Interviewer: Ella Levitskaya
Date of interview: October 2005
I conducted this interview with Ruth Laane at her home. Ruth is a slender lady of medium height. She has nicely cut black curly hair with gray streaks. One can feel her innate intelligence and gentleness. Ruth is quick witted, and I enjoyed talking to her. She lives in a nice three-story house near the Kadriorg town park in a picturesque corner of Tallinn. Ruth works as an editor in a publishing house. She is very busy at work. I appreciate her finding time in her busy schedule to tell me about her family. Ruth knows the history of her family back to her great-grandfathers.
My family history
During the War
After the War
My family life
My family history
I know very little about my father's parents, the Mendelevs. They lived in Tartu [about 170 km from Tallinn], Estonia. They came from Riga, Latvia. I don't know how they happened to move to Tartu. All I can say is that my great-grandfather, my grandfather Samuil's father, had five children. Three older children lived in Riga and the younger ones lived in Tartu. My grandfather, Samuil Mendelev, was a dentist, and my grandmother Sara-Haja, nee Iljon, was his wife and a housewife.
My grandmother's father, Itzyk-Ruven Iljon, was a rabbi in Riga, though I don't know, in which synagogue. There were several synagogues in Riga. My great-grandfather's wife's name was Rivka, nee Feldman.
My grandfather and grandmother were born in 1882. They got married in Riga on 10th September 1908. They had five children who were all born in Riga. Their older daughter Sophia was born in 1910. Their second daughter Ella was born in 1911. Their son Alexandr, my father to be, was born in September 1913. Another son, Roman, was born in 1916. Their daughter Pesse, the last child, was born in 1922.
My father's parents spoke German and Estonian in the family. My grandmother was a genteel lady. She spoke fluent German and French. She was raised on French novels. My grandmother and grandfather were very religious. It was natural for my grandmother, who was a rabbi's daughter, but my grandfather was also committed to observing all Jewish traditions. For some time the family was wealthy. From what I know their material situation got worse at some point of time. I don't know why it happened, but it did. Perhaps, the reason was that their younger son Roman grew ill. There was something wrong with his lungs. He had to stay in hospital for long periods, and it required doctors' advice and medications that all cost money.
My father's older sister Sophia married Yacob Gelbart, a doctor. She and her husband settled down in Piarnu. I don't know for what reason Gelbart changed his surname to Karmi later. Their only son Guidon-Ruben was born in 1939. Sister Ella was married to Shmuel Zlaf, a well-known doctor in Estonia. Zlaf was a neurosurgeon. He was assistant to Pusepp, an outstanding Estonian neurosurgeon. Pusepp was one of the founders of neurosurgery in Estonia. Ella and her husband had two children: daughter Juudit, born in 1937, and son Gill, born in 1939. The Zlaf family lived in Tallinn.
After finishing the gymnasium my father entered the Medical Faculty of Tartu University. During his studies my father joined a rightist Jewish students' organization. I don't remember its name. Mama mentioned it to me, but at that time her stories were no more than the past that was never to come back to me. Therefore, I didn't go into details. All I know is that there was also a leftist Jewish students' organization, and there were frequent fights between them. Mama told me that my father had his nose broken in one of the fights right before his wedding. There were such political storms at Tartu University.
I know much more about my mother's family. I'll start from my mother's father's family. My grandfather's father, that is, my great-grandfather Teviye Korobov, was a soldier in Nikolai's army . Recruits served 25 years in Nikolai's army. After their service was over, the tsarist government took care of them. They served in the army while their age mates learned vocations, got married and built their homes. Former soldiers, being about 40, had to start from scratch. Therefore, the government gave them plots of land, money, licenses to start a business to their liking and pensions. There were other benefits and they equally covered Jewish soldiers. For this reason my grandfather was given permission to live in Narva beyond the Pale of Settlement .
They say Teviye was handsome, strong and tall. In Narva, Teviye built a house and a forge and became a blacksmith. He got married and had children. I know nothing about my great-grandmother. They had four children. I don't remember the name of the oldest son. My grandfather Iosif Korobov, born in Narva in 1879, was the second child. Then there were two daughters: Jenny and Haja-Dusha. I don't know Jenny's date of birth, but Haja-Dusha was born in 1883. Jenny died young.
My grandfather's older brother emigrated to France probably at the end of the 19th century. He lived in Paris. We tried to find him through the Red Cross after World War II. My grandmother's sister Greta Gringut, who lived in Switzerland, also joined in the search, but we failed to find my grandfather's brother or any of his family. He must have perished during the occupation of France.
My grandfather's sister Haja-Dusha married Leitman, a Jewish man. I don't remember his first name. Estonia belonged to the Russian Empire then. Haja- Dusha and her husband moved to Saint Petersburg, Russia. Haja-Dusha's husband was carried away by revolutionary ideas and was a Bolshevik . He took part in the revolution in 1917 . Later he became a party activist. My grandfather Iosif was trained in the vocation of a hat maker. It was easy to travel abroad at that time, and my grandfather went to his brother in Paris to master his craft. There he met Sara Brauns, my grandmother to be.
My maternal grandmother's father lived in Vindava, today's Ventspils [about 150 km from Riga] in Latvia. His name was Moshe-Wulf Brauns. My great- grandfather was born in 1846, though his place of birth is unknown. He was married to Haja, born Klein. I don't know where or when my great- grandmother was born. My great-grandfather was a hat maker. He was known for his cheerful character and was everybody's favorite in the family.
There were seven children in the family: daughters Greta, Bertha, my grandmother Sara, Yetta and Hansa. After Hansa the only son, Nathan, was born, and after Nathan the youngest, Amalia, was born. Grandmother Sara was born in 1885. I don't know her sister and her brother's dates of birth. My great-grandparents were very religious, and it could not have been different at the time. They also raised their children in a religious way. They also received secular education, but I don't remember any details. They spoke Yiddish and Russian in the family.
The children grew up and moved to other towns and countries. My grandmother's sisters got married. Greta, the oldest sister, married Gringut, a Jewish man. I don't remember his first name. Their only daughter's name was Juliette. Greta's husband developed tuberculosis and his doctor told him to move to Switzerland for medical treatment. They moved to Davos in Switzerland. At first they thought it wasn't going to be forever, and they would come back after Gringut recovered, but they happened to live in Davos for the rest of their lives. Greta passed away a long time ago. Juliette died in the early 1990s.
