The essay is written as a book review on
Elin Toona Gottschalk's "Into Exile: A Life Story of War and Peace" (Evershine Press, 2013) which was published in Estonian translation as "Pagulusse. Lugu elust, sõjast ja rahust" (Tallinn: Varrak, 2017), translated from English by Kersti Unt.
The review was first published in Estonian in the magazine „Looming“, January 2018. Translated into English by Maarja Jaanits.
I was genuinely surprised when one of the presenters at an entrepreneurship conference opened up their presentation with a recommendation for Elin Toona Gottschalk’s memoir “Into exile” which was in 2013 selected as one of the best memoirs of the year by “The Economist”.
Having read the book, it no longer struck me as odd. This book, aside from telling the difficult journey of an Estonian refugee fleeing the Soviet occupation, is also a compelling and shocking account about retaining what makes us dignified human individuals and how to grow into one. It is a story of survival despite everything life keeps throwing in one’s way, however, in a more general sense it is a story about cultivating one’s courage, entrepreneurial spirit and inner sense of justice; and about overcoming utter humiliation and cruelty.
Elin Toona Gottschalk’s memoir was originally published in English and in the USA in 2013 entitled as “Into Exile: A Life Story of War and Peace”.* Since 2017 this monumental piece of literature is also available to Estonian readers as “Pagulusse. Lugu elust, sõjast ja rahust”. In the epilogue, the author categorizes her work as ‘faction’ – a combination of fact and fiction (p. 356).
The book consists of 19 chapters preceded by a prologue and followed by the aforementioned epilogue. The prologue is a testament to that moment in Elin Toona Gottschalks life in 1974 when she lost her “Estonian self forever” (p. 4) that is her grandmother Mämmä or Ella Enno, and when she was doomed to “become a prisoner of memories, which would make for a terrible loneliness” (p. 4). The main body of the book begins by describing the family’s life in the Haapsalu of 1939, when little Elin Toona lived with her grandmother Ella Enno and grandmother’s sister in a house of their own – a time, which can be said to have been a happy childhood. At that time Elin’s mother Liki Toona and father Enn Toona worked as theatre actors in Tallinn.
Having painted a picture of life with her grandmother and grand aunt and of her relationship with her distant parents, Elin Toona continues to recount, from the straightforward perspective of a child, an extremely compelling story about three women’s (Elin, mother and grandmother) flight across the Baltic sea in September 1944, of their arrival in Danzig, the following journey through the war-time chaos to Berlin, their move to Hausberg via Bernau and then, when the war is finally over, getting to the Meerbeck refugee camp in the British zone of Germany. After all that follows a large portion of the book dedicated to their life in England, with Liki Toona being the first one to go, later followed by Ella Enno and Elin. Toona Gottschalk draws a clear and convincing picture of the long awaited peace-time being anything like an actual peace for the refugees, who kept feeling as if “stranded in it up to our knees–in everybody else’s peacetime but our own” (p. 2).
Toona Gottschalk leaves out her life in America after she had eventually left England and draws the story to a conclusion describing her eventual return to the homeland in 1990 and how, in a way, she lost her homeland twice – the first time being in 1944 when they fled Estonia as refugees, and the second loss being the moment she finally returned. It was about the realization that the country she had returned to was no longer, neither in appearance nor in the spirit the same country she had once left. She writes: “I wanted to come to Estonia but I had arrived in Russia” (p. 426). The same kind of double loss or strong discrepancy between the Estonia kept alive in memories and the Estonia found upon return is described by Käbi Laretei in her book “As if in translation” („Otsekui tõlkes. Teema variatsioonidega“, 2005). Being denied the request for restitution of her family’s house plot by the town government of Haapsalu added to Elin Toona Gottschalks sense of loss.
