Introduction by Emily Gilbert
I am delighted to present the experiences of Juri Noot, an Estonian who came to Britain after the Second World War with his family. Like thousands of other Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, Juri and his family had been displaced from their homeland during the Second World War, in their case, Juri’s father had been forcibly recruited into the Russian army and the rest of the family had been forced to work as labourers in Germany. After the war, Juri and his family travelled to a DP camp in Germany where they finally found safety. Juri was then able to come to Britain with his family as dependents on the British EVW schemes. Much of Juri’s story revolves around his experiences of Christmas as this is when Juri contacted me in response to the previous posts on here about how Christmas is celebrated among the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian communities in Britain Many thanks to Juri for sharing his fascinating experiences.
Juri begins by talking about Estonians who were recruited into the Russian Army:
Now a comment about men who served in the Red Army. My blood father was one of these. My uncle was arrested by the NKVD as an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1941. He had been in the Boy Scout movement, was sent to Irkutsk in Siberia, and shot on 03/06/1942. My father was guilty by association, but mobilized into the Red Army because he proved to be a good military trainer. When his brother’s ‘guilt’ was discovered, he was sent to the gulag originally reported shot, but rescued through his commanding officer’s requests. As he was taken away when I was 2 months old, I only found all this out when our family contacts were re-established after Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ and more so later.My father later took part in the Battle for Velikie Luki, where he was lucky to survive, then in some of the fighting for Leningrad, in the attacks on his own country, and the battles for Courland, where Estonians and Latvians in German uniform fought against Estonians and Latvians in Red Army uniform. I finally met my father on neutral territory in Sweden in 1969 and many times more after the fall of the Soviet Union.
He then described his family’s experiences being forcibly recruited as labourers in Germany during the war:
Our family arrived in the Reich as Ostarbeiter or Eastern Workers from Estonia in September 1944, as those of us who had undergone one year of Soviet Red Terror had no wish for any more with the return of the Red Army. The was was true of many citizens, and their dependents, of Latvia and Lithuania. As I was 3 are the time, I have no memories of Christmas 1944, which we spent in Bavaria. Christmas 1945 and 1946 we spent in a DP camp in Greven, Westphalia. In this case Father Christmas arrived with a bunch of twigs in one hand and a small sack in the other. I was asked if I had been good during the previous year and, on receiving the affirmative, I was asked to recite a verse. When this was done, I was handed the sack of presents, of which there were not many, seeing that the war had just finished. I have no memories of what food might had been served.
He then described his experiences in a DP Camp in Germany, where they found safety after the war ended:
We were not DPs until 1945 and I don’t remember that Christmas at all, except that we were in the DP camp at Greven in Westphalia, having moved there from Flensburg-Murrwik on the Danish border because there would be no heating available for the 1945-46 winter. The British and UNRRA authorities apparently had enough foresight in those days. So we were allowed to move to Greven in September 1945. However, at Christmas 1946 I remember a Father Christmas figure standing there with a bundle of twigs in one hand and a sack in the other. He shook the twigs and asked whether I had been a good boy and, on receiving the affirmative, asked me to recite a verse – in Estonian of course, which I still remember, something to the effect that the moon is shining, there is starlight, the rooster is dozing on his perch and the hens are asleep. I then received some kind of present – there were not many about in 1946 DP camps!
Juri then discussed his family’s initial experiences in Britain, when they spent some time at the Priory Road Camp in Hull:
We spent Christmas 1947 in a Nissen hut in a Northumbrian forest, part of a forestry workers’ camp manned by Estonians and Latvians after being turfed out of our lodgings in Belford because the landlord did not want foreigners in his kitchen. We were all ill, but the forestry workers tried to make life better by giving us tinned chicken. From Christmas 1948 to the point when my brothers and I ceased to be single men our Christmases continued to have a strong Estonian flavour with the Estonian equivalent of home-baked pirogi, cabbage rolls, egg and rice pies, sult, cream and cinnamon rolls and at least two large coffee and cream cakes or Torten taking pride of place. Presents were given out on Christmas Eve, much to the surprise of school friends. A real Christmas tree was brought in and decorated with real candles in many colours mounted in clip-on holders. These were lit every evening from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. There was a small meal on Christmas Eve. We started having the main British Christmas meal on Christmas Day with Estonian additions, such as saurekraut and rice, very soon, with a secondary dinner on Boxing Day. There was a second Christmas Dinner meal on New Years Day. After a small meal on Twelfth Night the Christmas tree was ceremoniously burnt piece by piece in the fire-place to capture the smell of burning fir.
After that, Juri notes that: we were in a house bought jointly by three Estonian families in Newcastle upon Tyne, as my stepfather was now working as an interpreter in a multinational miners’ hostel in Ryton-on-Tyne, nowadays a dormitory town for Newcastle, but then semi-rural. Stepfather spoke and wrote in six languages: Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Russian, German and English.