Bertha Kazerovich and her husband Yacob lived in Ventspils. Yacob was a tailor and Bertha was a housewife. I know nothing about her. All I remember is that she had a son, whose name was George. He moved somewhere. Nobody knows where, and there is nobody to ask about him.
My grandmother's younger sister Yetta Markovich lived with her family in Paris. Yetta's husband's name was Jacque. Yetta had three children: Susanne, Raymond and Giselle. Yetta and her younger daughter Giselle and her son perished during World War II. Her older daughter Susanne was the only survivor in the family. Susanne's daughter Irena Shpelling lives in the United States.
Hansa married Nathan Kreizburger, a Jewish man from Ventspils. They had two sons: Isaac and Haim. Hansa's family lived in Ventspils. My grandmother's brother Nathan was married twice. His first wife Olga Auguston came from Ventspils. They left Narva for Riga. Nathan had two children, daughter Bertha and son Samuel, from his first marriage. Olga died in Riga in 1928. Nathan then married Yetta Breiz. They had one son in this marriage. They lived in Riga.
My grandmother's youngest sister Amalia Abramovich and her husband Moisey moved to the USA. Amalia had three children: son Jack and daughters Rosa and Norma. Amalia lived a long life. Her daughters and her son and their children live in the USA. Neither my mother nor I knew them, and we did not keep in touch with her.
Sara, my grandmother to be, decided to become a bonnet maker. Bonnets were popular with ladies, and bonnet makers were overloaded with work. Those, who had training in Paris, were particularly popular. Paris has been the cradle of haute couture at all times and a bonnet from Paris was just like a dream. My grandmother's sister Yetta Markovich lived in Paris, and my grandmother decided to go to Paris to have training in the vocation. She met my grandfather to be there and they fell in love with one another. They got married in Paris. It goes without saying that they had a traditional Jewish wedding, both of them having come from a religious family.
In 1908 their son Philip, and in 1913 their daughter Marcel, my mother to be, were born. After my mama was born, my grandfather started feeling desperately homesick. He insisted on leaving Paris for Narva where his father lived. So my grandmother, grandfather and their two children moved to Narva in 1914 before World War I.
I don't know where my grandmother and grandfather lived after they returned to Narva. They opened a shop in Narva. My grandmother also worked. They worked very hard and finally managed to get better: they bought a house and opened a store. They were quite wealthy. My grandfather was a very kind person and helped people. Some of them took advantage of it. My grandfather's acquaintance asked my grandfather to help him. He had some problems with debts or bills. My grandfather signed a bill at his request, actually acknowledging that he owned a factory that he had nothing to do with. This kindness turned against my grandfather and against the whole family, but I'll talk about it later.
There were three gymnasia in Narva: an Estonian one, a Russian gymnasium for immigrants since there were many Russian immigrants escaping from Bolsheviks, and a public Russian gymnasium. Mama and her brother Philip studied in this gymnasium.
Mama told me there was no anti-Semitism in Estonia. Life was quiet and Jews were well respected. When Estonia gained independence , the government allowed Jews a Cultural autonomy . Jews were treated justly in the Russian gymnasium where Mama and Philip studied. There were religious classes. Children belonged to different religions, and had individual classes. Religious classes for Jewish children were conducted by a rabbi. Jewish children were released from studies on Jewish holidays. All children got along well and also had friends from the Estonian gymnasium.
Mama told me that those were Russian immigrants that brought anti-Semitism into everyday life. Anti-Semitism has always existed in Russia. Mama told me that her brother Philip was a kind person. One day Philip was walking along the street, when he saw an old Russian immigrant woman feeling ill. She fell, and Philip rushed to help her stand up. The old woman opened her eyes and said, 'If it hadn't been for zhidy, Russia would still stand.' This was how she thanked him. However, only Russians could speak up such things. There was no anti-Semitism on a public level.
Once my mother, her friend and I were talking about this time, and they told me that life was very quiet and hasteless and that each of them knew his or her place in it. For example, Jews could not serve in officers' ranks. There were no Jews among professional officers. Also, Jews could not hold official positions. However, they all knew that Estonia went through a hard time. It was a young country, and it only started rising on its feet: the First World War, and then the war for independence of Estonia , the war on two fronts. After Estonia became independent it started supporting the emergence of its own Estonian intelligentsia, and this was well understood.
As for any other ways, they were open for Jews. I only heard warm feedback about life in independent Estonia at that time. I think there was still some anti-Semitism in everyday life in Estonia. I've thought a lot about it. I believe the Cultural Jewish autonomy and the situation when all national communities were rather segregated, had its part in it. Estonians, Russian and Jews lived their own lives. The less you know about the life of others, the more space it leaves for guesses, and the worse relations are. There must have been some demonstrations of anti-Semitism, but my mother or grandmother never mentioned it.
Mama's brother Philip went to Riga to study to become a dental technician after finishing the gymnasium. After finishing his studies Philip returned to Narva. However, he failed to start his own business and helped Grandfather to work in the store. Philip was not married. He was very much in love with a girl. It never came to the wedding since the Great Patriotic War  began. Philip was everybody's favorite. He was a very kind and sympathetic person. He never failed to rush to somebody's aid. It's funny that one can tell that looking at Philip's photos in our family album. Philip was very fond of being photographed on or without any occasion. However, it was not because he was so much enamored with his own image. There was a photographer, a Russian immigrant in Narva, who was not quite popular in the town. Photography was the only craft that man had to earn his living, but he had hardly any clients and life was hard for him. Philip believed it to be his duty to support the man and visited him regularly to have his picture taken.
After finishing the gymnasium Mama was thinking of where she should go to study. She wanted to become a pharmacist and work in a pharmacy. Once she was offered a job in a pharmacy in Pösse, a small Estonian town. Mama accepted the offer. My father was a student of the Medical Faculty of Tartu University. It happened so that my father decided to work during summer vacations and the place was the very pharmacy in Pösse. This was where he met my mother and they fell in love with each other.
I don't remember where they got married, but I know they had a traditional Jewish wedding. My father was to go back to continue his studies, but he did not want to leave his young wife behind. There was no extramural department for medical students at the university, and my father went to the extramural Legal Faculty. After the wedding my parents settled down in Narva. My grandparents owned a house. They leased apartments in the house, but my parents rented an apartment in the house across the street from Mama's parents.
