Estonian Organizations in Exile, 1954-1991
Estonians in North America
Orgainizations in Exile
The organization of North American Estonian society really began in earnest after the Second World War for the reason that for the first time organizing had more purpose than simply coming together to celebrate a common heritage. Besides working to preserve old customs and language, the postwar organizations took over the struggle for freedom of their homeland and to serve as a de facto provider of many cultural entities that became inaccessible to the community abroad.
While there are organizations for most ethnicities represented in North America, these groups rarely have the sole responsibility of publishing books, magazines or newspapers in that language. These things are usually readably available from the home nation itself, so there is little need for duplicate production of such basic items in the new country.
The Estonian community did not have that opportunity. While under the Soviet yoke, little of anything was published in Estonia and that did not suffer the influence of communist ideology and censorship. In fact, writers in exile produced more original works in the Estonian language than were produced inside the country, despite the much smaller size of the community.
Organization in the North American Estonian community took many forms, ranging from relief organizations dedicated to the service of new immigrants, sports clubs, scientific societies and youth activities. It is impossible to mention each organization here in this paper. Every community of expatriates has a general cultural organization, Scouting organization and a choir celebrating the ancient Estonian singing traditions. Larger cities have culture houses that serve as a focal point for Estonian activities and repository of culture.
The North American Estonian Scouting community deserves special mention. This organization, originally founded in Estonia during the first independence, was completely destroyed inside the country during the Soviet regime. It is only through the exile community that this movement managed to survive. Permanent reservations exist in Toronto and Lakewood and worldwide Estonian Scout Jamborees have been held regularly in conjunction with the worldwide Estonian festivals held every four years.
The culmination of Estonian organization came in October 1955 with the first meeting of the Estonian World Council, an affiliation of national organizations from all Estonian inhabited countries around the world. The affiliated national organizations in North America are the Estonian-American National Council and Estonian Central Council in Canada. The primary purpose of these organizations was initially to coordinate efforts to liberate Estonia from Soviet rule and broaden public knowledge of the plight of its people. The headquarters for the World Council is Baltimore, Maryland.
Along this vein, the Estonian World Festival was organized, according to Aarand Roos in Estonia, a Nation Unconquered, to,
draw attention to the fate of Estonia and its people and its people, to stress the inextinguishable desire of Estonians for freedom, to renew the national spirit and to revitalize the cultural heritage.
The first Estonian World Festival was held in Toronto in 1972. Later festivals held in North America include Baltimore in 1976 and Toronto again in 1984. Other sites of the festival have included: Stockholm, Sweden; Melbourne, Australia; and since independence in Tallinn, Estonia. The festivals include traditional singing, dancing and poetry and served as a political forum during the time of Soviet occupation.
The North American Estonian community also battled the Soviet Union in more direct ways. Many organizations published brochures and information about the takeover of the country and distributed them widely throughout the cold war. Often, these organizations were the only accurate source of information as to the actual situation inside the country as their Soviet counterpart was often not even worth the paper that it was printed on.
The expatriate community also worked actively to ease the suffering of their cousins inside Estonia. In the late 1970s North American Estonians began secretly sending money to Soviet dissenters. This support did not end until the eventual freedom of the country from the Soviet grip. At that point the assistance changed into more tangible items such as clothing, equipment, books and technology.
Back to the Estonian North America history main page
© May 2, 1997
Site maintained by Michael Williams
May be reproduced for noncommercial purposes
Back to the main page