Treasured Memories: Tales of Buried Belongings in Wartime Estonia

Treasured Memories: Tales of Buried Belongings in Wartime Estonia

by Mats Burstrom


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In the autumn of 1944, around 70,000 people fled Estonia in the face of the Red Army's advance; most of them believed the Soviet occupation would be short-lived and they would soon be able to return home. A comprehensive study of a common yet neglected phenomenon, this book tells the stories of the hoards of valuable belongings hidden by these Estonian escapees. The sheer variety of objects—including those that remain buried, those that vanished, and those that were recovered—touches upon all levels of history, from personal memories to high politics. In essence, this work of contemporary archaeology not only reflects upon the intimate relationship between material culture and memory, but also demonstrates how events on the world stage can shape the fate of individual families across generations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789185509874
Publisher: Nordic Academic Press
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mats Burström is a professor of archaeology at Stockholm University and the author of World Crisis in Ruin. He conducts international fieldwork in the area of cultural heritage management, and has been instrumental in establishing the archaeology of the recent past as a field of research in Scandinavia.

Read an Excerpt

Treasured Memories

Tales of Buried Belongings in Wartime Estonia

By Mats Burström, Charlotte Merton

Nordic Academic Press

Copyright © 2012 Nordic Academic Press and Mats Burström
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-91-87121-27-2


Hidden in the ground

We were standing in a field, Ahto Kant and I, waiting. Patiently. The field was an old kolkhoz field near the little town of Rapla in Estonia, about fifty kilometres south of Tallinn. Of the farm – Kivisilla – that once stood here there was barely a trace. It had been demolished in the 1980s to make way for the Soviet planned-economy ideal of large-scale, rational farming units. No one imagined then that only a few years later the Soviet Union would collapse and Estonia would once again become independent. All that remained on the ground at Kivisilla was a large, long heap of stones and rubble that had been bulldozed away and dumped at the edge of the field.

But under the surface there might be other traces. Ahto and I were on tenterhooks, waiting for Johan, who was systematically searching metre after metre of field with a metal detector, to signal that he had a reading. It happened every now and again, but so far they had turned out to be bits of scrap-metal in the shape of cartridge cases, rusty nails, and other bits and pieces from the demolished farmhouse. We were looking for something different; we were looking for what the eleven-year-old Ahto and his father had buried in the greatest secrecy in September 1944, soon after which Ahto and his mother had fled from the advancing Red Army to Sweden.

It was May 2009 now, almost sixty-five years since the things were hidden, but Ahto remembered it as clearly as if it were yesterday. He had carried the memory of it all those years; he had not been able to find any real peace. During the Soviet period, the idea of returning to look for the family's possessions was just a dream; it would have been far too risky to even attempt it. But now we were standing on Estonian soil, and what had brought us together and taken us to this particular field was Ahto's story of the objects that had been hidden here; objects that Estonia's president had presented to Ahto's father.

In some respects Ahto's story is unique, but it also fits into a larger pattern. Many families who were forced to leave their homes hurriedly have similar tales to tell. The things that they were unable to carry they hid so that they would not be stolen or destroyed. And the ground was thought a safe hiding-place. Most of the objects that were buried in the ground had little monetary value. They were things that were needed in daily life; often household utensils of various kinds such as cutlery, glassware, and china. Sometimes books. The things it would be useful to have when everything returned to normal. But things did not return to normal.

When the course of history turned out to be different from what they had hoped – when it was not possible to return, and family belongings remained hidden in the ground – the objects became important in another way. They became memory caches of sorts. The stories were about much more than the objects; they were reminders of the old country and the lives their owners had once lived there. With time, the memories acquired a nostalgic glow.

Then the impossible happened. Soviet rule collapsed, and the exiles were finally able to return to Estonia. Some were quick to return and look for the places where their belongings had been hidden. For others, the objects were no longer important; they had been significant only as long as they were unattainable, but now there were more urgent calls on their time and energy.

But Ahto, and many like him, wanted to know whether the objects they had once buried in the ground were still there, and if so, whether they could be located. So how did our search of the old kolkhoz field turn out? I will return to that later, but first I want to put the search in a wider context.


