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How the Church and Congregations Called, Gathered and Strengthened 
the Refugees’ Sense of Identity and Hope    

 Thomas Vaga (Estonian Archives in the U.S., Lakewood, NJ

Before the onset of the occupations and war, the conditions under which millions upon millions of human beings were forced to find daily sustenance for both body and soul in war ravaged Europe during the 1940's were unimaginable, as they are today in a safe historical distance.

The Latvian historian of 20th century history of Germany, Central and Western Europe and the Baltic, professor of history at the University of Toronto Modris Eksteins writes: “Amid the detritus of war the homeless refugee was the symbolic centerpiece” (cf. Pfeil, Der Flüchtling: Gestalt einer Zeitwende). Eksteins emphasizes the immensity of the homelessness with the United States State Department estimates of the number of refugees as thirty-three to forty-three million in June of 1945 ( Eksteins 209). Although millions were trying to get home by any and all means possible, many more millions were “willing to go anywhere on earth except home,” as Genet (Janet Flanner) describes the mind set of millions of refugees in The New Yorker, October 30, 1948 (Eksteins 209).The desire to be home, however, was very strong in the thoughts and desires of the refugees. The holding of religious services, prayer meetings, and providing pastoral care in their own language and according to their national traditions, worship service and liturgies was their home in the midst of war and helplessness in foreign lands and among foreign peoples.

This paper will examine how the pastors and members of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) gathered and served the Estonian refugees in Germany and the United States. This is a preliminary study that is exploratory in scope. Much more material from the beginning of the refugee years is “hidden” at the Estonian Archives in the U.S. in Lakewood, N.J., The Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn., the State Archives of Sweden, Estonian Archives in Toronto, in the archives of congregations and in published memoirs and historical overviews.Mark Wyman notes that the world wide Lutheran World Federation became engaged in helping the refugees especially in Germany after realizing that “one out of ten Lutherans in the world in 1947 was a refugee, and one out of three DPs was a Lutheran” (Wyman 199). The number of refugees fleeing from Estonia in 1944 is calculated to between 70,000 and 80,000 (Aunver ERR 93; Kiaupa, et al. 177) Aunver records in his work The Via Dolorosa of the Estonian People’s Church  that of the 23,500 who fled to Sweden and 46,500 to Germany in 1944, 78.3% or 54,810 belonged to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Seventy pastors left Estonia with the head of the EELC Bishop Dr. Johann Kõpp and Vicar-bishop Johannes Oskar Lauri.Twenty-seven pastors fled to Sweden and forty-one to Germany; three of the seventy were lost in on the Baltic Sea and two in air raids in Germany (Aunver ERR 93; Raudsepp Ristiga 126).

Other than survival, the refugees had no other hope among foreign people. The possibility of establishing their own national, ethnic congregations and organizations in lands foreign to them was unimaginable. But even such dire hopelessness did not stop the pastors and people from gathering to hold open air services upon arriving on the Swedish shores in motor-driven fishing and sail boats over the autumnal stormy Baltic Sea. Worship and prayer services were held, according to Aunver, on “ship caravans, in danger of attacks by enemy airplanes, or along highways under the threat of enemy artillery fire. Such experiences were never forgotten by the people who gathered at such services and to the organizers themselves.” (Aunver ERR 93) Aunver quotes EELC Dean (in Sweden) A. Täheväli’s description of the nature of such religious experiences: “Everyone can imagine how elevating and reviving such services and presentations were to the refugees, who had just lost everything and been delivered from the dangers of death and stood facing a completely unknown future.” (Aunver ERR 93). A congregant who took part of the first Christmas service in Sweden expressed a deep sense of home and faith as the “Christmas Gospel bound all together, and the melodies of the Christmas hymns took the worshipers back to their own homeland and home. The Word really became flesh and came to live among the worshipers as in a single house...and Light shone in darkness” (Aunver ERR 93).

The conditions in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia were worse. The incessant air raids, the advance of Russian communist armies from the East, restrictive official Nazi policies, and severe lack of food, medicines, housing, transportation and freedom of travel made day to day life extremely hard and miserable. Despite the suffering the refugees had to endure in the Third Reich, the pastors and Vicar-bishop J.O. Lauri provided worship, pastoral and social services in their native language to the Estonian refugees dispersed from East Prussia to the Danish border and to the Swiss border and in Austria as best they could and with the help of God. There was an “overflowing and active participation of worship services,” notes Aunver, and continues.   