We moved to Newcastle from Hull Priory Road Family Holding Hostel because conditions in the North-East were not favourable to us – the elderly couple we shared the premises were giving us signals that they wanted us out. We ended up there because the landlord in Belford, Northumberland, where we had been sent originally, did not want foreigners in his kitchen before Christmas 1947 and we ended up in a Nissen hut in a Northumbrian forest. This was part of a camp for foreign forestly workers – Latvians and Estonians – who provided us with tinned chicken for our first Christmas in the UK. We spent two months here in idyllic conditions for me, who spent the time running about among the trees and enjoying life as a five-year-old. After a stay in an old folks home in Berwick-on-Tweed we ended up back in Belford at minister’s house who was favourably disposed to us, having lived in Germany before 1939 and had no problem with non-Brits. Here I learnt to speak street-English and to play football.
We left the Hall family house on 31.07.1948 on a hot day, catching a United services bus, which took 5 hours to reach Hull. We were then transferred to Priory Road barracks. At first things seemed OK, but stepfather had to go back to the North-East. Apparently the food was not too brilliant This was served in some kind of hall, of which I have a vague memory. I attended an Estonian Sunday School and carried on speaking the language, also reading books in Estonian from some kind of sources. There were Estonian families there, with whom we became friends and one of which joined us in Newcastle. My mother became friendly with a Ukrainian lady as well. I went to school in Hull, being taken there by a bus and coming back the same way. One day, however, a Lithuanian lad was thrown, of fell, off the bus, which ran over his legs, and I refused to go back to school, as I was a direct witness of the event. I had mumps there as well, but recovered. However, my youngest brother developed pneumonia after bronchitis in the December of 1948. There was a sick bay at the camp, but no proper medical care. The camp doctor was Polish, but his job, as he told my mother, depended on the camp authorities, who were sympathetic to Communism. As the boyfriend of one of the women in charge told my my mother: ‘If we had our way, we would send you back to Uncle Joe. He wold know what to do with you.’ My mother took my brother to Cottingham Cottage Hospital, accompanied by a Ukrainian lady, who had a coffin with her to collect her dead baby who had died from pneumonia. So my memories of Hull are not exactly happy. Another brother went to live there and opened an antiques shop in Hessle, where he died in 1985, aged 39.
My stepfather – at that time I thought he was my real father – took our family (my mother, me and my two stepbrothers) to Hull Priory Road on 31 July 1948 via the United bus service running from Newcastle to Hull. The reason for this move was that there was nowhere else for us to go at that time. Stepfather was working as an interpreter at Ryton Miners’ Hostel near Newcastle, but the accommodation we had had had proved to be unsuitable both for us and the landlord/landlady in Ryton, where I had just started school, not knowing more than three words of English.
We arrived in Hull after a hot and sticky five-hour journey and were taken to our room in one of many barracks. (This eventually led to a post-DP joke: at one time we had the Baroque style, now we have the barrack style). First impressions were favourable, but these proved to be misleading after a few weeks, once childhood illnesses and politics caught up with us. This ensured that our stay was not any longer than we could help. It seems that the authorities were not too keen to have so many anti-Communist elements among them. Once, when my mother went to sort out a problem, she was told: ‘Your lot should be sent to Uncle Joe – he would know how to deal with you.’ However, I digress. I restarted school somewhere in Hull. We were taken there by special bus every morning and brought back every evening. This was fine until one of the lads, a Lithuanian, fell off when larking about with others on the open back platform and was run over by the reversing vehicle. I saw this happen and refused to go back to school. The lad was OK, though. Then one of my brothers, technically stepbrothers, had mumps and bronchitis, and I joined him in these ailments, also tonsillitis.
There were other Estonian families in the camp, and I also remember one very friendly Ukrainian lady my mother knew. Across a wide grass strip lived a Estonian family with a young daughter. The father had served in the Wehrmacht. Near us lived a young Estonian woman with her young son. Her husband, who had also been in the Wehrmacht and had been captured in Denmark, teamed up with my stepfather and a young Estonian miner near Newcastle to help buy a house in Newcastle.
By now it was November 1948 and the weather was cold and damp. My youngest brother fell ill with whooping-cough and ended up in the camp sick-bay. As supervision was minimal – staff shortages – he developed pneumonia and was reluctantly sent to a hospital in Cottingham, where he was seriously ill. He was 18 months old at the time. I remember being told that, as my mother was taking him to the hospital, she was accompanied by a Ukrainian mother who was going to collect her dead baby from the hospital. Fortunately my brother recovered, the purchase of the house in Newcastle was approved by the Rock Permanent Building Society, and we moved out of Priory Road Family Holding Hostel on 21 December 1948.
….when we left Hull on 21 December 1948, I was not too sorry, even though I was only seven at the time. There were more ups and downs before things settled down, and many more before I found out who I really was.
I remember lying in bed in Newcastle, thinking that I could now relax. This, however, was only temporary.
Juri concludes by noting that:
After many visits to Estonia since 1992 one of my sons and I have started eating trout baked in butter and parsley sauce, accompanied by mashed creamed potato and peas, in recent years.
In Britain, our meals have also been accompanied more and more by various wines as affluence has increased, in stark contrast to starker days. But we were quite happy to be together, which we still are of course. Mother, father and stepfather have passed on, but their memories and strong characters live on – strong, otherwise they would not have survived the gulag, the DP camps, and the various trials and tribulations in the UK.
by Juri Noot