Part of illustration by Ragni Svensson.

Features Memory Caches

What was buried by Balts who were exiled to Siberia, before they were taken away? These finds are now being digged up as examples of modern archaeology. Helga Nõu remembers when, aged nine, she was told where a secret was buried and how she was sworn to never ever tell.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1:2013, 4-6 pp
Published on on May 13, 2013

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When the Russians occupied Estonia in 1944, Estonians saved their possessions by hiding them in the ground. We’ve known for some time that this occurred, and thanks to new archeological research, we now know it was common.

The person behind this groundbreaking study is the archeologist Mats Burström of Stockholm University. He had heard tales of buried objects in Estonia and wanted to investigate further. Estonian archeologists had never concerned themselves with the question and other Estonian academics told him the reports were essentially “modern legends”.

“Unfortunately, it’s a good story, but hardly true,” wrote one scholar by e-mail. “I’ve interviewed people who fled in their own boats and helped others flee […] and none of them ever told me anything of the kind.”

This made Burström even more determined to keep digging. He reached out to organizations concerned with the Estonian diaspora in Sweden, the US, Canada, and Australia — and came into contact with people who had heard from a friend who told them about a relative who had a neighbor . . .  and so on. A few years later he was able to confirm about 30 cases of buried objects in his book Treasured Memories: Tales of Buried Belongings in Wartime Estonia, which was published last spring.

“And I’ve only scratched the surface. I am convinced that many hundreds, probably several thousands, of the 70,000 Estonians who fled the country buried belongings before they fled. It is interesting that an event that happened so recently has not been documented in writing — even though we have such an abundance of texts about that time! What we needed here instead was archeological studies and oral histories for the burying of possessions to become known to the world.”

After the book was published and Burström had written a long article in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, even more Estonians got in touch and told him about their own families’ buried belongings. It was as if Burström had released a pent-up need among people to share their deeply personal stories. So why didn’t the extent of these burials come to light earlier?

“There are probably many reasons. People didn’t want to talk about it for privacy reasons — these were personal things they had buried, after all, which were nobody else’s business. In some cases, people had buried weapons or things that belonged to a club or an organization. They did not want to spread that information. Even after the liberation, a lot of Estonians have been generally reluctant to talk about the dark Soviet era that contains so much pain and suffering.”

Most of the burials took place in 1944 during the second Soviet occupation of Estonia. People feared that they would be forced to leave their homes in a hurry and did not want the Russians to steal or destroy all of their belongings. And so they buried diaries, photographs, and other belongings of personal significance. Things that would be dangerous if found by the occupying power — such as banned books — were also hidden in the ground. It was even common to bury ordinary household utensils and china, partly because it would be a violation if things associated with the safety and security of one’s own home were stolen, partly because they were actually convinced that they would soon be able to return — and that it might be hard to get hold of kitchen items quickly when they did.

It was the message of the United States and Britain in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 that convinced Estonians — and other Balts — that they would be free once the war was over. In the Charter, the Allied powers declared that they “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and they “desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned”. For many years after the Soviet occupation in 1944, long after the war ended, the Balts hoped that the British and the Americans would come to their rescue. It was this hope that kept the Baltic guerrilla movements — especially in Lithuania — working long into the 1950s. People also continued burying objects long after the war. Then it was fear of being deported to Siberia that made many people want to hide their belongings.

In fact, it took more than a few years to regain liberty — it took until 1991. Estonia has now been free for more than 20 years. What has happened to the buried objects? Some of the people Burström spoke to have never made any attempt to dig them up. Either the importance of recovering the belongings has dissipated with time, or people were sure they would be unable to find them. In some cases it would be downright impossible, since a road or a house has been built on the site. Others have embarked on a treasure hunt but failed to find their belongings. Burström participated in such a treasure hunt with one Ahto Kant, who grew up on a farm 50 kilometers south of Tallinn. His father, a fighter pilot, had buried a small collection of silver objects wrapped in oilcloth.

