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TEM at the memorial stone in 2004.


Millions of years ago life was simple. A great variety of animals populated the world, each molded by the evolutionary process to take advantage of its environment to survive and thrive.


Some moved on six legs, some on four and some on two. They cared for their offspring, cooperated, protected their territories, showed affection to each other and communicated essentials. They formed herds or tribes with the size of these groupings limited by the ability to interact and to form trust. Because this need to bond Y. M. Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’ observed that the number of individuals in a group did not exceed more than one or two dozen. They survived relying on instinct. They hunted and gathered, but did not plant or plan. Some learned to use stones or sticks as tools. 


But then occurred a monumental event: a two legged animal species underwent an unprecedented change around 70,000 years ago. Harari calls this event the cognitive revolution. This species developed the ability to grasp abstract concepts – and that made them different from all other animals - they became us. We were different even from other bipedal animals such as Neanderthals, and we had a major leg up on all other living creatures. And we knew it.


This new ability allowed usto develop and accept concepts that had no physical form that could be touched or felt: existence after physical death and supernatural beings that we thought controlled our environment. For such imagined beings or concepts we developed symbols and icons as a shorthand for these concepts. With this ability we contemplated what may have been and what might be. We developed sophisticated means of communication. Different groups codified their beliefs to become religions that we use to bind us into groupings vastly greater than those possible before the cognitive revolution. We no longer depend on personal relationships to form alliances.


We sapiens have come a long way. We dig up bones of our ancestors to study our prehistory. We use our tool making ability to create creature comforts, and we are now contemplating to explore other planets. Sadly, abstract ideas have often divided ourselves into ’us’ and ‘them’. Thus this cognitive ability can go either way: to divide or to unite. It depends.


We often view the ‘them’ with suspicion and sometimes with justification. It has been used to start wars by charismatic persons by creating an icon or concept which his or her tribe buys into. Consider the concept of racial superiority used by Hitler to justify conquering more living space for his tribe. His icon was the swastika. Fortunately with his death and subsequent scientific research this concept died. (Except perhaps in North Carolina?) Similarly Communism was promoted as a personality cult, using as its symbol a hammer and a sickle. But history has shown that it was unworkable and has been discarded.


Now consider a better concept. We read that Moses declared that he had received ten guiding laws from a supernatural being whose name he was forbidden to utter. There is no physical proof that Moses ever existed; he may have been created by Israelite scribes in exile in Damascus 2700 years ago. But these guiding laws i.e. the Ten Commandments have continued to be a uniting force for our civilization. (Even as we often do not to live by them.)


Abstract concepts such as dogmas, nationhood, constitution, a shared language or guiding principles can either bind or divide us. The abstractions are complex so we need visible symbols as a shorthand to know if you are one of ‘us’ or not – without benefit of a personal relationships. We make them out of clay or cloth or stone or parchment; we write songs, poems and epics about mythical heroes. Mine is Kalevipoeg chained to the gate of Manala.


We need them for our need of identity. I am no different and accept those concepts with their symbols which adhere to my values. I condemn those that don’t. When I see someone with a blueblack-white lapel pin I know that I am sharing something with that person. 


Some symbols are suspect, such as statues of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general - statues erected decades after the Civil War. Do they signify his brilliance in leading an army to its predestined defeat, or are they a call for resistance to the abolition of slavery which undercut the Southern economy? I see in the statues a symbol of racism. 


Another concept that I rejected was the symbolism of the Bronze Statue of a Red Army soldier as a liberator while it stood in Tallinn’s main square. To most Estonians it was a reminder of the occupation by its paranoid neighbor. (If the statue gave comfort to some who lived through the inhuman siege of Leningrad, the statue can be justified but only if erected in Leningrad.)


During the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union, the ‘liberators’ placed statues of their leaders throughout Estonia. When I took my son to visit Estonia in 1990 then, as he did not speak Estonian, I taught him to ask “kus on WC?” (Where is a toilet?) He later told me that there was no need to ask because there was always a statue of Lenin pointing his arm towards the nearest public toilet.



A statue of Lenin, now in a recycling center


Is Christmas symbolism suspect? For many merchants the Christmas season will “make or break” them financially and competition is great for customers. Loudspeakers in public places blare ‘I am dreaming of a white Christmas…’ When we hear that we become like Pavlov’s dogs who through training react to a gesture by salivating, though no food is in sight. In our case we go on a buying spree when we hear ‘Jingle Bells.’ Any kind of symbolism of noting the return to longer days is secondary. Celebrating the birth of Jesus is confined to church services. Viido wrote in his column in this newspaper that before 1840 there was little of such consumerism in Estonia. Why? Maybe because we did not have loudspeakers in stores or on street corners blaring music. Time has moved on: Coca Cola Co has even standardized the configuration of the distributor of gifts as a red suited, bearded jolly old man who brings presents, bought from Best Buy or Wall Mart.




