Estonians in North America, 1945-1954
Estonians in North America
The Refugee Period
Europe in 1945 was a chaotic continent with almost half of the population in constant movement. As armies of soldiers and refugees advanced and retreated couples, families, siblings, and entire nations were torn apart mercilessly, never to be the same again. By the time the dust settled following the Nazi surrender on May 7, there were over 30,000 Estonian refugees in Germany and an equal number in Sweden. There were also smaller groups in Austria, Italy, Belgium and Denmark.
Most refugees were living in displaced persons camps. The condition of the camps tended to be much better in Sweden than those in Germany, for the simple fact that Sweden had largely escaped the destruction of the war and was therefore in a much better position to handle the influx of refugees. Life in the camps was quite hard, but many refugees were able to find work in industry, lumbering or agriculture. Estonian language schools were set up to give the children as much of a normal life as was possible, all things considered.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty in the refugee camps was dealing with the uncertainty of the future. Refugees had little local opportunity for success, no way to return home safely and often were not even sure of their personal security. All refugees were considered by Swedish authorities to be Soviet citizens and therefore theoretically subject to repatriation. In January 1946 a group of Baltic nationals who had arrived in Sweden wearing German uniforms were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. Several of the deportees committed suicide rather than suffer at the hands of the Stalinist regime. This incident, and many similar others, caused a stir of panic among Estonian refugees who began to look to other countries as a safer alternative to the tenuous existence of the camps. That began a steady stream of migration that would last until the middle 1950¹s.
The first portion of this stream of immigration to North America were the Viking Boats of 1945-46. Several hundred Estonian refugees residing in Sweden set sail for the American continent in small sailing vessels, often no more than 30-40 feet long. They began arriving of the coast of Florida in late 1945 and in Nova Scotia shortly thereafter. The people aboard these boats had no visas and often no passports and it took a long time for them to properly processed and legally settled in North America.
However, in late 1946 President Harry S. Truman intervened with immigration authorities on behalf of the Estonian political refugees. Most of the Viking Boat refugees were able to find some sort of work, albeit often in low skill, low wage jobs. Despite this there was general relief among the immigrants at being in North America. One refugee, Heino Veedam said, "I would rather scrub floors in Brooklyn at $17.50 a week than make a million within easy walking distance of the NKVD."
Despite the bravery of the Viking Boat refugees, the largest amount of Estonians refugees to North America came through normal immigration channels. In Canada the immigration came primarily from the Swedish camps. Canadian immigration regulations were much less stringent than their American counterparts and the Canadian government also set up a work program that encouraged many refugees to settle there.
Those immigrants who had the means to support themselves often came to Canada on steamships and established their residence where they chose to. Nearly two third of the Estonians coming to Canada settled in the Toronto area. Smaller numbers went to places like Montreal, Vancouver and Hamilton. All told approximately 5-6,000 refugees traveled to Canada in the early years.
Refugees in Sweden who could not fund their own immigration to Canada were given the opportunity to work. In return for a two year contract, Estonians were given the opportunity to move to Canada. Immigrants, primarily men, would work in industries such as timber, mining, and hydroelectric power construction while their families began their Canadian lives, largely in Toronto.
Besides the government sponsored work contracts, Estonian immigrants in Canada also found jobs in the cities. Many worked in construction or other physical labor jobs at first, especially those who had previously worked in the timber or mining industries in Sweden during their stays in the refugee camps. It was not until later decades that a true white collar majority was developed. However, many Estonians had the benefit of a good education and were able to adapt more quickly than other immigrant groups. Today most Estonian-Canadians are white collar professionals, with only one or two Estonian owned construction companies still in operation.
The situation in the United States was similar although somewhat more restrained early on by strict American immigration quotas that limited the number of Estonians taken into the country to a mere 116 people a year. It was not until 1948 when Congress enacted the Displaced Persons Act that immigrations truly took off. The act was set up to help in the settlement of European refugees. Because of the act, 10,427 Estonians were able to immigrate to the United States from 1948-1952.
Most Estonian-American refugees came from camps in Germany. Under the provisions of the Displaced Persons Act, many made their way westward on immigrant ships or military transport ships. Helgi Leesment, an eventual immigrant to Vancouver, made the voyage in 1951.
[We] stayed in army barracks in Bremenhaven until UNRA placed us on a U.S. army transport ship going over to North America. It would have been empty, so immigrants were allowed on board. We had army style meals. Women had to wash floors and walls, and the men had to scrape rust off the decks in order to `earn` our free trip across the Atlantic.
Most Estonian-Americans settled initially on the east coast. The largest centers were in New York City, Baltimore and Lakewood, New Jersey. Smaller communities were established in San Francisco, Chicago and Seabrook, New Jersey.
Lakewood was the site of a prewar Estonian community founded in the early 1930s when several families purchased farmland in the area. It grew into one of the primary centers of Estonian-American culture and activity. Today it is the site of the Estonian American Central Archives and the Estonian-American Scouting reservation.
Seabrook was the site of a World War II German P.O.W. camp. Following the war Charles Seabrook, a local businessman, turned the camp into a refugee settlement and provided work and homes for nearly 500 Estonians. According to one former Seabrook resident, "[Seabrook] had traveled in Estonia before the war and had a high opinion of them, and was therefore very helpful and encouraging."
Today the Estonian-American population has not remained as stationary as their Canadian counterparts. As with nearly all Americans in the later twentieth century, the population has been on the move nearly constantly. Therefore Estonian-Americans are now scattered virtually across the entire country and do not have strong centralization as is found in Canada. There are currently Estonian culture houses, although of varying size and activity, in Baltimore, Chicago, Lakewood, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, San Fransisco and Seabrook.
As in Canada, most Estonian-Americans initially found work in the typical immigrant fields of construction, agriculture and industry. For a long time, Estonian construction companies did a thriving business. Although some firms still exist, most people, especially of the second and third generations have gone into white collar professional occupations. Estonian policies of the first independence era stressed the importance of education, and therefore most immigrants tended to have relatively good educational backgrounds. This has continued to this day as the percentage of Estonian-Americans with a college degree far surpasses the national average. Over 75% of Estonian-American children have attended at lest some university and nearly two thirds of those reached graduation.
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