“Even though we were assisted by an expert metal detectorist, we were unable to find the objects,” Burström relates. “It was disappointing, of course. But the search wasn’t worthless. Ahto reached a kind of closure. And while we were looking, we found other metal objects that brought back memories of his childhood, including a rusty door handle from the farm where he had lived and an Estonian twopence from 1934.”

But there are families who have succeeded in finding and digging up their belongings. The Rammus family might be the most spectacular example. During the war, they had lived on a farm about 20 kilometers west of Tallinn. The father had buried an oak barrel filled with family possessions just before they set off for Sweden, in September 1944, in their little fishing boat. Only the son, Ulo, had been told where the barrel was buried. In 1998, he and his sister Letti returned to the plot of land. The buildings had been burned down by the Soviet military, who considered them a security risk. But Ulo managed to find the farmhouse foundation, paced off the distance to the burial site, thrust his spade into the light soil and began to dig — and shortly thereafter struck the oak barrel. Up into the light, after 54 years in the ground, came a pair of old Ericsson telephones, a cut-glass decanter, drinking glasses, a silver watch, silver coins from the Tsarist period, jewelry, and a good deal more. One box contained tubes of oil paint that had belonged to the father, who was interested in art. His daughter Letti, who herself is an artist, now uses them in her own paintings on rare occasions.

“It is interesting to see how the importance of these objects changes over time,” says Burström. “Before they were buried, they had a practical, mundane importance. Once the objects were in the ground and the years passed, they became memory caches of sorts, memory banks where the memories were kept alive. As long as the memories lived, the hope of return also lived. When the objects later resurface, they may once again take on practical importance — and also become reminders of times past and the people one loved.”

Some families hid their belongings in cavities between house walls or under layers of sawdust insulation in the attic. But it seems that people most often chose to bury their belongings — partly because houses can burn down or be demolished, partly because the ground has a particular symbolic power. In the ground they had buried their families, the ground had given them food for the table — and now it was to the ground that they committed their most precious possessions.

In addition to both the people digging up buried objects since the liberation, and those who willingly or unwillingly let them stay in the ground, there is a third case: those who did the forbidden and dug up the objects while Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union.

Aleksander Raukas was a chief forester, living temporarily in Pärnu when the second Soviet occupation came knocking at the door in the summer of 1944. Based on his experiences of the first occupation in 1940—1941, when thousands of his countrymen were deported, Raukas feared the worst for himself and his family. He had not yet made the decision to flee — that would come a few weeks later — but he wanted to hide his dearest belongings. And so he got hold of two empty oil barrels, cleaned the insides and coated them with tar on the outside. In these barrels, he placed photographic archives and other mementos, an Estonian reference book, needlework, a hunting rifle, linen, and clothing. He took the barrels into the woods and buried them in two different places in dry, sandy soil.

His daughter Helga was nine years old when her father took her to the hiding places in the woods and charged her with a very important task: remember these places.

“I understood the seriousness of the task,” Helga Nõu relates when we meet in the apartment in Tallinn returned to the family after the liberation. I was not allowed to write anything down about the hiding place. For weeks afterwards, I fought to remember exactly how many steps away from a certain pine tree the barrels lay. To this day, I would absolutely be able to find them, at least one of them.”

But she never had to look. Her uncle Heino dug up both barrels 14 years after they were put in the ground. The year was 1958, Stalin had been dead for five years, conditions in the occupied homeland had improved somewhat, and it had become possible to correspond with relatives abroad. For Aleksander Raukas’s family, the dramatic flight to Sweden was already far in the past, but the story could easily have ended with the family being killed. They had left late one night after saying goodbye to Helga’s paternal grandmother, who did not want to go with them.

“We told her we would be back in a month or two. But that was the last time we saw her.”

They traded a crate of vodka and a brass barometer for a place on a barge hidden in a bay. A German bridge guard had been bribed to look the other way when the boat headed out, but engine problems had delayed the departure and the guard had been relieved before the boat could get started. The new guard shouted “halt” three times before he opened fire.

“The bullets hit the water all around us,” Helga remembers. “The distance was very short, so I suspect he deliberately fired away from the boat. Even in the midst of the flames of war, there were people with kind hearts.”