Before I was born my parents also lived in Kemeri for some time. My father worked as an accountant there, but I'm not sure this is correct information. Some time later they returned to Narva. I was born in Narva in 1938. I was the only child in the family. My parents gave me the name of Ruth.
My great-grandfather Moshe-Wulf Brauns, my grandmother's father, died in 1932. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Narva. My great-grandmother had died long before. I don't know when. They were buried in accordance with Jewish traditions.
We were quite wealthy. My father was the only breadwinner, but this was sufficient. He had rightist attitudes like his parents. Uncle Philip was a leftist, but he did not belong to any parties. He sympathized with the poor and miserable people. I remember my father and Philip arguing till their voices became hoarse. I don't know the subject of their disputes, but I remember them for a different reason. We had a very beautiful dog, the pet of the family. When my father and Philip started shouting, the dog became desperate trying to understand who was hurting whom and kept tossing from one to another barking loudly.
My uncle was a great supporter of the Soviet Union and admired the principles of the Soviet regime: equality, internationalism and fraternity of all people. This was all he heard about from Soviet newspapers and radio programs. He had never been to the USSR and could not have his own opinion. When in 1940 Estonia became Soviet , Philip was probably the only one in our family who was happy about it. The rest of the family, my parents and my mother and father's parents believed it to be inevitably evil. There was nothing to be happy about, and it was impossible to help it.
During the War
It goes without saying that Soviet authorities confiscated my grandfather's shop and store. Besides, the bill that my grandfather had signed one day played its role. My grandfather had never seen the factory and was just a stooge, but for Soviet authorities he was a factory and a store owner, a bourgeois and an enemy of the people . Mama told me that people had been arrested before overall deportation .
My grandfather had no doubts that this was going to happen to them. He had his belongings packed to avoid the hustle when the time of arrest came. They expected arrest each day. Mama told me they had such a vague idea about what was happening in the Soviet Union or where they were to be taken to that my grandmother did not dry any bread or store any food products to take with them for the road. She made a cake every day, and they ate it, and then grandmother made another cake. It never occurred to them to buy any tinned food.
However, for some reason our family was left alone. Deportation took place on 14th June 1941, when about 10,000 people were deported from Estonia. Whole families, including elderly people, children, handicapped and ill people were deported. Men were sent to the Gulag , and women and children were exiled to Siberia. A week after the deportation, on 22nd June 1941 the fascist German armies attacked the Soviet Union.
My father and Mama's brother Philip insisted on our evacuation. Despite their continuous arguments, they solidly stood for it this time. They believed it was mandatory to leave and this issue was no subject of discussion. By the way, the reason for the confrontation of my father and my uncle also disappeared shortly afterward. My uncle Philip was mobilized to the army, and after he crossed the Russian border, he wrote us a letter. Fortunately, Philip understood that it was no good to write openly about his impressions, and he diplomatically stated that he would never argue with Alexandr again, which meant that he was disappointed with the Soviet regime.
My grandfather and grandmother Mendelev stayed in Tartu. I heard many versions of the reason for their stay, but there was one common thing about them. Everybody said my grandfather was eager to leave, but not my grandmother. My grandmother did not know Russian; she had been raised on German and French novels and spoke fluent German and French. It probably never occurred to her that the Germans might be worse than the Bolsheviks. The majority believed so, and the deportation in Estonia strengthened their position.
Our family had a note from my grandfather Samuil where he still mentioned that there was a possibility that they might evacuate. My grandfather knew we were up to evacuation and was asking us to find them. Something that convinced them they should stay must have happened at the last moment. They said that his teacher and peer Pusepp promised Doctor Zlaf, Aunt Ella's husband, that he would manage to protect Zlaf and his family, and they stayed. There was Zlaf, his wife Ella and two children, daughter Juudit, born in 1937, and son Gille, born in 1939, my grandfather and grandmother, their son Roman, their younger daughter Pesse, who was 19 then.
Later we were told that Roman was trying to escape and was seen in the south of Estonia, where the track of him was lost. Roman perished somewhere in the south of Estonia. The rest of the family perished in Tartu. I have no memoriam left of them, not a single photograph. There are a few of Grandmother's letters, and a picture of my father's sister Pesse, just a picture of her. It was the only thing I managed to find. I started looking into the history too late, and I know so very little of them. I don't even know how they looked.
My grandfather, grandmother, mama and I evacuated. Marusia Arefieva, my grandparents' former maid, also joined us. Marusia was nice and tidy, and my grandparents were kind to her. They trained her in the hat making craft, and Marusia was doing well. She learned the trade, got married and followed her husband to Kivioli. However, she remained a devoted friend of our family. When she heard that my grandparents were evacuating, she left Kivioli for Narva and evacuated with us.
I have vague memories of our trip. We settled down in the village of Makhali [about 2000 km from Moscow] in the Ural. My father and Uncle Philip were regimented to the army on the first days of the war. However, they were not sent to the front line forces. Stalin had no trust in nationals of the republics that had recently been annexed to the Soviet Union. They were sent to labor camps  in Siberia. It was not far from the place we were at, and my father visited us once on leave. When the Estonian Corps  of the Red Army was formed, Estonians from labor camps joined it. In 1942 my uncle Philip and my father joined the front line forces.
We survived thanks to my grandfather. He joined a hat making crew in the neighboring village. My grandfather went to work every day. Marusia gave us a lot of moral support. She always had a smile and a comforting word for each of us. She also worked in the crew and protected Grandfather from whatever harsh words. Fortunately, Mama was good at knitting, and she knitted hats for villagers and they paid her with food products.
We were very lucky with our landlords. The newcomers were accommodated in local houses. We were accommodated with a good steady family. They did not drink vodka or speak curse language. The only person speaking curse language in our household was me. I can't remember the language I started speaking in my childhood, but in evacuation the language I spoke was the obscene Russian language. All members of the family were busy, and I spent a lot of time with neighbors' children in the stable yard. I learned to swear from them, and even adults were confused by the language I spoke. My relatives did their best to make me stop swearing, but that was of no avail.
My grandfather's younger sister Haja-Dusha lived in Leningrad after she got married. The family did not keep in touch with her. She was a Soviet resident, and correspondence with relatives abroad was dangerous for her and her husband . The family heard from Haja-Dusha on rare occasions, and only after 1940 the communication was reestablished. Haja-Dusha divorced her husband, a party activist.