Artefactual memory

This is a book of stories; stories about objects – artefacts – that were buried in the ground by people fleeing Estonia during the Second World War; stories also about the things that were buried by people who feared that they were about to be deported to Siberia, at least until Stalin's death in 1953. The memories that the objects conjure up reach far beyond their own mundanity; the stories draw a picture of how large-scale political events encroached on individual families' lives and shaped them for generations to come. The stories also show that hiding things by burying them in the ground was surprisingly common. The memory of hidden belongings lived on through many years of exile, and carried with it the hope of returning one day.

The hidden objects are referred to in this study as 'treasure'. This is not a reference to the objects' economic value, which was often small, but rather to their emotional worth, which is often great. The term also refers to the romantically coloured notions surrounding objects that have been hidden in the ground or found there.

For archaeology, for which such items are among the most important objects of study, the ability of objects to evoke memories is of great interest. This quality is often decisive for the way people relate to such objects. Things that to all appearances are identical can, depending on the stories they are associated with, be treated very differently.

In the case of buried objects, the choice of hiding-place is also of particular archaeological interest. Even if the choice was governed by practical necessity, it still leads us to think about people's relationship to the soil and to digging. For those living in exile, the soil of their native country has a strong symbolic meaning.

Contemporary archaeology

Most people associate archaeology with the study of the distant past. Since for these epochs there are only a handful of written sources, or none at all, archaeology has a natural role to play in their study. Turn to the present, and things appear to be different. Why use archaeology when there is an abundance of other sources of information?

The answer is that objects often have a way of bearing witness to a very different sort of history than the one found in other types of source. Sometimes they flat-out contradict one another. Thus, for example, studies of contemporary household refuse have shown dramatically different consumption patterns to those seen in interviews and written questionnaires. Sometimes it is a matter of archaeology instead drawing our attention to other aspects of contemporary history than those usually noticed. Perhaps contemporary archaeology's perspective is best described as being more down to earth.

By tackling the recent past using a different type of source than is usually the case, contemporary archaeology can convey other narratives than the ones usually heard. The things that people leave behind enable us to get closer to them, even the vast majority who left no clear mark on the grand narrative.

Contemporary archaeology is also concerned with the relationship between grand narrative and small, personal narratives. Grand narrative is what is usually rehearsed in historical overviews, and it consequently operates at a very general level. The story of the past is condensed into what now appears to be the most important factors with which to explain the course of history. It is usually a matter of economic, social, and political circumstances, military conflicts, and technological development.

The small narrative is concerned with how the past appeared to individual people and families who were not in the centre of power. It is about people who only indirectly influenced the grand narrative, and therefore usually have no place in its narrative arc. The small narrative is rarely written down, but instead is communicated in the form of oral narratives known to a small circle.

Both historical perspectives have their advantages and disadvantages. Grand narratives have breadth of view and make plain the important causal connections. But they are also a way of depicting the past that is far from how most people at the time experienced it. Small narratives enable us to come closer to people, but since they are based on individual experiences they naturally cannot be taken to be representative of the vast majority. Even if each life story is unique, it is clear that similar experiences are often shared by many.

By talking to people who have memories of particular objects, contemporary archaeology can grasp the small narrative. People's stories show the ways that objects, by virtue of their history, are imbued with meaning or particular significance. By relating these stories to the grand narrative, we can get an idea of how broad historical processes impinged on individual families' lives, shaping their life stories. The stories give grand narrative a human face.

Admittedly, buried objects are only fragments of grand narrative, and the stories about them mostly seem to take the form of anecdotes, yet the anecdotal mapping of the past is an alternative to the grand narrative that has so long engaged historical research. Perhaps it is only with small stories that major events truly begin to make sense.

Interest in people's stories and how they relate to the grand narrative serve to illustrate that contemporary archaeology is a multidisciplinary field with strong links to ethnology and history. They also show that the boundaries between academic disciplines do not always correspond to the actual scope of new fields of research. What is it, then, that makes this present study archaeological? Part of the answer is that the starting-point for the memory work is a series of physical objects, but also that the stories examined here presume there to be some digging involved. Sometimes it is only a question of burying an object; sometimes also of digging it up again.

