My wife and I spent a week in our nation’s capital! The draw was the celebration of 60 years of the Estonian American National Council’s (EANC) work on behalf of Estonia’s struggle for independence and of the work to maintain the Estonian community’s cultural heritage in the United States. But we used this trip also to take a broader view of where we have been and where we are heading.
Our daily experiences left us exhausted so that we skipped watching our usual daily dose of television news and thus missed all the current statistics: “today in Syria blank number of people were killed,” and “in Iraq a suicide bomber blew blank people up in a market” – you fill in the blanks. Instead we tried to digest the meaning of what we saw or heard. The main event of the trip was the gala on September 29 to recognize the work of EANC. The occasion well justified the gathering of our Estonian community and friends to recognize people who contributed to its success. About 200 people attended the $175 per plate dinner at the Willard Intercon-tinental Hotel’s banquet hall. We heard presentations and speeches, socialized and at the end of the evening danced to the tunes appropriate to the average age of the folk present. The Willard has got to be the most prestigious hotel in Washington. I cannot think of a better choice made by the EANC executive board spearheaded by its president Marju Rink-Abel and executive director Linda Rink. The executive board currently consists of eleven persons. Though dispersed geographically, the board conducts monthly meetings by telephone conference calls and maintains contact by emails. But credit for the on-location work leading to this choice must go to Marju and Linda. The hotel has a 200-year history and is located in the center of the city. It started as a two-story hotel where a room could be had for a night for $2.65. At the hotel desk I was told it now would fetch $459. So we stayed at the nearby Harrison for half the price. The hotel has been rebuilt several times and now is a 12-story majestic landmark. It is famous for the people it has hosted. American presidents have stayed here while waiting to move into their permanent residence. Martin Luther King put the finishing touches to his famous “I have a dream” speech here. The Willard is on prime real estate and recently rejuvenated. At its street-side café we had a beer and a glass of wine and split one sandwich for $40! ($41 Canadian). The hotel is surrounded by other high risers. The exception is to the west, where stands a modest three-story building surrounded by a high iron fence. Near the fence were SUVs with decals saying Secret Service. It did not seem secret to me. It does not go by a house number but rather by its color. It used to be beige owing to the sandstones it was built of. When the redcoats tried to burn it down in 1812 it got charred. So to cover up the fire damage it was quickly whitewashed. And there it is. Now if it ever were to be painted another color then it would have to be renamed so as not to confuse the postal service. Currently it is provided rent-free for anyone who can endure the grueling process of being elected to be the leader of the free world. So on the evening of 29 of September the gala was attended by a very stately gathering of guests. Arne Kalm was the master of ceremonies. The welcome message was given by EANC president, Marju Rink-Abel. All proceedings were held in English. The numerous non-Estonian speaking guests would have felt as outsiders if we had done it otherwise. After-all, all participants could speak English. There was a not so subtle message in this, we are part of the American landscape, and it is English that now binds without language barriers. But why not, we have always received the support of our host country for our aspirations. After a wonderful dinner EANC’s vice president Eric Suuberg presented awards for notable achievements. Juhan Simonson received a plaque for his service and leadership in the EANC as a president for 18 years. Mati Kõiva was similarly honored, in this case for nine years as EANC’s president. Both men have been members of the council for over three decades and continue to be even now. On behalf of Olga Ritso Kistler her husband Walter Ritso received a plaque for financing significant projects related to documenting Estonian history, of which (in the opinion of the writer) is most important the financing of the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn. On behalf of the in Estonian Archives in the U.S., Mrs. Enda Mai Michelson Holland received a plaque recognizing the work of the very numerous volunteers who preserved documents of Estonian activities as well as Estonian art since its founding in 1962. Ambassador Melissa F. Wells was honored for her life time achievement in the service of United States Foreign Service, which included a three-year stint as U.S. ambassador in Estonia. Present at the gala were a number of noteworthy people, among them Estonia’s ambassador to the U.S. Marina Kaljurand. But the highpoint of the evening was the keynote address by the President of the Republic of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. He is currently serving as Estonia’s president for a second term. Born in Sweden during the Cold War of refugee parents, he was schooled in the United