This article started with the premise that when our species acquired the ability to create abstract concepts and developed symbols to represent them, we were able to unite people without the need for the participants to know each other personally.


Despite my cynicism towards symbols and icons, there are events and people whom I want to remember with gratitude. I supported enthusiastically the construction of the Blue Hills memorial wall by Arvo Puu, and subsequently the improvement of memorial stone erected by Toronto Estonian Men’s Choir (TEM). These memorialize the men who fought in the 1944 defensive battles in the Blue Hills of  East Estonia. My cousin Uno was one of them in an  artillery unit.


This heroic battle stalled the Red Army long enough to make possible for tens of thousands of Estonians to escape to the west. My family left only a day before the Red Army entered Tallinn. We boarded a transport ship and ended up in Bavaria, eventually putting our roots down in Connecticut. My cousin Ülo, back from Finland, found a fishing boat with people heading for Sweden who took him along. Eventually he ended up in Canada, putting down his roots in Toronto. 


I was 11 years old on 22 September 1944. As we boarded the ship I considered running away from my parents to find a partisan group in the woods to join. This was a very strong emotion. But then it occurred to me that I might just get in the way of the men I wanted to join, and I continued to climb up the gang-plank. What a complex emotion! Wanting to defend a nation of people that I never met, but joining a small partisan group that can only survive by mutual trust. I was weighing two conflicting concepts: the larger ‘us’ and the tribe like ‘us’ from the pre-cognitive times.


Much later I interviewed many of my relatives who fought in WWII. I asked why did they risk their life. Uniformly the answer was: “for Estonia”. One thing is certain: they did not fight so the likes of me might flee; it had to do with a piece of land dear to them. In a book about the American Civil War a Confederate soldier was asked by a Union soldier why he volunteered to fight. After all he was not a slave holder and had no stake in the outcome. He answered “because you are here”. I see a parallel here. But some answers from Estonian fighting men were more complex.


In 1999 my friends from Seattle, Leo and Malle Hannibal, Hilve Shuey and I, toured Estonia. We rented a car and headed to Narva Jõesuu where Leo had spent summers as a child. On arrival there it was difficult to get directions because hardly anyone could speak Estonian. It turned out that the hotel which Leo remembered had been demolished because it was in the Soviet defensive zone. 


Next we headed to Vaivara, which was our main objective on the trip. We were directed to the Blue Hills, the site where in 1944 whole Soviet army divisions were destroyed. To the east of the three hills was an open field which the enemy had to cross to reach the defensive positions on the hills. The defenders were not only Estonians but also Dutch, Norwegians, Germans, and others. Here the battles were of historic proportions, one of the greatest of WWII in terms of deaths and injuries, and ammunition expended. However, being far from the western war arena, it did not get any coverage by historians. In the 640-page book ‘World War II’ by C. L.

Sultzberger Estonia gets mentioned by name only on two occasions.


DSC 4766

Battleground memorial wall in 2007


At the foot of the ‘Old Cemetery’ we met Arvo Puu who on his own initiative was constructing a three-foot-high wall to memorialize the valor of the men who fought there. It was reserved, nothing that would infuriate the ethnic Russians living in the area. Arvo explained that if the victors can have monuments so why should not we? We made a monetary donation and left after having imagined the carnage that must have occurred there as the Red Army crossed the open terrain. 


Two and a half weeks later I returned to the Blue Hills, this time as a member of the Toronto Estonian Men’s choir on a concert tour of Estonia. Before being bussed to the hills, we sang in Narva’s historic fortress in a joint concert with a local boys’ choir. The boys sang in perfect Estonian, but when I tried to talk to them after the concert none could speak a word in Estonian.


At the memorial wall we were met by both Meedi Hiielo and Arvo Puu. Meedi lived but a couple miles from the site. We were shown bunkers dug behind historic grave sites of the ‘Old emetery’. A choir member, Mihkel Salusoo, as a teenager, had served here as an orderly during the battle. His job had been to bring assignments to the front giving instructions to what sectors machine gunners were required to cover. He showed us a partly overgrown trench where he had taken cover at times.


Back in Toronto from the tour TEM held a benefit concert to raise money for a monument. This was done at the initiative of Arvo Dulder of the choir. With the money so raised, a local firm, Jõhvikivi was contracted to erect a memorial stone behind the memorial wall. It says “Meie ei ole teid unustanud”. (We have not forgotten you.)