Frequently these became hours of deep devotion where the whole family of Estonians gathered in the church was moved to tears, singing hymns in their own native language, hearing sermons of Estonian pastors, and enjoying in a number of locations the solo performances of their own singers and violinists. Hardly were there ever such thankful congregations in the homeland as could be seen in Germany up to the capitulation. (Aunver ERR 93-94)

The Vicar–bishop J.O. Lauri achieved something that was very extraordinary. In the midst of war and under the Nazi regime, he obtained permissions from the Reich government in Berlin for ten Estonian Lutheran pastors to serve the church and faith needs of Estonian refugees. This policy was approved by the Western occupation forces, enabling the establishment of Estonian Lutheran congregations in the United Nation’s UNRRA Displaced Persons Camps. This guaranteed that worship services were conducted, holy communion and baptisms administered, and Christian confirmation, marriage, and funerals performed in according to the ELCC Agenda (Service Book) (Aunver Issanda 13).

A description of an Estonian Lutheran pastor’s service to Estonian refugees in flight and in the midst of death is found in the memoirs of Rev. Rudof Reinaru recorded in Pastor sõjapõgenik. After arrival by an evacuation/refugee ship in the Polish port of Gdynia (Gotenhafen in German), the pastor was called to officiate at the burial services of hundreds of people, many of them Estonians, who had drowned after their ship had been torpedoed by the Soviets. Their bodies were collected from the waves of the Baltic Sea. At the same time, however, he had the joy of uniting a little girl with her father, who had come by land from Estonia; the little girl’s mother had drowned when their ship was torpedoed. Pastor Reinaru held a memorial service for the families who had lost members into the sea when their ship was torpedoed. The pastor held services for Estonian refugees in the local German Lutheran church. One service had a whole unit of fifteen and sixteen year old boys who had been drafted to serve on anti-aircraft guns. Their officer expressed hope that by Christmas the boys would be back in Estonia. The pastor’s first sermon as a refugee was on Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Pastor 15-17; The Holy Bible New International Version).

The pastor served German congregations as well, where he was assigned or where he knew the Baltic German pastor from Estonia. He, however, made his way across Germany up to Flensburg by the Danish border where other Estonians had come as well in hopes of getting into Denmark and then to Sweden, or where they could be safe from air raids. (Raudsepp A. Võõbus 223). Eventually the pastor accepted a call from a smaller congregation and DP Camp at Uchte near Hamburg. Flensburg had five Estonian pastors, more than enough an active Estonian Lutheran congregation. From Uchte the pastor was called to serve nearly 3000 Estonians prisoners of war (POWs) in Bocholt near the Dutch border. The pastor had a fruitful ministry to these former soldiers. He found them to be open to the Gospel. Four of them gave their lives to the service of the Lord and became pastors in England, Canada and the United States. In a year’s time (1947) the 3000 men were released from the prison camp. They took up the offer of going to work in England, because they feared that they would be repatriated to the Soviet Union by military force. Pastor Reinaru went to England with his boys (Pastor 22-25).

Another refugee pastor, Karl Raudsepp, was active in making pastoral visits to Estonians in US Army POW camps. Access was very restricted; even relatives were not permitted to visit. He, however, was very successful in getting into the camps. With the help of the Chief of US Military Chaplains his request was accepted by the US Military Governor of Germany, for the American Army policy did allow spiritual aid and religious services to prisoners He visited mainly two strict regime prison camps: one in the former Nazi death camp of Dachau, the other in Darmstadt. After extensive interrogations by US Army Counterintelligence, he was allowed to visit the 200 Estonians held at Darmstadt. All 200 came to the service and received Holy Communion. (In contrast to the openness of the prisoners to worship services and the sacraments was the closed mind set to worship and faith of those studying at a university. Raudsepp notes that even though he personally invited Estonian students studying at the University of Heidelberg, the attendance of monthly services was “sluggish”.) Since no written correspondence was allowed, Pastor Raudsepp had to memorize names and messages exchanged between the prisoners and their families. He found a small number of Estonians at Dachau. He always bared his head in memory of the victims when he entered this notorious place of torture and slaughter by Hitler’s reign.

Pastor Raudsepp and Vicar-bishop Lauri worked for the release of the Estonian prisoners through letters explaining how these men were victims of the Communist and Nazi regimes. Their efforts were successful, for all were released – even from Dachau. (Raudsepp Ristiga 138-140).