In 1937, during the party cleanup [see Great Terror] , my aunt's ex- husband was sent to the Gulag on the Kolskiy Peninsula in the far north of the USSR. Though Haja-Dusha had divorced him some time before, she was exiled as a 'member of the family of an enemy of people.' However, she returned to Leningrad shortly before the war. Haja-Dusha survived the blockade of Leningrad , buried her second husband, and joined us in Makhali village in 1943, when she somehow managed to get our address. Since then she lived with us till the end of her life. She had no children and was a lonely person.
Later she lived with her brother until she finally moved in with me. I remember her arrival to the Ural. I remember a woman stepping across the threshold scaring me stiff. My grandfather and his sister were dark-skinned with very beautiful and bright brown eyes. So, I saw a skinny woman with very dark skin that looked almost black. She had absolutely gray hair with the distinguished dark burning eyes. She really looked horrible. I recovered my posture later, but my first impression was horrible.
Haja-Dusha made her appearance at the very height of the fight of all adults with my wordings. Having lived in the USSR for a long time she was not so much disturbed about it. Once in a conversation I told her what in my opinion should be done to her and my aunt commented 'Well, you know, this isn't so bad, actually.' This comment struck me dead, and I gradually quieted down. In due time I forgot the language, but when we returned home from the evacuation I spoke the Ural dialect and obscene language.
I wouldn't say we were starved in evacuation. At least, I don't remember being starved. Of course, it is to my grandmother's credit. She was an excellent housewife, and could make delicious lunch from nothing and was very efficient. She watched it that we managed to make do with what my grandfather, Marusia and Mama were earning. The villagers were kind and nice to us. Our landlady had two sons, a little older than me. Her husband and older sons were at the front. She had a cow. There was hardly any food to feed the cow, and it gave little milk. The landlady was happy, when she managed to get a liter of milk. She gave milk to her sons and me, and I always had more than they did, being younger and a girl.
My father and Uncle Philip wrote us letters from the front. My father spoke poor Russian, but he also wrote letters in Russian. If he had written them in Estonian, the censorship would have kept them longer. His letters would have been kept till there was a free Estonian censor, since only censor stamped letters were allowed for release by mail. Uncle Philip wrote to Grandmother and Grandfather in Yiddish.
My father and Uncle Philip died during the liberation of Estonia before the very end of the war. Philip died a horrible death. He belonged to the marines to be landed on Saaremaa Island to fight the Germans. The boats dropped the marines and left, and all of the marines were actually killed point-blank. There were few survivors. My father exploded on a mine and was buried on Saaremaa Island. We received the notification of my father's death, but Uncle Philip was deemed missing.
After the War
When we heard that Estonia was liberated, our family started preparations for returning home. We still had hopes that Uncle Philip would come back. Our landlords wanted to convince us to stay, but we left.
From evacuation we were taken to Kivioli. There were barracks left from a former camp where all those returning from the evacuation were accommodated. This was a quarantine period. To return home we needed a letter of invitation, but there was nobody to send it to us. None of our Estonian kin had survived. My father's parents and their younger children, my father's sister Ella Zlaf and her family were dead. My father's older sister Sophia Karmi and her son and husband, who used to live in Piarnu, were dead. We only have confirmation that she was shot, but there is no archive information about her son and husband.
My grandmother's sister Hansa Kreizburger, her husband Nathan and their sons Isaac and Haim stayed in Ventspils. They perished during the German occupation. My grandmother's brother Nathan Brauns, his wife Yetta and their younger son died in the Riga ghetto  during the German occupation of Latvia. Their younger daughter Bertha was in the ghetto and in a few German concentration camps, but she managed to survive. After the war Bertha moved to Israel. She lives in Tel Aviv. She has two sons and grandchildren. She is doing all right. Her brother Samuel died during the war.
Narva was nothing but ruins and we could not possibly go there. Our house was ruined. We had no idea how much longer we were to stay in Kivioli. And then Mama ran away to Tallinn. She found a job as a secretary. She had no lodging and slept in her office. Thanks to an acquaintance of hers, mama received a two-room apartment and then we could join her in Tallinn. Then the former owners of this apartment returned. Of course, they could have thrown us out of the apartment, but they were nice people and accommodated us in a little room. There were five of us sharing this room, and I just cannot imagine how we all fit in there.
Later my grandfather found two rooms in a shared apartment . Mama stayed in our former room, and my grandmother, grandfather, Haja-Dusha and I moved to the new lodging. It was better for Mama to live apart from us, since she might have been recognized as the daughter of Iosif Korobov, a factory and a store owner, and Mama had to keep it a secret for the fear of losing her job.
My grandfather went to work at a hat making shop. He actually made hats at home and took them to the shop. My grandmother helped him. The output rate was high and he would have hardly managed alone. They had a tough work schedule. They started work very early in the morning. It was hard work. They operated sewing machines making hats and then had to steam out the seams. It was physically hard, and my grandmother and grandfather were no longer young. They worked till lunch, rested for 30 minutes before going back to work.
On Friday, at the start of Sabbath they stopped work. My grandmother lit candles and prayed over them. They didn't work on Saturday either. After the war we no longer had specific dishes for meat and milk products like we used to before. It was impossible; we had no sufficient kitchen utilities to follow this requirement. Before the war my grandparents and parents followed kashrut. They celebrated Jewish holidays. My grandmother made matzah. I remember her making delicious egg matzah. My grandmother was a good cook. She was a very efficient cook, and we always had sufficient food. We managed all right even after the war, when the situation with food was tough. It is all to my grandmother's credit and her efficiency.
On Yom Kippur my grandfather and grandmother fasted. They did their best, considering the situation. The large synagogue in Tallinn burned down in 1944, but there was a prayer house that was called a synagogue. It was near my school. I remember when I was seven or eight years old, my grandmother and grandfather picked me up from school on Jewish holidays, and we went to the synagogue. Later, when I was a pioneer  and then a Komsomol member , I stopped going to the synagogue.
When we returned from evacuation, I only spoke Russian and did not know a word in Estonian. Our Estonian neighbors had two children, and gradually, playing with these children, I refreshed my Estonian. My mother and grandparents spoke fluent Estonian. However, my grandparents spoke Yiddish at home, and addressed me in Russian.