States. For his higher education he attended Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania studying psychology. He travels often to the United States thus maintaining a strong link between Estonia and United States. His speech has been summarized already in press releases regarding the importance of the work performed by EANC and the need to continue it, the relationship between our host country and Estonia and the dedication of Estonia to maintaining strong ties to its allies. He stated that Estonia is the only NATO and EU member which has fulfilled all financial requirements of these organizations. (Take that, Greece!) A more somber statistic was that about the same number of Estonians have emigrated since it became free as had escaped Estonia during the war. The president also touched on some of the topics that are being actively being discussed at the EANC meetings – including the importance of the Estonian language in preserving our heritage in America. He mentioned summer camps for youths at which the Estonian language is stressed. But it was not clear to this listener how the thus acquired language skills would be preserved in their daily life given that our communities are dispersed and English is their working language. As an alternative or compensating activity I wish he had noted the contribution of Estonian folkdance clubs as a way to perpetuate Estonian culture among the youth. In centers where such clubs exist the instructions may be given in English or Estonian, but these activities draw also people without Estonian roots to participate, their boyfriends or girlfriends. The activity has more continuity and commitment. All in all without the presence of Estonia’s president the gala would have been something less inspiring. It recharged our “Estonian batteries” as my friend Hillar Kaasik would say. But there was also a lighter side to the evening. For example when EANC board Secretary Ülle Ederma taught the event’s bartender how to make a “rolling Estonian”: (it is vodka, cranberry juice and ice, in that order.) Then there was dance music. I fantasized of asking the first lady for a dance, but because the presidential party left early this never was in the cards. How could one dance if the secret service detail objected? On the weekend of the gala, the annual meeting of the council was held. It was held on the Saturday morning of the gala, and concluded the following Sunday, in both cases in the conference hall of the Estonian Embassy. The embassy is a two-story building nestled between many other embassies that line Massachusetts Avenue. At one time it was a school building. It is not the largest but would we want anything bigger? To get to the embassy was an adventure for this out-of-towner, being from the backwaters of Texas. We don’t have underground transportation. From my city center hotel Harrington I first walked to the nearest Metro. The street corner posts tells you when one can cross the street, and an electronic display tells you how many seconds you have to reach the safety of the curb across the street. They allow 38 seconds for main streets, 14 seconds for side streets. Those who cannot cross in this time will not live long. The city is clean, it was sunny and though I walked in the canyon of highrises, it felt comfortable. I bought a senior metro pass, which allows travel at half the normal rate on both the underground rails as well as on street buses. With my pass in hand I descended by an escalator into a cave which descended an equivalent to 120 steps. Leaving the sunny street the darkness ahead seemed to swallow me. To enter the train platform one but needs to touch the gate post with the card and an electronic circuitry inside the card records the entry point. At the destination one again touches the exit gate post and the circuitry records how far I had traveled, calculates the fare and subtracts the dollar amount off the money I had loaded on the card. The gate opened and let me out. I got off the underground at DuPont Circle. It was nice to be in the sunshine again. It was homey. Carts were lined along the street with home grown organic produce. I chose an apple off a cart. The lady would not let me pay until I had tasted other apple bites which she handed to me. Luckily she let me pay after my fifth tasting, though she had many more. I then hiked two long blocks along Massachusetts Avenue. I passed one embassy after another. Why so close together? They were built in a time when communication was slow and proximity to other country’s representatives may have been important. It felt like I was in the world’s capitol with so many countries represented. The EANC council has 35 members currently, down from the days of the Cold War. Of them 24 were present. Members are elected for a four-year term by the Estonian community in the US. Over the 60 years of its existence 272 different people have served on the EANC council. It must be viewed with some awe and also melancholy that together with similar councils in Canada, Australia, Sweden and elsewhere the important work was done by these people. Now the emphasis of activities has shifted to include not only the political but also the support of cultural activities and to preserving the legacy of the struggle for the benefit of those who did not live through it. Thus the