IV To a Far Shore
In all, we spent over a month
wandering the streets of Tallinn, sleeping on the floor, eating next to
nothing, chasing down Probst Pöhle. One evening history caught up
with us. The Russian army broke through the German defenses in the east,
and Russian tanks began to roll unimpeded toward Tallinn. The news threw
the city into total chaos. German soldiers abandoned pride and discipline
and ran to the harbor, duffel bags over the shoulder. We spent that last
night together, the six of us, in our hosts’ vacated apartment.
In the morning we, too, headed for the harbor, where a boat was supposedly
about to sail for Stockholm. The janitor from the apartment building,
who happened to be a Baptist, gave us a hand. He loaded our few possessions
onto his pushcart, with Aina perched on top, and together we followed
him down the cobblestone streets.
When the harbor came into view, the sight took our breath away. A thick
mass of people covered not only the pier, but also a lone schooner moored
on the right side. The schooner looked like a piece of cake covered with
ants. Behind the ropes that separated the boat from the crowd we could
make out the figure of Probst Pöhle. But, I thought ruefully, we
are too late. Even if he could see us standing in back of the crowd, how
would we get through the crowd? I asked Janis and Pete if they thought
they could walk on the pier abutment, two feet wide and two feet high,
without falling in the water. They said, of course—even though one
German soldier, duffel bag in hand, tried to do the same and fell in the
water some twenty feet below. This is how the two boys reached safety
behind the ropes, while the rest of us stood helplessly in back of the
As Pete tells the story, “. . . the pier made an angle over the
water. We saw a German soldier jump across this angle to walk on the abutment
in order to to reach his buddies near the boat, but he didn’t make
it. He leaped across the angle, but one foot made it and the one other
did not, and he fell twenty feet down to the water, duffel bag and all.
Dad watched all this and asked us, ‘boys, do you think you can make
it?’ And we said, ‘he didn’t know how to jump, but we
do. We can make it.’ Jan asked me to give him a push, and sure enough,
he sailed right across the corner onto the abutment. Then it was my turn.
Without much thought, I leaped across the water, grabbed hold of Jan’s
hand, and made it across as well.”
As the rest of us stood waiting, help arrived in the unlikely shape of
an armed German sailor. Waving a machine gun, carrying two bags, he led
a woman, also loaded with bags, to the schooner. He barked orders in German,
but the machine gun made translation unnecessary. Like the waters of the
Red Sea, a passage opened up in the human wall. Seizing the opportunity,
I told Olga, “Let’s follow him.” In the confusion, I
am sure people did not realize that we were in no way related to the armed
sailor and the woman. Olga resolutely marched after them, carrying our
two small ones, and I managed to squeeze behind. So by another miracle
we reached the rope, our last obstacle to the schooner. Pöhle then
took over. He explained to the officers, Pastor Tarziers aus Riga
auch (Reverend Tarziers is also from Riga). So, without money, passports,
or visas, we found ourselves aboard the schooner.
I told Olga and the kids to hide below decks. I found a place near the
mast, where I could keep an eye on Pöhle. The boat was so hopelessly
overcrowded that it leaned against the pier. Any attempt to pull away
would surely capsize it. How could we possibly sail across the Baltic?
But Pöhle motioned to me to stay put. I soon found out why. Two German
naval officers drove up to the pier in a jeep. Commanding everybody’s
attention, one made a formal announcement to the crowd: no boat was headed
for Sweden. All ships would be sailing to Hamburg in a convoy, and anyone
who wanted to be evacuated should return to downtown Tallinn to register.
The human tide turned around and headed back to the city, including a
good number from the schooner, which now righted itself. Again, Pöhle
motioned to me to stay put. The pier was suddenly empty and silent—not
a soul was left. Who knows what happened to the people who so desperately
wanted out of Estonia.
Soon the engines sputtered to life. Slowly our schooner put-putted around
the harbor and set anchor out of sight of land, behind a large rock. There
we stayed until nightfall. Pöhle had driven back into town. After
dark, more passengers boarded. Among them were our hosts from Tallinn,
who I thought had long since been repatriated to Sweden. Eventually a
German naval officer came on board and took the helm. We moved slowly
away from the rock to join a convoy of a dozen boats pulling out of the
harbor in the dark of night. Peteris and Janis had now come up on the
deck, and together we watched light signals coming from the shore, which
our captain answered with his flashlight. The convoy moved out into the
open sea in total darkness, a string of black beads on the way to freedom.
My last image of the Baltics is seared in my brain: the horizon glowed
red from Russian artillery and fires in the eastern part of the city.
We were headed for unknown parts, hungry and thirsty, dirty and penniless.
I comforted myself that whatever awaited us could not be any worse than
what we had left. In the dark sea, I repeated to myself the words of Psalm
124: “Our soul is escaped like a bird out of the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken, and we are escaped.”
We woke to a glorious dawn. The sea was as smooth as a mirror, as Olga
had foreseen. Ours was the only vessel as far as the eye could see. Under
cover of darkness, our captain had quietly split away from the convoy
and changed course toward Sweden—never mind official German orders—heading
northeast to avoid major sea lanes. He stood on the bridge dressed in
civilian overalls. He had tossed his German uniform to the waves during
We made slow progress. One of the engines died on the second day, and
with no wind it was futile to hoist the sails. After many hours of puttering,
the engineer started up the engine once more. A motorboat sped past us
at one point, carrying several men, including Probst Pöhle. It soon
vanished in the horizon again, and we were alone at sea once more.
On the third day, a bearded man sitting up by the mast shouted in Russian:
“A cross! I see a cross!” And indeed, a gold cross hovered
over the water to the northwest. We found out later that it came from
a lighthouse maintained by Sweden, and that what we saw was the Swedish
flag, its blue background blending with the sky, leaving only the gold
cross to shimmer in the afternoon sun. Here, finally, was Scandinavia,
and with it peace.
Soon we saw smoke, a mast, and then a boat that pulled alongside our vessel.
Speaking through a megaphone, they found out that everybody was alive
but hungry and dreadfully thirsty. Barrels of fresh water were hoisted
up on board. How we drank! We drank like horses, water flowing out of
our noses. Then the Swedish captain came on board. He announced that we
would be towed to shore, and by the way, did anyone happen to have Russian
vodka? A couple of bottles emerged out of the crowd, and the two captains,
no longer needed at the helm, retreated to the cabin to celebrate for
a couple of hours.