In 1946 I went to the first grade of a Russian school. Our classroom was huge. It was a former canteen. There were so many children in my class that they needed a lot of space. Many of them were overage because of the war. On the first day at school our teacher asked the children to tell her their year of birth and nationality. The Russian girl, my desk mate, asked me who I was and I said I was Jewish. Her face gained a scared expression and she whispered, 'Don't tell her!' She must have been in Tallinn during the war, and now she knew such things were to be kept a secret. She didn't mean to hurt me. Vice versa, she wanted to help. There were three Jewish children in my class. I never faced any anti-Semitism at school or observed any demonstrations of it towards other children.
I was a pioneer at school and believed everything we were told. I was a common Soviet child. I argued a lot with my grandfather and he was my opponent. My grandfather was trying to open my eyes, but I didn't let him. I remember always having a trump card. To all his attacks against the Soviet regime I replied that if it hadn't been for the Soviet regime, we would have stayed in Estonia during the war and we would not have survived. My grandfather surrendered under such argument and had nothing to object.
After the war, living in Soviet Estonia, my grandmother corresponded with her sisters living abroad. She corresponded with Bertha, her brother Nathan's daughter, living in Israel. She corresponded mainly with her sister Bertha Gringut living in Switzerland. She would have corresponded with more people, but during the Soviet regime this was dangerous for our family. However, my grandmother had no intention to refuse from this single opportunity to communicate with her sisters. Amalia sent her letters for grandmother to Switzerland, and then Greta resent them here. My grandmother corresponded with Greta in Yiddish. After Greta passed away, her daughter wrote us in German and Russian.
At that fearful Stalin's time Greta wrote such letters that the family was afraid that censors would pay special attention to them. Here is what she could write: 'When I was in elementary school, we had a teacher, who was an immigrant. The Bolsheviks executed him. What brutality!' Greta could also describe the life of one of the tsarist family, or that some noble immigrant opened a store, and she mentioned well-known names that caused anger with Bolsheviks since 1917. Greta described the White Guard immigrants. She probably did not understand that all letters crossing the USSR border were censored. However, we received her letters and nothing bad happened. Probably Greta's letters were so long that they tired censors before they read them to the end. Greta wrote 15-20 page letters on tissue paper. After Greta and Amalia died, this correspondence stopped.
The postwar period was hard and miserable, and we had no parties at home. We did not celebrate any religious holidays or birthdays. We celebrated my birthday at home, when I was in the 5th grade. Haja-Dusha told my granny that it was my birthday and we had to invite guests. This was the first time when two of my classmates came to my birthday. My grandmother made a bagel, but I saw how much effort it cost her. Now I understand my grandmother who had lost her relatives, her husband's relatives, her husband, her son-in-law, her son, and who lived through whatever hardships. My grandmother loved Philip dearly, so much, that she did not even dare to have his portrait on the wall. I have Philip's portrait now, but then it was kept at the bottom of a box. I noticed how hard these celebrations were for my grandmother.
I remember the Doctors' Plot  in January 1953. Now I wonder that this fearful period only lasted for two months. NKVD employees  managed a lot through this short period of time.... I was 13. I remember a meeting at school where students of our 7th grade held 'murdering doctors' up to shame. They made speeches saying what rascals those doctors were. I remember that one Jewish girl spoke even having no direction from the teacher. She also said how terrible this was.
My grandfather had many friends and acquaintances, and they often came to see him and discuss political news. My grandfather read newspapers, and could read between lines, which was common in the Soviet Union. He also commented on what he had read saying 'Well, if they write like this, this means...' He also liked listening to 'The Voice of America'  and other international radio stations that were forbidden in the USSR, and also discussed what he had heard.
I am grateful to my grandfather that all such discussions took place in my presence. Nobody feared that I could mention something that was not safe for my grandfather or his acquaintances. I think my grandfather did a lot for me. He planted the seeds of doubt in me, and he taught me to think and analyze. These seeds have grown out.
I remember 5th March 1953, when Stalin died. We knew about it from the radio news before it was time for me to leave for school. When my grandfather heard that Stalin had died, his face brightened with happiness. My grandfather did not work on this day as if it was a Jewish holiday. This was so very unusual that my grandfather stayed away from work on a weekday, which had never happened before. On hearing the news my grandfather rushed to see my mother and tell her the news. My grandfather was really happy, but for me Stalin's death was a terrible blow. We had a mourning meeting at school, and all attendants were sobbing.
I came home from school at my usual hour in the afternoon, and there was a strict rule at our home: when I came from school, the family sat down to lunch, and then everybody might take to their usual staff, but at lunch the family was to sit at the table. So, when I came from school after the mourning meeting, Haja-Dusha, who was one from Russia, even though she had been exiled back in 1937, and I mourned after the great chief and teacher. We didn't feel like eating at all, and I still remember how angry my grandfather grew, when he saw us in tears. He even hit his fist on the table, which he had never done before. We pulled ourselves together immediately, and stopped crying.
Gradually, by the end of school, I started seeing things clearly. Khrushchev's  speech at the 20th Party Congress  added much to my understanding of things. However, my understanding rather referred to the personality of Stalin than the very ideology. I thought that even though Stalin failed to implement the ideas, but the 20th Congress would start a new phase of the development of the Soviet Union, and the others would know how the country should develop and they might do better. I had these illusions for a long time before they faded away.
After Stalin's death those that had been exiled back in 1941 started returning home. My grandfather's acquaintances were among them and they visited us. They told us what they had been through and gave their comments. They had discussions in my presence. They sat at a large round table in the sitting room, and I used to do my homework sitting at this same table. They never told me to go to the kitchen while the adults were talking. Later my grandmother and grandfather discussed what they had heard and I was there, too. My grandfather took more interest in politics, and I had more discussions with him, than with my grandmother.
In 1956 I finished school. I wanted to go to Tartu and study in the famous university, but I didn't. My grandfather, grandmother and Haja-Dusha were old people in poor condition, and I couldn't imagine leaving them on their own. I entered the Faculty of Russian philology at the Tallinn Teacher's Training College.
Anti-Semitism developed in Estonia after the war. This was the policy of the Soviet Union, but one should give credit to Estonian people: they tried to avoid it. Anti-Semitism was mainly demonstrated by newcomers from the Soviet Union.