At the end of the 1940s, Rev. Raudsepp and some other Estonian pastors were taken into the service of the Lutheran World Federation (World Relief) to enable the transfer/emigration of refugees from the Displaced Persons Camps to countries “across the seas”: Australia, Canada, and the United States. The pastor and the “church office” became very important to every refugee as the source for good identity papers and attestations that opened the way to lands “across the seas” and out of the “zero” ( Eksteins 213-214) state of war torn Germany and a futureless life in the DP Camps. (Raudsepp Ristiga 145; Aunver ERR 111). Many who never came to church came to the pastor’s office looking for and received work and housing guarantees to America and Canada that were provided through the Lutheran World Federation, National Catholic Council, and Church World Service (Raudsepp Ristiga 145; Eesti Kirik [1950] 1:27). By 1953, the Estonian refugees were distributed over the world into four major locations: Sweden: 23,500, USA: 20,000, Canada: 12,000, Australia: 7,000, and 4,000 emaining in Germany. The last group was made up of war invalids, the infirm and the aged who were unqualified under immigration rules (Aunver ERR 93, 103, 107; Eesti Kirik [1950] 1:27, 32) The plight of the invalids, infirm and the aged in Germany was taken up by various newly established Estonian Lutheran congregations in Sweden, the Americas and Australia.

There was also a major effort to provide guarantees of work and housing to Estonians wishing to emigrate from Germany. The 1948 Christmas message to the members of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in New York City (the oldest Estonian Lutheran congregation in the USA then with 3,100 members) celebrates the mailing of one thousand job and housing guarantees to Estonian refugees in Germany. The then new pastor of the congregation, Rev. Rudolf Kiviranna, exhorts the congregation to continue the “rescue mission” of the “much suffering sons and daughters of the Estonian nation” by helping them to America. They in turn “would join solidly with the Estonian congregation in support of the efforts our congregation and other Estonian organizations carry out in order to meet and solve this great historical task.” By 1958 around 4,000 had received guarantees enabling them to enter the United States (Eesti Kirik ja Kodu 1948 Jõulnumber ; “10 a. Ulatuslikku Tööd Tähtpäev New Yorgi E. Ev. Lut. [sic] Usu Koguduses”).

The newly established and markedly smaller refugee congregations under the authority of Rev. Dean Aleksander Hinno as the EELC Coordinator of Church Activity in the USA, appointed by the head of the EELC, Bishop Johann Kõpp (residing in exile in Stockholm, Sweden), reports that in 1950 eight congregations sent $514.45 = 4,758.17 in 2012$s in money and $657.00 = 5,622 in 2012$s in food and clothing to Germany, and 339 (214 of the total from the Lakewood congregation), plus 32 from the Seabrook congregation, guarantees to come to the USA have been provided to Estonians in Germany, plus help to 92 Estonians to find better working conditions (especially to domestics and those engaged in heavy farm labor). (“E.E.L.K. koguduste sotiaaltöö kohta 1950 […]”)

A critical problem for the pastors and members of the Estonian Lutheran church new to the USA was the insistence by the leadership of the American Lutheran churches that the newcomers join American Lutheran congregations and not form their own ”nationalistic” congregations and churches.                      

The Displaced Persons are to be encouraged to learn the English language and fit themselves into the local congregation as rapidly as possible. We would encourage all pastors and Congregations to make a special effort to tie these new neighbors in with local Lutheran congregation. The Resettlement staff and committee will continue to do all that they can To accomplish this program (Hultgren letter).

Whether to join or not to join was a question that was discussed and argued through mail and at pastoral meetings. A number of pastors and congregations saw the impossibility of double loyalty, i.e., to the EELC Constitution, Bishop, government and service and pastoral orders while being subordinated to the authority and orders of another, i.e., the American Lutheran church. A majority of congregations and pastors chose to dedicate themselves to serving the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as the “Free Estonian People’s Church” as much as was economically possible and pastoral positions available – the pastors were dedicated men of service in their calling and ordination as pastors of the historical Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.  

The case of Rev. Walter Viks is an example. He was brought from Germany to the USA by the National Lutheran Council in 1949. He, however, decided in 1951 to accept the call of the newly established independent EELC First Congregation in Chicago. He was removed from the rolls of the National Lutheran Council after he refused their offer of an American Lutheran congregation in New England. Rev. Viks and the congregational leadership developed a dynamic Estonian Lutheran Sunday school and youth work. The Sunday school became the seedbed of learning Estonian language, culture and history. The youth work developed into the Midwest Estonian Youth Assembly cultural organization that is still holding yearly cultural/academic conferences. (Puidak 10 &13ff.)