In that same year (2000) I proposed to the Southern American Chorale that we tour Estonia to give concerts of American choral music. This choir was based in Alabama in which I was the only Estonianborn member. To create interest St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm were added to Tallinn as performance points and thus it was named ‘Baltic Sea Cities’ tour. 24 people signed up including many singers from surrounding states. The tour started in St.

Petersburg. After our performance we were bussed to Estonia. At Vaivara I persuaded our tour guide to detour our bus to the Blue Hills. With enthusiastic permission from our guide I lectured to the choir of the horrors and the significance of the 1944 fighting there. The choir was visibly moved.


Our concert in Tallinn was scheduled for Jaani church, located in the city’s midtown. We sang, of course, our American repertoire. On Charles Kipper’s recommendation we added “Priiuse hommikul” in Estonian. Arvo Puu was also in attendance. An offering was taken during the concert for the choir. But our choir was so Symbols And Icons: Remembering The Blue Hills affected by the events at the Blue Hills that it handed the contents of the collection plate over to Arvo Puu for his memorial wall project.


TEM on subsequent trips to Estonia visited again the Blue Hills and sang standing around the memorial stone. After that Arvo Dulder proposed that the stone be moved back from the wall, making it easier to stand around it. He also proposed that bushes be planted behind the stone to give it more dignity. Unfortunately Arvo Dulder’s health deteriorated culminating in his death before he could carry out these changes. 


Representing TEM, Heikki Paara, Enno Pflug and I returned in 2007 to the Blue Hills to effect Arvo Dulder’s wishes. Heikki as the chairman of TEM, gave me the authority to obtain the three necessary permissions and permits for the changes. From the Lutheran Congregation of Narva, which is the owner of the Old Cemetery, and from the county of Vaivara I got these simply by word of mouth and email. To get permission from the Estonian antiquities commission required several trips to the office of Tiit Kaljundi who provided his services free. After that it was just a matter of arranging with the firm Jõhvikivi to move the stone, improve the surroundings and plant four drought resistant bushes.


I returned one more time to the Blue Hills in 2009, this time to interview Meedi Hiielo. She was a bastion of Estonian culture in the sea of non-Estonian speakers. The interview appeared in an article in this newspaper in the same year. Meedi lived close to the battle area, and once the land mines were cleared from the Blue Hills in late 1944, she went there to pick mushrooms. She described what she saw there: destroyed military hardware such as cannons, tanks, and tracked vehicles littered  the field; and human bones sticking out of the ground. 


There are many close-up photos in books and in museums of soldiers and military hardware, but none of the whole field of battle. Based on Meedi’s description I commissioned noted artists to produce depictions of the whole battlefield. First Mall Nukke produced an engraving, in the hopes it might be used by Estonian war veterans as a fundraiser. Then to record the carnage in color I commissioned Viido Polikarpus, and finally on Mr. Velliste’s recommendation, Veiko  Klemmer. All three pieces of artwork are now in the archive of the Estonian War Museum in Viimsi.


03 sinimaed wip2

Blue Hills battle field after hostilities, painting by Veiko Klemmer


This brings me back to the original question, why are we prepared to lay down our life for people whom we never met and never will. We can only guess why the soldiers of other nationalities fought in Vaivara. But I asked many Estonians who fought in WWII, whether in Finnish or German uniforms, why did they volunteer? The answer was always: to defend Estonia from our eastern neighbor. They volunteered to defend an ideal, but in the trenches they fought for the comrade next to them. It became personal.


This past fall the secretary of Vaivara, Ivask Maidre, sent a photo of the TEM memorial stone and surprisingly, despite dry spells, the bushes are alive. I am glad the stone is there, and yes, I want to continue to remember the nameless men who fought there for Estonian independence. Though ultimately they had to abandon the front, it showed that Estonians did not give up their land without a fight. 


There were several unintended consequences to the Blue Hills battles: Finland was able to extract itself from its unwinnable war by capitulating without being occupied by the Soviets. They credit this to the horrendous losses the Red Army suffered in East Estonia due to which Stalin decided to focus his remaining armies on capturing Berlin before the allies. Secondly, it made it possible for tens of thousands of Estonians to flee to the west. Finally the heroism of the men gave something to build on for resistance to the occupiers, giving hope for freedom. I recall Heikki Ahonen’s visit to Seattle in 1988. In his speech he declared “Me võidame nii kui nii!” (We will win regardless!) And we did!


Arved Plaks

January 27, 2018  


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