After the war the Soviet regime took efforts to struggle against religion . However, the synagogue was open, and older people remembered traditions and rituals. When my grandfather died in 1957, ten men prayed for him all night through. We buried my grandfather in the Jewish cemetery in Tallinn in accordance with Jewish traditions. My grandfather belonged to that generation that lived according to those rules, and I never doubted that my grandfather, grandmother and mother were to be buried in the Jewish cemetery, not even the Jewish site in the town cemetery .
I lived a common student's life with its joys and sorrows. I did not involve myself in any political activities. The time, when I was an active pioneer and Komsomol member, had passed away, but once here is what happened. When I was a last-year student, they decided to elect me the Komsomol leader of the course. I had different, my 'grandfather's' views by then. However, I don't like any demonstrations. I didn't have the courage to put my Komsomol membership card on the table at the Komsomol committee. [Editor's note: Komsomol units existed at all educational and industrial enterprises. They were headed by Komsomol committees involved in organizational activities.]
So, I was an appointee for the position of the Komsomol leader. I spoke out disqualifying myself from this appointment. I can't remember what reason I offered in this regard, but I thought it was rather convincing. However, I noticed that nobody listened to me and they were going to vote for me. I took the floor again, and this time I said that since our Komsomol activities spread as far as collecting monthly fees I believed there were other people that would do a better job. Deathly silence fell on the audience. The students were in silence, and our tutor from the College Party unit also kept silence.
Anyway, I was not elected. Our faculty management took no measures against me, or at least, I did not know if anything unusual was happening. Only when we met 20 years later, my former co-students told me that after I spoke they felt like a bomb had exploded. Any way, I said what I believed was appropriate and I was not elected to this position.
I got a job appointment  and went to work as a teacher of Russian literature and language at a general education school in Tallinn. One year later I was offered a position of lecturer in our college and I accepted the offer.
This job was more difficult, but I enjoyed it more than working at school. I would have had no problems working in college if I had joined the Party, since, from our management standpoint, I had two big shortcomings: I wasn't a party member and I was Jewish. Therefore, I was unprotected. In college I was offered to join the Party. The party secretary of our faculty approached me and told me that since I was working with the new generation, I should join the Party. I replied that I couldn't. I could not raise my hand voting 'for' at party meetings, if I disagreed. It is true, I could not do it. And since it was quite frequent that I disagreed, I could not possibly join the Party. This was the last time I had this offer.
However, this refusal had no impact on my work, and I enjoyed working at college. I liked working with students. I also had other responsibilities. I was bound to be involved in scientific research and I didn't have much time for that. Our managers were decent people. Actually, there were disagreements, but they had nothing to do with my national origin or views. Also, I could not speak out what I thought in class, but I didn't mention what I disagreed about either. It was always possible to balance on a safe side.
My only confrontation with the Soviet reality occurred in the early 1960s, when my College offered me a job of a teacher of Russian in Africa for two to three years. At that time the Soviet Union promoted Russian language studies in developing countries. I went through all instances in college well and was recommended as a knowledgeable and skilled teacher, but then I was to be confirmed at the district party committee where I was told that I did not suit the job requirements, and if I wanted to work abroad, my application form was to be ideally clean. What was wrong with my application form? As it happens, I wrote that I had relatives abroad. Well, I might have omitted this item in the form, but we corresponded with them and the KGB  would have known about it. Therefore, it was better to be transparent. I did not go to Africa, and my mother was happy about it.
Whatever it was, life in Estonia was not as hard as in other Soviet republics like Russia or Ukraine. There was more freedom. For example, jazz was not directly forbidden in the USSR, but there were hardly any concerts held, while we had jazz festivals. We didn't have samizdat publications, but we received them from Russia. We also had different art exhibitions, when in Russia, for example, pictures were assessed from the standpoint of socialist realism. We had interesting art exhibitions, particularly, in graphics.
By the way, Jews had easier ways here. Estonians value skills, and this was the main criterion for selection, and not the national origin. In the 1950s a number of scientists from Leningrad moved to Estonia for this reason. They could not find jobs in Russia. The Tartu University employed Yuri Lotman , a unique expert in Russian philology, the honor of Tartu University, Mikhail Kotik chaired the department of psychology. Kotik failed to learn Estonian, but he lectured in Russian, though the official language was Estonian. They took it easy, considering that Kotik had a name in the world and was the honor of the university.
There were other information channels in Estonia beside Soviet TV and radio programs. We could watch Finnish TV programs. A TV master connected a special add-on device, and we even could subscribe to a Finnish TV program directory. It wasn't an official channel, but people knew the ways to get subscriptions. We watched three Finnish programs. Finnish is very much like Estonian and people could understand it. We could read the captions, which was easier than listening and understanding. Having coffee at work in the morning we discussed what we had seen and understood.
It's amazing that I had no Jewish acquaintances after finishing school. We didn't have possibilities like the Estonian Jewish community  offers nowadays, when Jewish young people have places to get together. Besides, we didn't have any relatives or friends in Tallinn. I had Estonian and Russian co-students. I was raised with the conviction that I would never marry an Estonian or Russian man. I would have been afraid to. Knowing myself, I feared that if my husband said something wrong about Jews, God forbid, this would be the end of our marriage. I would never live on with such person. I was dead sure that I would only marry a Jewish man, but I had no Jewish acquaintances.
My grandmother had no education, but she was a very wise woman. One time I dated a Russian guy. I liked him a lot. I shared my thoughts with my grandmother. She told me that if I decided to marry him, I should marry him even knowing that my grandmother disapproved of it. And if we truly loved each other, my grandmother would ignore the fact that my husband was not a Jewish man. I decided against marrying him for certain reasons, but I remembered my grandmother's advice, all of them. Once my grandmother told me one should marry someone with the same mentality. It didn't matter whether he was wealthy or poor, but mentality should be alike or we would never find a common language. I argued with her giving examples of our acquaintances. I told her that people from different environments could get along, but she insisted that 'no, just take my word, this is not so.' Life has proved that this, and everything else my grandmother told me, was right.
My family life
I got married in 1967. My husband, Valdo Laane, is Estonian. He was born in the town of Viljandi in Estonia in 1934. Valdo's father came from a poor family with many children. He had seven brothers. They lived in a village. Once Valdo's grandfather went to buy a cow or a horse at the market, but somebody stole his money. He returned home and hanged himself. The grandmother had to raise eight children. She happened to be a strong woman. She managed to raise all of them and give education to the older children. The older brothers supported the younger ones. One brother became a teacher and took one of his younger brothers to live with him and teach him. They managed all right in the long run and became wealthy people.