The courage to wish for more
From the time she was working in a textile mill in England, Toona Gottschalk recalls an episode of her English friend finding a tiny hairless newly born mouse at the mill. It is obvious that the mouse pup has no hope of survival and watching that tiny living thing Elin comes to an important realization “that life could be so completely wasted” (p. 271). The incident with the mouse, the realization that a life can end up being wasted, is a significant moment for Elin, one she keeps coming back to and draws strength from. It helps her to see that staying on at the mill would make her life eventually go to waste as well. She realizes that continuing her life as a weaver would mean that there would be “nothing to look forward to, nothing to make my heart happy” (p. 272). At that point she’s already very much aware that she wants her life to have more meaning than that, even if she does not yet know how to change it.
A similar realization comes to her even more clearly in Holland, where invited to perform at a festival with the Estonian folk-dance group she finds herself having a few unexpected hours of free time to spend in the city. Away from England and the daily routine of a mill worker it suddenly dawns on her that by this moment she already “was living the life of a hairless mill mouse, waiting for someone to stomp on me” (p. 290). Instead of continuing to blame external circumstances or other people for her lack of choices, Elin realizes that the only person who can change her life to become more meaningful is she herself. “If Ivar was not going to join me in stepping out of our self-imposed restrictions, I was going to have to do it alone. It would not be easy.” (ibid)
Thus, Elin decides to take action in a situation where it would make sense to simply blame others in one’s fate (although Elin is undoubtedly angry with her mother for not being aware of the qualification exam which would have given access to higher education, had she known to take it in time). Already, when she was living in the orphanage, constantly balancing two different worlds of how to stop being that cursed foreigner everybody hates and how not to stop being foreign (an Estonian), Elin felt that even when one has nothing but impossible choices one still has to choose, even if it means choosing two impossible opposites at the same time. “I was determined to stay in both worlds, but at my own pace” (p. 307).
Among the choices faced within the orphanage there is one of whether to conform to the instructions of the Matron as the head of the orphanage, as doing so would enable her to meet her grandmother and mother after over six months of separation, but it would also in a way mean a kind of acceptance of her fate to become a servant: “I was changing into a domestic like Waaker, or worse, into a maid and servant. I had seen what it had done to Mother and was determined not to let it happen to me.” (pp. 183-184) The other option would be joining in with a group of unruly and wilful girls (Hetty’s group) who were no longer expected to accomplish anything other than waiting out their time in the institution. At mother’s insistence, Elin decides to adapt and does everything she can to conform to the role of a good servant girl, while she ironically also needs to accept Hetty’s help in doing so. Elin is left-handed in using a knife, but is required to peel potatoes with her right hand using a right-hand peeler – in order to seemingly accomplish this impossible task, she finally accepts a paring knife secretly provided by Hetty and thus also learns to lie if need be.
Alive in spite everything
One day Elin notices a “delicious smell” wafting in their room at the Meerbeck refugee camp in Germany (p. 121). Instead of the usual water and vegetables she also finds some “brown stuff” in the kettle. After having her fill, the girl learns that this stuff she ate was her pet rabbit Muki.
Acquiring food in Germany during and after the war was not an easy task, and being a child Elin probably didn’t even fully realize how difficult it was but documenting the events through the child’s innocent and matter-of-fact viewpoint she nevertheless manages to convey the seriousness of the situation to the reader. Paul Enno, Elins grandfathers Ernst Ennos brother younger by 17 years, having located them in Germany and living with them was of great help to Elin’s family in the Meerbeck DP (displaced persons) camp. Uncle Paul managed to get firewood and find food, he built a sleigh for the girl, brought a tree for Christmas, etc. One time he took Elin to a German village on one of his food-hunting trips. The German widows lit up seeing Paul for they had “lamps to be fixed” in their bedrooms as the uncle explained to the child and upon leaving packages of valuable foodstuff were given to the man and the child.
Another important and complicated subject is the hygiene upon which Toona also stops every now and then. Although it may feel a bit pathetic, it is also very enlightening for someone who has lived their entire life during peace time to read and try to understand the troubles refugees had to (and likely still have to) endure on their journey. In addition to the lack of means to wash oneself and the struggle with fleas the so-called peeing issue arises again and again. Toona notes on several occasions how serious problem it was for a child and many times Elin had to wet herself because there simply was nowhere to go. It is worth mentioning that she notices a similar problem arriving to Estonia in 1990. There were practically no public toilets in Tallinn at the time and walking around the town she sees people urinating in public, even women.