Things to remember

Objects have a strange ability to evoke memories. This is true both of things that were made in order to become mementos – souvenirs – and other, quite mundane objects. The sight of an object can suddenly remind us of things we otherwise would not have called to mind and that we thought we had forgotten. By using objects as a starting-point in a discussion it becomes possible to elicit memories that otherwise would be hard to reach, or even inaccessible.

The memories that objects are capable of evoking reverberate far beyond the things themselves. As the historian of ideas Karin Johannisson writes:

To recall the props of childhood is to recall childhood itself. Relics of past days – often the most commonplace and, at the time, silent, disregarded, or trivialized – become as much repositories of memory as the memories themselves.

In several works, the Romanian-German author Herta Müller has observed the profound significance of objects for people. In an interview given when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009, she explained that:

Things define us, and when things are going well for us – when we lack for nothing, aren't poor, and aren't afraid – we don't notice how many things we've got because they're there and we're using them. But in almost all extreme situations we're also deprived of our things, and the worst situation is when you're deported to a camp where you have not a thing, or prison where you're only a number and can no longer define yourself through your possessions. The things survive us, and of all the things in the world, we people are the most fragile. When you've lived as I have in mortal dread for several years, then you often become alert to such things.

The twentieth century offers frighteningly many extreme situations where objects have come alive to people in the way that Müller describes. One obvious example is the significance of objects to those who were incarcerated in concentration camps.

The artist Esther Shalev-Gerz, who was born in Lithuania, grew up in Israel, and now lives in Paris, uses in her installation, MenschenDinge: The human aspect of objects, photo portraits of objects made by camp prisoners in Buchenwald. The pictures show painstakingly pieced-together slippers, combs, tin mugs, and jewellery – simple objects that were once much-prized possessions. Living in inhuman conditions, a comb can be essential if you are to retain some human dignity, and a soup bowl can quite literally be the difference between life and death. In time, the objects came to be thought worthless and were thrown on the rubbish heap. There they were eventually found by archaeologists.

Shalev-Gerz's installation was shown first at the museum at Buchenwald (2006) and later in Paris (2010). The art critic Ingela Lind's review describes how what was once refuse has been brushed clean of soil, washed, catalogued, and carefully coaxed into telling its story. She believes that in Shalev-Gerz's interpretation, the objects become the focus of the same care once lavished on Tutankhamun's gold. For Lind, the installation appears a tender, objective interpretation of narratives of memory and loss.

The ethnologist Margrit Wettstein, in her doctoral thesis Liv genom tingen: människor, föremål och extrema situationer (Things that matter: objects and people in extreme situations), considers what objects mean for those forced to flee Nazism and for those who lost relatives in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001.

Using interviews, Wettstein shows how simple things can serve as links to life as it once was. For the people concerned, the objects are charged with emotion. However, each object's ability to evoke memories is wholly dependent on the beholder and his or her experiences. It is thus unclear to what extent the object's emotional charge will be passed on to later generations. For someone who does not have her own memories of her and her sister's sailor suits, finding a mother-of-pearl button will not be a link to their childhood and a loved sister. Neither will it be an object to be stored for safety's sake in a safe-deposit box; it would look for all the world like any other old haberdashery.

One of Wettstein's contacts, Roald Hoffman, was born in 1937 to a Jewish family in what was then Poland. When he was six, Roald and his mother were forced to go into hiding for fifteenth months. On one occasion at the time, Roald was playing with another child, and he says that they played 'bury things in the forest', something they had seen the adults doing in real life. There is much to indicate that this had a similar background to the stories from Estonia with which this book is concerned.

The Canadian author K.Linda Kivi describes in her novel If Home is a Place the ways in which exodus and emigration can affect a family over three generations. The novel opens with a woman and her daughters fleeing the Soviet occupation of Estonia during the Second World War. It then alternates between the refugees' struggle for survival in war-torn Germany and life as first- and second-generation immigrants in Canada at the time of Estonia's return to independence in 1991.

The opening events in Kivi's novel thus coincide with the historical context that concerns us here. Amazingly, the novel also includes a description of how family possessions – pots and pans, frying-pans, and cutlery wrapped in rags – were hidden by being buried in the ground. As the fleeing mother puts it in the novel:

What is buried cannot be stolen. At least not before we return. If we return.

