, a few weeks after completing the above article, when my daughter Maarja's other ristiema (godmother) Ester Salasoo & I were having tea at the Villa Italia in downtown Schenectady, a young girl walked over to us -- a complete stranger. She smiled and handed each of us an origami flower. Mine was a cheerful bright red. (See picture below) Ester's was sunshine yellow! Now you might be wondering -- cute story -- but so what!?! Look closely at the one picture of origami that Endla Saar chose to illustrate her 1971 Triinu magazine article. It may not be an exact match, but it's darn close. :-) Perhaps this was all simply a complete coincidence or perhaps Endla was pleased at finally having her story told and the art form she was so passionate about passed on to a new generation.

 

Hillevi Obet Paul

Jõulud (Christmas) 2017

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