Humiliation and cruelty we carry inside
I was most deeply touched by two particular scenes in the book. In one of them, Elin is sent to school with German children in wartime Germany. Although Elin speaks some German, in the eyes of the teacher Herr Koch and thus also in the eyes of the students, she is still a verfluchter Ausländer that is ‘a damn foreigner’, and ‘filthy’ on top of everything else. However, this cannot possibly justify the cruelty with which the teacher Koch and upon his encouragement the fellow students treat Elin. Toona describes how on her first day of school the teacher has every girl in the class poking her with a pencil every time she fails to say “Heil Hitler!” loudly and respectfully enough (pp. 76-77).
This story about the teacher and the first school day is particularly odious, because it is an episode where the lowliness of human nature and the casualness of cruelty manifest itself. The teacher Herr Koch (and the students) have nothing to gain from this situation other than to demonstrate their superiority, humiliate someone in a weaker position and cause meaningless pain. There is no justification for such behaviour.
The second episode that is extremely traumatic and touching is the story of the 7-year-old Elin being raped. Ironically the rape itself is not even the most terrible experience for Elin; although she gets injured, she herself does not fully understand the seriousness of the situation and the humiliation that has taken place, at least not until she gets seriously beaten by her mother for what has happened. Since the 7-year-old girl could not understand why the English soldier tore her underwear and “peed” on her, she also cannot understand why she gets mercilessly beaten with a belt by her mother. Even the realization at a later time that her mother beat her out of the overwhelming relief for the soldier not having killed Elin (p. 295) is not much of a consolation.
Although the reader tries to understand the mother’s reaction – maybe she hopes to make the girl afraid of getting so close to the soldiers again – it still doesn’t seem to make sense. The only logical explanation would be the mother’s own rage and helplessness in the situation, of having been incapable of protecting her daughter from this. A similar scene of unjustified hitting of a child which evokes mixed feelings in the reader can be found in Christa Wolf’s novel “Patterns of Childhood” which tells the story of the journey of an Eastern-Prussian refugee – there, the mother hits her daughter when the daughter attempts to explain how her friend humiliated (was forced to humiliate) her in front of the friend’s brothers.
Elin’s relationship with her mother was complicated and distanced already when they were living in Estonia and it changes or becomes more equal only when Elin becomes an adult. There is no intimacy between them, her mother is her mother only biologically and her real guardian and caretaker is her grandmother. However, she still yearns for her mother’s attention and feels (throughout her childhood) that she is not good enough, not as sophisticated as her. She pours her complicated feelings towards her mother (and father) on the imaginary little people living in the horse reddish patch in the garden. Those are the ones she scolds and nags, is merciless with them just as the first-person narrator in Viivi Luik’s “The Seventh Spring of Peace” who buries her doll to punish it.**
Elin Toona Gottschalk’s memoir is undoubtedly a historical account of Estonian refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation. However, it is also a book about being a dignified human individual and growing to be one in spite of everything. It helps to understand the importance of the role of a caring grown up, so-called safe person in the development of a healthy and wholesome human being. Little Elin had her grandmother Mämmä whose coat-tail she clutched and onto whose lap she hid her head when sirens went off again and the fighter planes flew overhead. At the very end of the book, in the epilogue written in 2017 for the Estonian translation (included in English reprint) Toona Gottschalk writes: “It is only now that I realize the light she attributed to me was a reflection of her own” (p. 357).Elin Toona Gottschalk’s memoir teaches us how to look for the inner light within ourselves and how to notice the moments in life which bring us true joy and thus indicate the things worth living for. It is a well told, compelling and tragic story leaving no stone unturned.
* Anne Valmas discussed the book upon its first English publication in her essay “The Estonian exile story told to the whole world” (Sirp, 13/06/2013).
** Made Luiga also refers the possibility of drawing parallels with Viivi Luik’s “The Seventh Spring of Peace” when looking into the relationship between the mother and daughter in her book review “Don’t leave Elin Toona into exile” (Sirp, 27/10/2017).