This assertion encompasses both the reason why the things were hidden and a nagging doubt about the future. The very act of digging becomes a memory process:

The deeper we dig the more voices there are in the air. Old ones. Ones that live in my head.

That digging the ground is also a way of unearthing memories is something that has been recognized in contemporary archaeology. In Kivi's novel, the act of digging a hole also turns the mother's thoughts to their relationship to the soil that had fed them:

I cup a handful of soil in my palms. This earth has given and given, fed us our potatoes, cabbage, beets, turnips, parsnips and carrots for so many years. ... And what have I given in return? A few shovels of manure from the cow and pig pens dumped onto the garden every year. And now, my pots and pans.

She is saying something important here about the smallholder's relationship with the soil: it is not only a hiding-place close by, but also something to live in symbiosis with. The soil gives people safety and food on their tables, and it is to the soil that they entrust the objects they cannot carry with them as they leave – objects that conjure up memories of childhood:

The big frying pan still smells of lard. And somewhere there's a faint smell of fish. Is it from my soup kettle? When we were still young, Leoni and I, not just twins but friends as well, used to fish for perch in the Baltic. And our grandmother would make soup, the peppercorns and bay leaves floating on top as the fish flaked from the bones and sank to the bottom where the potatoes cooked.

Kivi's novel is fiction, but the story is still rooted in reality. She herself is a second-generation immigrant from Estonia, and the story of the buried belongings is based on her mother's memories of a real event. It took place in a region of Estonia that is still part of Russia today, which is one reason why the family have not attempted to recover their hidden possessions.

Memory and history

Objects help us remember the past, but the extent to which our memories reflect what actually happened can vary considerably. Sometimes we call to mind events, settings, and situations we once experienced; sometimes we remember other people's tales as our own memories. Memory can also be a later construct, making sense of things after the fact where there perhaps was none from the beginning. Sometimes it is a matter of conscious elucidation; sometimes of unconscious suppression and addition. Often it is difficult to determine what is what.

When it comes to historical research, the role of memory is hotly disputed. In more traditional, source-based research, historians are sceptical about the scholarly worth of memory. Memory is felt to be far too subjective and uncertain to lend itself to research making any claim to strict objectivity. In more recent historical research, however, there has been an increasing interest in people's memories.


Excerpted from Treasured Memories by Mats Burström, Charlotte Merton. Copyright © 2012 Nordic Academic Press and Mats Burström. Excerpted by permission of Nordic Academic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface 7

1 Hidden in the ground 9

2 Artefactual memory 13

Contemporary archaeology 14

Things to remember 15

Memory and history 19

3 Historical background 23

Estonia seized by the Soviet Union, 1940 23

German occupation 1941-1944 25

Soviet reoccupation and mass exodus, 1944 26

Continued Soviet occupation, 1944-1991 28

Estonian independence, 1991 29

4 Stories 31

Searching for stories 33

Unknown knowledge 34

Lost knowledge 35

Secret knowledge 37

Fragmentary knowledge 39

Undervalued knowledge 40

Stories about buried family treasure 40

Letti Rapp 40

Helga Nõu 45

Ädu Aunver and Indrek Aunver 60

Maret Kalm 66

Ester Salasoo 69

Kalju and Birgitta Luksepp 73

Ahto Kant 75

Adam Kreek 81

Filip Laurits 83

Toomas Petmanson 88

Other voices 90

Maiu Preismann 90

Tiiu Andræ 92

Rutt Hinrikus 93

Pille-Mai Laas 94

Erwin Pari 94

Virve Raag 94

P. Aarne Vesilind 95

Urmas Wompa 97

Aino Müllerbeck 98

Maarja Hollo 100

Aksella Kirotaja and Regina Kirotaja 101

Anonymous Swedish-Estonian 102

Andres Tvauri 102

5 The land as memory bank 105

Recurring narrative themes 106

Why hide things by burying them? 108

Looking beyond Estonia 110

Archaeological reflections 111

Notes 115

References 121

About the author 125

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