Helga had already moved away from home when her father Aleksander got the slightly daft and defiant idea of sending a treasure map to his brother-in-law Heino in the occupied homeland. He sketched maps from memory and wrote detailed directions. He ended up with four double-sided pages that he hid in a wooden sugar box between one side of the box and the cardboard liner. By means of clever wording in the letter he sent along with the box, Heino was given to understand that there was something hidden inside beyond the visible, innocent contents. A tiny speck of paint showed where the treasure map was hidden in the side of the box.

Uncle Heino, an adventurous sort, took his motorcycle and drove the 150 kilometers to the hiding places in the woods. This was no easy task. The woods and surrounding area had changed, trees had been felled, and new roads had been laid. He had to go back several times and talk to people who knew what the area looked like in the past. He finally found both barrels and enlisted the help of a colleague to drive them home.

“Uncle Heino would have been given a considerable prison sentence if he had been caught, of course. But he obviously got a kick out of defying the Russians.”

In the hidden letter containing the instructions, Aleksander wrote that he had “no need” of the buried things. “I just want to know whether anything is left and whether any of the photographs can be saved, but even that isn’t very important. Life has taken other paths, and all that once was seems now as if a dream, far removed from reality.”

The possessions proved to be well preserved after 14 years in the ground. Heino sent photographic negatives to Sweden a few at a time, in separate letters, to avoid the censor. Helga and her husband, Enn Nõu, had prints made from them in the 1960s. We flip through the photo albums and look at pictures from Pärnu of Helga standing next to her two younger brothers and her parents, just weeks before the flight, pictures that would never have been preserved for posterity if it had not been for her father Aleksander’s inventiveness and Uncle Heino’s courage.

“It was an amazing feeling to suddenly see pictures from my childhood, pictures that had lain hidden in the ground for so many years. I was able to see my lost childhood in Estonia once again.”

Aleksander Raukas died in 1988 and thus never lived to see the liberation. During the last years of his life, it became possible to visit Estonia, but he did not want to go.

“He was embittered and said that the Soviet powers had destroyed and ravaged the country. He did not want to see the misery; he wanted to remember the country as it once was.”

The hidden and later unburied objects — what significance have they had? Helga ponders for a moment:

“When we fled the country, they meant nothing. Survival was the only thing that mattered. But with time, the objects became symbols, of sorts, of what we had lost. Digging them up and taking care of them became a way of overcoming the evil power that wanted to take them and our entire country away from us.”

Mats burström says that Helga’s family history — like several similar stories brought to light in his book — should give archeologists food for thought. Archeologists on digs often discard modern finds in the belief that they have nothing to tell us. They are regarded as nothing more than coincidental finds of trash and junk.

“There is every reason to rethink the chronological cleansing that is often done as a matter of routine at archeological digs,” writes Burström in his book, which is already available in English and may soon be translated to Estonian as well.

He is, however, far from first in the line of archeologists with an interest in objects of the present day. Studying modern consumption patterns, for instance, has been an international trend in archeology for several decades. Perhaps the most well-known study came out of the US, where archeologists examined people’s household rubbish and were able to determine that what they really ate and drank differed from what they reported in interviews. And the explanation was not that they deliberately lied about having a healthier lifestyle: they truly believed that they drank less alcohol and ate less junk food than they actually did.

Still, Burström is probably the first archeologist in the world to focus on the study of objects buried by people fleeing their homelands in the 20th century — even though such burials have in all likelihood occurred over large parts of the world.

“If there had been any other study, I think I would have heard about it by now,” he says.

Examples of people burying objects exist in many countries victimized by war and occupation: Finns in Karelia, the French under German occupation, Japanese detained in Canadian internment camps, people driven from their homes in Yugoslavia. But nowhere have the burials been studied in detail. Burström has received many positive reactions from archeologist colleagues in other countries — which might result in an international European project in the field.

“I must say I have become especially curious about France. The word is that the French also buried bottles of wine.” ≈

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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