Leo Radosavljevic, Ambassador Eerik Marmei and Brendan Tarm. Photos by Siim Sööt
Sunday, February 22nd was a special occasion at the Chicago Estonian House (Chicago Eesti Maja – CEM). It was not only an occasion to celebrate another Independence Day but also have on display the acclaimed Displaced Persons 70th Anniversary Exhibit, “No Home To Go To.” Perhaps even more importantly we celebrated Lake County’s decision with the concurrence of the State of Illinois to relieve us of our property tax burden. Our annual tax of over $27,000 has for several years threatened the long-term viability of our cultural center.
The 97th Independence Celebration was highlighted by numerous striking presentations and performances. It began with the American Anthem led by Leo Radosavljevic followed by the opening prayer by Gilda Karu. After the presidential greeting by Mehis Vahtra, a moving tribute to all those that sacrificed their lives for Estonian Independence was offered by Rev. Taavi Kaups. As always, students of the Estonian House School provided their usual inspiring and enthusiastic performances. This included recitals and dance numbers. Principal Pille McQuillen has continued the long tradition of excellence and the school now has approximately fifty students.
Musical performances were presented by Brendan Tarm and Leo Radosavljevic. Brendan is an accomplished cellist studying at the Chicago Institute of Music and comes from an exceptionally talented family that includes his older brother Jonas, a composer, who will have one of his classical pieces performed at Carnegie Hall in early March. Brendan also brought with him the BEJA Piano Quartet in which he is a leading figure. They performed at an exceptionally professional level that speaks well of their present and future promise. While Brendan has performed at CEM on several occasions, it was the Quartet’s inaugural performance.
The recital was followed by bass baritone Leo Radosavljevic. Leo is a long-time CEM member who has transitioned from our folk dancing group to completing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in voice at The Julliard School. Among other awards Leo finished in the ‘medal’ category at the Claudia Taev Competition in Pärnu (the only international competition for singers in Estonia), where his grandmother was a rising star decades ago. His performance in this internationally acclaimed competition lead to an invitation to sing at the Fabergé Ball at the beginning of this year, the first time the Ball was held in the Baltics. We were particularly pleased that Leo was able to fit CEM into his busy schedule. His mother, Pat Radosavljevic, masterfully accompanied him on the piano.
One of the highpoints was the speech by Ambassador Eerik Marmei. He provided an excellent summary of the many achievements of Estonia in recent years. Particularly noteworthy are its world standing in business, technology and political transparency. He also stressed that, as we know, the Russians clearly covet the Baltics, but we do not want to overemphasize the threat. As the international concern grows, the business interest in establishing ties with Estonia wanes accordingly, a point that is sadly true. His message was that we need to be exceptionally vigilant but the treat must not be overplayed. His speech was also a departure from essentially all keynote speeches at CEM in that he entertained questions in English. This demonstrated his remarkable proficiency in English and his command of the great issues of the day. He is moderately new to his US post but he left a remarkably good impression.
We also received congratulatory notes from many prominent politicians. We received letters from both of our U.S. Senators, Richard Durbin and Mark Kirk. Senator Durbin has been a long-term leader of the Baltic Caucus and the Estonian community and has a seat in Senator Kirk’s Eastern European Advisory Board. Both are staunch supporters of the Baltic Republics and we were pleased to acknowledge their letters. Further, both Governor Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent official and elegant proclamations. U.S. Representative Dold, in whose district CEM resides, also sent a heartfelt letter.
The traveling exhibit “No Home To Go To” has been at CEM since Feb 16 and will be sent to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in March. In over twenty pictorial tables and five 7X7-foot posters it tells the story of the forced migration of the Baltic People from their homeland, how they managed in DP camps, how they journeyed to the US and how they survived in their first few years of resettlement in the U.S. The exhibit has been shown in Latvian and Lithuanian centers since its inaugural showing in Washington D.C. It will also be sent to Philadelphia; other destinations are currently being negotiated. There is also a soft-cover book of 56 pages and magazines that summarize the exhibit and describe these dark days in recent Baltic history.
On a more positive note, CEM is still overjoyed by the decision of the Illinois Department of Revenue that we no longer need to pay our property tax. Over the last several years CEM has operated with an annual deficit of approximately $20,000, a sum that is exceeded by our property tax assessment. As the house has aged, requiring more routine maintenance, with declining membership, the future did not appear promising. While periodic repairs required a great deal of work and resources, it was imperative to keep the facility contemporary and add facilities that would continue to attract members and clients. In this regard, under the leadership of our President Mehis Vahtra, we have added a sauna, sand volleyball court, majorly remodeled the washroom facilities, added a handicap-accessible WC, replaced the roof on our garage/utility building and effectively rebuilt the single-family home on the property that was seriously damaged by a recent flood. Moreover, the most challenging task was finding the resource to cover the approximately $90,000 cost involved in the annexation by Riverwoods which allowed us to connect to their waste water system. Our septic field has passed its life span and it would have soon had to be replaced at a serious financial burden. Further, it proved to be inadequate during major parties. The matter is further complicated by the fact that CEM sits on a flood way, a limiting designation more restrictive than a flood plain.
Yes, the last decade has been an exceedingly active period. We are, therefore, immensely thankful for the efforts by Aarne Elias, an individual that was involved in the initial acquisition of CEM, for starting the arduous task of property tax relief by procuring 501c3, tax free status, for CEM and his work in the property tax negotiations. The legal process was expertly handled by Emmett McCarthy who has two children in Estonian School and is dedicated to the future of CEM. Indeed, we are grateful to all the individuals and families that have worked so hard to make CEM an exceptional place to gather and contribute in our own ways to solidifying Estonian culture in North America.