council tackled the full agenda. Of course the language issue came up. Since the council is not a social club but a legal entity based in our host country, the minutes of the meeting were recorded in both Estonian and English. The discussions took place interchangeably in both languages. Though almost all council members speak Estonian, occasionally the right nuances for a point could be made best in English. The past activities were reviewed and the future agenda approved. The documents show the emphasis of the council: representation of Estonian interests in a multitude of organizations and forums. We approved a budget that allocated support to youth related activities: scouts, Estonian language schools and camps; also support for communications including Vaba Eesti Sõna and the recording of our history. Then the regional directors gave their annual reports. For the south central region I reported that due to the aging and dispersed older Estonian community no formal gatherings took place. The younger generation prefers family to family contacts. I also pointed out that while President Ilves presides over Estonia, my district encompasses an area that is 35 times larger than his. But my job is easier since in my district the number of Estonian born people would barely populate Pulli küla in Kambja. Then, having worked on schedule through our agenda under the leadership of Gilda Karu and Eric Suuberg, the 2012 EANC council meeting was adjourned. My week in Washington submerged me into the past, into the context of time in which EANC played a part. I went to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum. How fascinating to see all the research aircraft. My eye caught the cross-section of a ballistic missile’s guidance system on display. It gave me shivers. I recalled that there was something about that system that was top secret but I have forgotten what it was exactly. I knew that the beasts that the guidance systems controlled were targeted towards where my relatives still lived. My hope was that all this was but a bluff. But America remained a beacon of liberty because of what we did then. We took a sightseeing trip by “Old Town Trolley” around the city. It was a narrated trip with off –and-on privileges at major tourist stops. As we traversed the famous K- street, I was reminded that this is the street where lobbyists and some of our elected representatives used to sell their influence for money. But America continued to be a beacon of liberty despite these excesses. (One of the most notorious scoundrels lived but a few streets from us in Texas.) Near the White House is the statue of Tecumseh Sherman on horseback, the guy who lay to waste a swath of land in the rebellious state of Georgia. Because of that the Union was preserved, America’s strength increased to a world power and became a beacon of Liberty in the following century. By observing the memorials of the early American wars it is interesting that these wars were fought by generals on horsebacks – or so it would appear from the statues. A different impression is conveyed by the memorials of the Korean and Viet Nam wars. Here the statues are of anonymous soldiers who slugged it out with the enemy, rifle in hand. Because of them it was confirmed that America was willing to stand up against aggressors and stop the expansion of Communism. Despite the fact that many innocent people were caught up in this power struggle, the world emerged better off. On the granite wall of the Viet Nam memorial are inscribed the names of thousands of men who died. President Ilves noted we should expect to see among them also names like Jüri or Ants. Freshly arrived Estonians were part of that struggle too. We visited the Holocaust museum and drove past the Second World War memorial. America was the arsenal of democracy that brought Germany to its knees and ended the horror of genocide in Central Europe. America’s idealism gave birth to United Nations. The Baltics did not well in the postwar realignments; perhaps we needed a stronger voice in Washington. But after America emerged victorious in the ensuing Cold War, it was only a matter of time for Estonia to regain its independence as it rallied to the banner: “me võidame nii kui nii” – loosely translated “we will win regardless.” America supported self-determination for the occupied countries, and us. I am an U.S. citizen and will remain here. When one takes a world-wide view of history, America is a good country to be part of even when we recognize some missteps. I feel gratitude for having been able to find a home here. But I know there is something more ingrained in – I felt that again as we sang the Estonian anthem at the gala. These were the thoughts as I wandered around the city. We, of the Estonian community in the United States feel gratitude for the non-recognition of Soviet annexation of our birth country during the Cold War. We owe much to America for providing us as refugees a new home without demanding that we give up our culture. We recall the days when we carried placards and wrote articles to newspapers. In those days EANC was the central organization in United States for our dispersed community to make our case. The EANC gala brought that all into focus. Let’s hope that, while still vigilant, we will not have to repeat the past ever again. Arved Plaks