Pastoral candidate Rein Neggo of the Los Angeles congregation established the Los Angeles Estonian language, culture and history school for children in 1950. (“Los Angelese Eesti Ev. Lut. Koguduse 1950a. […]”) Rev. Elmar Pähn writes in his yearly report for 1951, from the new EELC Baltimore Congregation that the church has become the center of life for the Estonian newcomers due to the fact that there are no other centers for coming together. People have commented that they have never seen so many people attending a church service, especially at Christmas and Old Year service as well as the memorial service for the victims of the first Soviet deportation in 1941 and the flight from Estonia in 1944. Many have come to receive communion for the first time after their confirmation service in their teens (“EELK Baltimore Markuse […]”).

There are “hidden treasures” of materials on “How the Church and Congregations Called, Gathered, and Strengthened the Refugees’ Sense of Identity and Hope.” This study shows how the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church was engaged spiritually and materially, in faith and works, in different political, cultural, national, conflict and stable environments in service to her membership and to the whole Estonian people. The pastors and congregations provided a home away from home and homeland in foreign lands and among foreign peoples, customs and rules.

Works Cited - 

Aunver, Jakob. Eesti Rahvakiriku Ristitee (ERR). Stockholm: EELK Kirikukomitee, 1953. ---- . Issanda Kiriku Tööpõllul (Issanda). Uppsala: Eesti Vaimulik Raamat, 1962.

“EELK Baltimore Markuse koguduse usuline ja kõlbelin elu dekaloogi alusel” (“EELK MarkuseKoguduse”) õpetaja E. Pähn. EELK New Yorgi Pauluse koguduse ja praost Aleksander Hinno Arhiiv. E.E.L.K. Lakewoodi Pühavaimu koguduse halduses, Lakewood, New Jersey. (katalogiseerimatta)“E.E.L.K. koguduste sotsiaaltöö kohta 1950 Ameerika Ühendriikides”. Praost Aleksander Hinno. EEELK New Yorgi Pauluse koguduse ja praost Aleksander Hinno (katalogiseerimata) Arhiiv. E.E.L.K. Lakewoodi Pühavaimu koguduse halduses, Lakewood, New Jersey.)Eesti Kirik EELK Häälekandja. Jakob Aunver toim. Uppsala: Sven Danel: 1.12: 27 & 32.

“Eesti Kirik ja Kodu 1948 a. Jõulunumber”. New York: Eesti Ev. Luth. Kirik New York 217 East 119St. N.Y. Eesti Ev. Luteriusu Koguduse, Kast: Koguduse ajalugu 1948-1967. Eesti Arhiiv Ühendriikides (Estonian Archives in the United States), Lakewood, N.J.The Holy Bible New International Version. Nashville: Cornerstone Bible Publishing (1999).

Hultgren, L.E. Rev.: Letter (copy): “Dear Pastor” February 6th, 1951. EELK New Yorgi Pauluse koguduse ja praost Aleksander Hinnno (katalogiseerimata) Arhiiv. E.E.L.K. Lakewoodi Pühavaimu koguduse halduses, Lakewood, N.J.Kiaupa, Zigmantas et al. The History of the Baltic Countries. Tallinn: AB BIT & AVITA, 2000.

“10A. Ulatuslikku Tööd Tähtpäev New Yorgi E. Ev. Lut. Usu (sic) Koguduses. Vaba Eesti Sõna New York Nr. 13: 27. Märts 1958. Eesti Ev. Luteriusu Koguduse Kast: Koguduse Ajalugu 1948 – 1967. Eesti Arhiiv Ühendriikides (Estonian Archives in the United States), Lakewood, N.J.“Los Angelese Eesti Ev. Lut. Usu koguduse 1950 a. Aruanne” stud. theol. Rein Neggo. EELK New Yorgi Pauluse koguduse ja praost Aleksander Hinno (katalogiseerimata) Arhiiv. E.E.L.K. Lakewoodi Pühavaimu koguduse halduses. Lakewood N.J.Pastor Sõjapõgenik Joosep Reinaru toim. Maha kirjutatud Pastor Rudolf Reinaru lindistatud jutustus. Kaarma vald: oma kirjastatud, 1999.

Puide, Heino. E.E.L.K. Chicago Esimese Koguduse Kroonika 1950 - 2000.Chicago: E.E.L.K. Chicago Esimene Kogudus, 2001.

Raudsepp, Karl. A. Võõbus 1909 – 1988. (Võõbus).Toronto: EELK Usuteaduslik Instituut, 1990. ----- . Ristiga Märgitud (Ristiga). Toronto: Eesti Vaimulik Raamat, 1982.Wyman, Mark. DPs Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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