Valdo's father was a merchant. His brothers had families and were doing well. My husband had a brother. When the Soviet regime was established in Estonia, all of them, including Valdo's family, were deported in 1941. The men were taken to the Gulag, and members of their families were exiled. Valdo's brother died in exile. Valdo and his mother returned from exile in 1949, when Estonians returned from the army, and the wives of these ex- military of the Estonian Corps were allowed to pick up their relatives from Siberia. These women helped children of their relatives and even those children that had no relatives left in Estonia.
Valdo' mother stayed in exile, and Valdo arrived at Viljandi where he had no relatives left. Valdo had no place to live or food to eat. He wandered about the town until a passer-by asked him if he was looking for someone. This passer-by took Valdo to his parents' servant, who took Valdo to his grandparents in the village. Valdo stayed with them.
After finishing school he wanted to enter the Faculty of History at Tartu University. He liked history. He was rejected, and it was all for his honesty. He wrote in his application form that he had started school in exile. History was more like policy at the time, and there was no chance for him. What was he to do? Valdo submitted his documents to the Faculty of Russian Philology at the Tallinn Teachers' Training College. He spoke fluent Russian with no accent. Valdo had learned Russian by rather 'state- of-the-art' method of the language environment in exile in Siberia. It is the best way to learn a language plunging into the environment. There was always a deficit of male teachers at school, and guys were appreciated in our college, despite whatever problems areas, if they could be ignored. Valdo entered it.
During our studies in college we were distantly acquainted, but when I came to work there, Valdo was also working there and we made a closer acquaintance. Our acquaintance developed into love. And it ended with our wedding. My grandmother died in 1965. Mama had no objections to my marrying a non-Jewish man, but I had my doubts. Then I remembered my grandmother's words when she said one should marry someone of the same mentality and I took the risk. So it happened and I never once regretted marrying the man. I would even say that only Valdo might have had his regrets since my husband is much wiser and gentler than me. At hard times, when we had disagreements, particularly when I hear about some wrong developments in the news, I can say uncomplimentary things about Estonians, while Valdo has never said a wrong word about Jews, not because he was afraid of me, but because this is not the way of his thinking.
Our older son Alexandr, named after my father, was born in 1968, and our daughter Eva was born in 1972. After my daughter was born I went to work as an editor in the scientific literature publishing house. This is where I still work. We are a team of associates, and I like it there. We can discuss any subject without having any concerns. I find it very important to trust my peers. I've never faced any anti-Semitism through the years of my work. It is true. It does not exist even now. Recently, the staff was reduced in our publishing house. Three editors have kept their jobs, and I'm one of them. If they wanted they could easily get rid of me, considering that I'm of pensioner's age.
I remembered how my grandmother and grandfather were raising me. They never excluded me from their company or forbade me to do things. I remembered this, but living in the Soviet Union was different, and I raised my children differently. Of course, when we had guests, the children stayed at the table listening to our discussions, but I tried to keep my tongue in their presence. I did not allow them to express their opinion on political subjects: for God's sake, don't speak out before you start understanding things! One can only speak out having knowledge of the subject.
However, my children are very nice children. They've been interested in the past and in the history of our families. They know about my family, and they spent much time with their paternal grandmother, they know everything about Valdo's family, about the life in exile, before and after the exile. They matured very fast. When it was time for them to receive their passports when they turned 16, we left it to their discretion to choose what nationality they wanted to have stated in their passports. And they chose it: my son is formally Estonian and my daughter is a Jew. [Editor's note: In the USSR the ethnic identity was indicated in citizens' passports. The situation in the Soviet Union was such that Jews had problems with entering higher educational institutions, finding jobs, traveling to foreign countries, etc.]
At school Eva got fond of drawing and developed her skills into a serious trade. After finishing school she joined a higher education program in Israel. Eva went to Israel. She failed to enter university the first time. It just was her poor luck that year. She wanted to enter the Art Faculty. Her art works passed the selection commission and then she was to have an interview. The Ivrit interpreter did not show up, and Eva's Ivrit was not quite fluent at the time. She failed at the interview. Eva stayed in Israel to try again in the future. She went to work and she had to work hard to manage without loans. She had to make her own decisions, and I could be of no help to her. I didn't know anything about life in Israel. I was going though hard times. Mama was severely ill for several years. When she fell ill, she moved in with us. My grandmother and grandfather had long passed away and so had Haja-Dusha, who died in 1973.
Eva visited us on her vacations. When she arrived the second time I told her that there was no way for her to study in Israel. She needed money to pay the rent and pay for her food and studies since she might have studied for free if she had managed to enter the first year. Eva knew there was no way for her to earn so much if she had to study full-time. I convinced her to try and take exams to the Art College in Tallinn. If she failed, she could go back to Israel. Eva passed her exams and was admitted to the college though competition was high.
My daughter stayed in Tallinn. I think it might have been for the better that she left Israel. I cannot imagine how we would live in different countries. Eva studied and gave me a hand with taking care of Mama. Eva is doing very well. She graduated and entered the magistracy. Eva is married. Her family name is Laanee-Reintamm. Eva has two children. She named her son, born in 2000, Karl-Philip. Karl is after her husband's father, and Philip after my uncle. We call him Philip at home. Eva named her daughter, born in 2004, she is a year and three months now, Anna-Sophia. Anna is after my son-in-law's relative, and Sophia after my father's sister.
After finishing school my son Alexandr entered the Medical Faculty of Tartu University. After finishing his 2nd year he fell in love and got married and had to support his family. Alexandr gave up his studies and went to work. Later his family fell apart. His son Mark from this marriage was born in 1992. A few years ago he remarried. His first wife and his second wife are Estonian. In his 2nd marriage his daughter Linda was born in 2001. Now Alexandr is an extramural student of the social department of the Faculty of History of Tartu University. I hope he'll finally graduate this year. My son has published the 'Terviste Lehte,' ['Health'] for a few years. He is doing well, and I hope he will.
I've corresponded with Mama's cousin Bertha in Israel through all these years. The Soviet regime established the image of Israel as a fearful, aggressive and fanatical state. We realized this was far from being true, but when they keep telling you one and the same thing for a long time, it leaves its imprint in your mind. However sure you are that things must be different, you still develop some doubts.
