Theatre Estonia after bombing. Archive photo
A few moments ago a vehicle passed our home with its siren blaring. Most likely it was a police car. The whining sound changed pitch up and down. It became louder, then after the vehicle passed, it got softer and finally the siren merged with the background noise of normal traffic.
The siren had a curious effect on me. In my mind I was transported back to a time when I was 10 years old. I was a heavy sleeper. My father used to wake me up during the night to prevent bedwetting. But when I was awakened by air raid sirens, it was different. Without prompting I would sit up at the edge of my bed in my nightgown, still half asleep. I would get my helmet from under the bed and put it on. Then I waited while my parents did whatever they had to do to prepare for the next step.
We lived on the upper story of a two story building built in the early 1900’s to house a school. Its six full-sized rooms were large and the ceilings high. My parents had to give up two of the rooms to our occupiers. In them, German officers were billeted. My bed was moved into my parent’s bedroom and placed parallel to a window, with enough space for me to get up and get dressed. On the other side of the bed was a wardrobe with doors facing away from my bed. The wardrobe thus separated me partially from the rest of the room. At night there was nothing to see from the window since no light was allowed to escape from any buildings and betray to enemy bombers the location of the city.
Wearing the helmet was my idea. I found it in an adjacent courtyard behind an apartment building in which solders were billeted. In the courtyard was a pile of miscellaneous discarded military equipment. Of course, I was not allowed to go there, but one can always find a way to climb over the fence to see if there was anything new in the pile. The helmet appeared there one day, and I figured it no longer had any use to its former owner, since it had a hole near where the wearer’s ear would have been. Curiously, there was no corresponding hole on the other side of the helmet and thus in my mind the question arose, if the bullet lodged in the scull of the wearer.
One particular night came to mind. I was awakened by an air raid siren. My parents wrapped a blanket around me, and then we three walked rapidly across our courtyard, about a hundred yards, to a five-story building. Its basement was designated as the air-raid shelter for people living in the wooden houses surrounding the courtyard. By custom, space in the basement was acquired by different families, to which they had brought boxes and pillows for comfort for the next air raid.
By the time we got to the cellar entrance, the sirens had stopped. Since we were the furthest from the shelter, we, including our housekeeper ‘Koka’, were the last to arrive and closed the steel door behind us. My cousin Ülo, who was 10 years older than I and used to live with us, had already escaped to Finland to avoid being drafted by the Germans.
After the sirens stopped, a curious silence surrounded us. There was no noise from trucks or trams on the street. People huddled in different corners and made themselves comfortable the best they could. There was conversation in low tones as if waiting to hear significant sounds from the outside world.
And then it started as we expected – after all we had lived through this many times before. It began with the noise of anti-aircraft shells peppering the sky. The explosions had a metallic sound. Of course, we could not see it, but we could visualize the white puffs of smoke looking for targets.
Soon after that we heard the sound of bombs exploding. First they were distinguishable single events, but far away. Soon they melted into a rumbling sound that became louder and louder as more planes seem to have arrived over the city. People tried to gauge by the sound how close the explosions were.
Then suddenly there was a very loud explosion that had to have been near. This was followed by a second explosion even louder, then after the same interval of time, an even louder one. People gasped; we now knew that were we on the flight path of an unseen metallic bird ready to defile us with its cargo of death. The fourth explosion was really loud and reverberated through the basement. People held their breath – would the next bomb bury us under a rubble of stones? Then, about a second of time passed, which must have seemed to be an eternity, nothing! No heart-rending sound. There was only silence, except for the rumbling of explosions we now knew were far away.
People looked at each other with cautious, half smiles on their faces, as if to say we had luck, we made it through this one! Let us hope that the winged devil will not come back! It did not.
Not long after that the sirens blared again, but this time with the pattern that designated that it was ‘all-clear’, and the attack was over. My parents and I now repeated the earlier process, but in reverse. We stumbled back across the cobblestoned courtyard to our house door, my father unlocked it, and we climbed up the staircase. I was made to stop at the WC, and then continued to our bedroom. I placed my helmet under the bed, laid down, and lost all awareness of my surroundings as I fell asleep. After all, I knew that my parents would always keep me safe.
Memory is a complex thing; which events are or are not stored is not certain, and what triggers their recall is varied. The triggers might be specific sounds, smells or what we see. Of those that come to surface for me are for the most part associated with fear. In the current instance, the undulating sirens of a police car triggered a feeling of sadness, a feeling of helplessness in anticipation of something bad and unavoidable. Then consciousness started filling in that feeling with some event of the past, something that I can visualize, as if chosen at random from a hypothetical library of events stored in my brain. Sirens will most likely continue to haunt me and trigger memories.
When in early 1944 the bombing raids on Tallinn became more frequent, my parents took me to Haapsalu, a small city about 60 miles to the west, thus further away from the advancing enemy. They placed me into the care of a retired couple and returned to Tallinn to tend to their flower store. The occupiers required that all stores had to be kept open, including flower stores, even while there hardly were any customers. One by one my parents spent time with me in Haapsalu.
On the night of March 9th, Tallinn was subject to its heaviest bombing raid. At that time, both of my parents were in the city. Despite the distance, the rumble of the bombs exploding woke me, and I joined my hosts outside. The red hue of the burning city lined the eastern horizon of the night. My caretakers said to me that there was no way my parents could survive the destruction. A horrible feeling of loneliness enveloped me. Was I alone now? This was the first time I lacked the feeling of security that my parents provided.
That episode had a good ending. The railroad resumed operation soon after the bombing raid, and my parents arrived in Haapsalu and took me even further from the danger, to the village of Martna. My mother now stayed full time with me. I enjoyed taking care of farm animals. All was well again if only temporarily.
P.S. The stone building, which at one time housed our air-raid shelter, still stands – it used to be on Adolf Hitler Strasse as number 42, now it is called Narva highway as it was before the war. In the store where my parents sold flower arrangements for funerals and weddings, wedding gowns are now sold. The two-story house where I grew up was torn down to make room for a parking lot.