A Story of Ago Ambre: Heading to the Free World

Jun 14, 2019

In the summer of 1944, during the German occupation of Estonia, I was required to work on a farm. I was a boy of 14 years old. I was injured, and a serious infection developed in my leg and I was hospitalized in Tartu. The Red Army was advancing and the town’s capture was imminent. My mother was going to leave and she wasn’t going to leave me behind. The surgeon in charge said I was not fit to travel. My mother insisted and we left at night on a crowded truck. A few kilometers north of Tartu the highway was bombed by a Soviet plane. I was running a high fever and was in great pain. We finally came to a stop at a schoolhouse where the truck broke down.

We stayed there for the night. A man could not stand my screaming and forced a whole bottle of vodka down my throat. I was absolutely cold in the morning. My mother managed to get us to a small railroad station.

There was a Wehrmacht physician, a captain, who looked at me and declared me “transportunfähig.” He put me in an ambulance and took me to the main first aid station that he had set up. At the time it had no patients as the front had not yet advanced that far. A couple of days later when I had responded well to his treatment, he put us on a hospital train for Tallinn. I wound up in a German military field hospital. When Tallinn was about to fall, I was given a choice: transfer to a civilian hospital or take a chance and go to Germany. The decision was mine. There was no future under the Soviets. My father had been arrested by NKVD and died in a Soviet prison. My brother was a marked man, who stayed to resist but was later captured and deported.

My mother, my grandmother and I were loaded on a cargo ship along with field hospital nurses, a company of German infantry and a few hundred Russian prisoners of war. The cargo consisted of munitions, barrels of fuel, and for some reason a lot of cabbages. The ship lost the convoy in heavy fog and sailed right through a minefield. We landed at Neufahrwasser, a port in Danzig. Everybody left the ship except the three of us. Night fell and the German field police came. Wer seid ihr? Flüchtlinge, we said. Soon six Soviet prisoners of war were summoned. Four of them carried me on the stretcher and two carried my mother’s and grandmother’s suitcases. They marched us to a camp behind barbed wire. I was lying on a stretcher on the floor, looking at three-tiered bunks, one of which sheltered my mother and grandmother. Lice were crawling on the support posts.

The next morning there was a medical examination, and a German physician attached a tag to me. An ambulance came for us. The driver, a jovial redhead from Rhineland, looked at my tag. He frowned and said that we wouldn’t want to go where the authorities were sending us. He tore up my tag and took me to a civilian hospital in Gotenhafen. He found a room for my mother and grandmother at his aunt’s house.

As the Red Army was bearing down on Gotenhafen, my mother managed to get us tickets to Leipzig. There we stayed until the air raids and the Red Army made the city a rather unpleasant place. We wound up in a small village in Thuringia. After the U.S. Army broke the German resistance we went to Jena, where all the foreigners were gathered in German artillery barracks. The Americans did not know what to with us. And the area was going to be part of the Soviet zone of occupation. Anxiety reigned. Eventually our status was cleared up, and we were not treated as Soviet citizens subject to forceful repatriation. Some seven hundred Estonians were loaded on open coal cars for a journey to Augsburg that took seven days.

We stayed in Augsburg until May 1946. My mother married a civil engineer, Voldemar Metsik. He was a resident in the Estonian camp in Geislingen. So we moved to Geislingen. As luck would have it, Voldemars neighbor in Estonia had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920’s. That kind man sponsored us. We arrived in the United States In 1949. The rest is a typical immigrant story: menial jobs in the beginning, better opportunities as skills and qualifications from pre-war life were recognized and education continued. We were fortunate to participate in what I consider were the best years in America.

In 1978 I decided to visit Estonia. We stayed in Hotel Viru. I was working for the US government at the time. The room was bugged. I looked at the bathroom and commented on the small size of the only towel. About ten minutes later a maid knocked on the door and explained that the small towel was for drying feet. She said she was just coming to deliver a fresh supply of towels. She also advised us that if we wanted to discuss confidential matters we should do so in the bathroom with the shower turned on full blast…

We visited went to Tartu, my hometown. We had to obtain a special permit for this trip. A driver – a KGB officer – who was assigned to us from Inturist, drove us very fast. I went to visit my old home, but I stopped at the door. The five-room apartment that we occupied now housed five families. There were five beat-up mailboxes on the door. This was no longer my home.

When we left Tallinn by boat, it was like leaving a prison. People had come to see us off and they had given us flowers. When we, together with a few hundred other visitors from the free world, got on the ship our friends and relatives remained behind barbed wire. We dropped all the flowers they had given us in the wake of the ship. That picture stayed in my mind: the bay of Tallinn full of flowers.