We've tracked the events in Israel, sympathized with Israelites during the Six-Day-War  and the Yom Kippur War , and we were happy about the military and peaceful successes of Israel. I wanted to visit Israel, but this was impossible before perestroika . Only diplomats or embassy employees were allowed to travel to capitalist countries. We couldn't even dream of visiting Israel during the Soviet regime. Before perestroika I only traveled to Finland and Czechoslovakia. It was very difficult to have all documents processed and issued. However, we traveled a lot to Russia. Every year we traveled there with our children. We visited Moscow, Leningrad, have been to the Caucasus and the Crimea.
We finally visited Israel in 1989. Mama was in relatively good condition and we could leave her for a month. This trip was very rewarding. I cannot keep brief my impressions of Israel. I had been told that I could not know how beautiful the desert was. And it is true, I did not understand that it was beautiful in a desert, and I had no idea that a hot country, surrounded by sand and stone could be beautiful at all. Perhaps this was why the beauty of Israel was my discovery: lots of flowers everywhere, mesmerizing landscapes and beautiful towns. The nature is so beautiful!
We always had our camera with us. We have many pictures of this trip. This trip was not only remarkable for the beauty of nature or architecture. We also met with our friends, whom we hadn't seen for a long time. We went from one town to another and there were our acquaintances in all of them. And we were really happy to see them again. We stayed with Mama's cousin sister Bertha. My grandmother and I corresponded with her. This reunion with our dearest people was indescribable.
We learned a lot about the history of Israel, not the history after 1948, but ancient history. We toured the whole country. A month in Israel just flew by for us. My husband loved it in Israel. He found his ways there much better than I did. We stayed in Jerusalem, and this was festive in itself. What a beautiful town! I remember how we went to Ashdod after we arrived in Israel. Ashdod is a nice town, but I would say, it's quite common. We left it late in the evening and took the highway to Jerusalem. The hills around Jerusalem, the night-time lighting, it was something fantastic, so beautiful it was! I feel different about Israel. Jews can feel safe and quiet as long as there is this state.
I wouldn't say my husband and I never considered moving to Israel. My husband told me that if I decided to move he would follow me, but we needed to think what we were to do in Israel. It's a responsible decision to change the life of the family so dramatically. One had to weigh things. And then I thought - right, what were I going to do in Israel? What could I do? I am not even that good at cooking. I cook for my family, but if I were to cook for another family, I would be so nervous that I would fail to do it properly. I know no craft that would be good enough to support me in Israel. If I could make hats like my grandfather, or knit like Mama, I could at least do this, but I was a product of Soviet education. The only time I made something with my hands was when we had vocational classes at college where we made stools and made holes in tin sheets to make sort of vegetable grinders.
I mean, I've never been an idealist, and I knew that a Russian language professional would hardly find a job in Israel. And I didn't want to be burden to the state or my relatives. Their life is no bed of roses, and besides, I am not the one to look for somebody else's support. This is not for me. I've got to manage my own life. Besides, my husband's mother was alive. He was her only son and the only one of her kin, and she was of 100 percent Estonian origin, and she wouldn't have been accepted in Israel. I also knew I would have no courage to tell her this: we're moving to Israel and you're staying here. Basically, there were many problems that were hard to resolve. We stayed for these quite ordinary considerations. I don't think having two older people joining the army of unemployed would have been of much benefit for Israel.
After my grandmother died, we didn't celebrate Jewish holidays in full range, though we did follow some rules. It goes without saying that we always had matzah at Pesach. My close friend always invited me to celebrate Pesach at her home, and we celebrated Rosh-Hashanah at home, and fasted at Yom Kippur.
During perestroika the Jewish life began to revive in Tallinn. A Jewish community was officially registered in Estonia. Now our community is strong and has its part in the life of each Jewish person in Estonia. Believers and non-believers need it equally. It's good to have a community and a synagogue. We can remain Jewish thanks to this, because otherwise we might get lost among other nations. I attend celebrations and events in the community.
I help the community as much as I can. I still work and cannot take an active part in the community activities, but I find it very important to be aware that it is there and I can go there at any time. Children and old people need the community. Everybody finds what one needs in the community, and everybody can contribute to it. My mother was still with us, when the community was established, and she could see changes in our life. Mama died in 1995. She was buried in the Jewish cemetery where her parents and Haja- Dusha had been buried before.
Perestroika brought many good things into our life, but the most important event was the final point of perestroika, the breakup of the Soviet Union and newly gained independence of Estonia . This came as an utter surprise for me. I never imagined that the Soviet Union was so weak, and it would have never occurred to me that things might develop like that. It made the impression of a monolith and one would never believe that the empire might collapse one day, when the monolith happened to be not as tough as we thought it was, and it happened so fast.
I don't think I'm the one to say whether it was good or bad that it happened this way. I think it is for the Estonian people to say. This is the state of Estonia, and if Estonian people think it appropriate to live independently, than be it. And Estonians do feel better that way. I think it is the best that each country can now choose its own ways, and only the nation of this country is entitled to decide the way it should live.
I do not feel nostalgic about the USSR. This used to be an unnatural society that had secluded itself from the rest of the world, with its censorship, unrestricted power of the KGB, weird ways and its own rules of the game that was impossible to play any longer. I'm not saying that I admire everything that is happening nowadays. It's far from it, but it's in human nature that whatever will take place before things come down and take their ordinary ways. I still believe that this is like infantine sickness, and in due time the situation will calm down and people will learn to think about the common wealth besides their own benefits.
Soviet people were silent for too long, or only spoke about what they were allowed to speak. Now finally, everybody is allowed to speak his or her own mind, and they do not always say what one would like to hear. I think it's the task of historians to work on the past history, they have to dot all 'i's and figure out the truth to put an end to it. We have to think about how to make this country a good home for all.
I love the Russian literature and Russian films. I have access to these in independent Estonia, as well as many other literary and cinematographic works and films that were banned in the USSR. I enjoy traveling to Moscow and Petersburg when I can. I felt very sad looking at St. Petersburg a few years ago. I had a feeling that it would collapse. I had a similar feeling about Tallinn during the Soviet rule. It was like everything was going to collapse and there would be nothing left to restore. However, the city is changing for the better. People develop the sense of ownership: this is my city and I want it to be clean and nice.