Coming Home Soon: The Refugee Children of Geislingen

What does it mean when you, as a child, suddenly have to leave your home because your homeland is in a war and your family is in danger ?  What does it mean when you have to leave your loved ones, your home and everything and everyone you knew behind?

This is the story told in the documentary Coming home soon. It is the story of Estonian children who fled Estonia in 1944 with their mothers, siblings and sometimes with their fathers as well.

Teaser

About The Film

What does it mean when you, as a child, suddenly have to leave your home because your country is in a war and your family is in danger ?  What does it mean when you have to leave your loved ones, everything and everyone you knew behind?

This is the story told in the documentary Coming home soon. It is the story of Estonian children who fled Estonia in 1944 with their mothers, siblings and sometimes with their fathers as well.

They didn’t know where the dangerous roads would take them, and when they made it to the refugee camps, they knew, this was temporary.

All interviewees in this film found themselves in Geislingen refugee camp (1945-1950) in the South of Germany. Geislingen was an Estonian Assembly centre where some 4000 Estonians lived for more than 5 years. The camp became a small Estonia with schools, workshops, post office, hospital, newspaper, theatre, orchestra, choirs… Estonians themselves were in charge of organizing the camp. According to the UNRRA officer (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) of the Geislingen camp the Estonians did all the work while they did not have any say regarding the longevity or future of the camp. Geislingen was a home for the refugees 5 years and then the residents had to depart once more leaving their friends and familiar surroundings behind to start all over again in a new country, in a new place unknown to them.

The film Coming home soon explores the influence which the experiences at Geislingen had on the lives of the Estonian refugees and their children.

It is a story about how to cope with extremely difficult circumstances, how to overcome your past and build a successful future. It is a story of hope and inspiration.

Although this film is related to Estonian post WWII history, one can observe strong parallels to the current refugee situation in Europe.

    

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Choirs and Music – Part Two

The Estonian tradition of singing and of song festivals was not forgotten in Geislingen. Very soon there were four choirs: a men’s choir and three mixed choirs. Singing helped to overcome difficulties even in the most narrow circumstances of dp life. The work in the choir wasa joint effort carried out by vocation and emphasized by inner warmth.

The men’s choir, conducted by Roman Toi, was the most successful choir. Not only did they give concerts and performed at the official events and celebrations in Geislingen, they also performed in different camps and cities in the American zone, for refugees, UNRRA and the American Army. In 1948 even a recording was made for Radio Stuttgart.

To my great surprise this recording still existed. The person who located the recording in the archive of the radio, now SWR, seemed as surprised as me. The recording was digitized and I could hear it. One of the songs, Kaugel, would have been perfect for this documentary: the sound is melancholic, the longing for Estonia so clear.

But then the question of rights came up: I had to pay the radio for the rights, a sum which was for me too high. What a shame! The recording fitted so well in the film. I also started to wonder why I should  pay the SWR for the rights of this recording, because this was not evident.

In 1948, when the recording was made, the Federal Republic of Germany did not yet exist, as it came into existence on 23 May 1949; in 1948 there were still the Allied Zones of Occupation. But more interesting for me: The SDR, Süddeutsche Rundfunk, nowadays the SWR, didn’t exist either. This was created around the same time in 1949.

In 1948 there was Radio Stuttgart. The Americans, who were in favour of regional broadcasting, started four radio stations in 1945, Radio Stuttgart was one of them. Until the summer of 1949 the Radio stations belonged to the Americans and therefore, so I think, they also owned the rights. Then the totally new radio station SDR was established.

The question was: who owned the rights of the recordings made before 1949? The Americans or the Germans? Did the Americans handed over the archive and did they make a contract for this, or did the Americans simply leave the archive in Germany and the SDR found the archive as part of the inventory take over?

Though the record survived, the contract for the recording didn’t. I wrote to the radio station, hoping to find a solution and as my budget was extremely tight, I hoped for a cheap solution. And then time just passed. But not long ago I received a message of the SWR: they had concluded that producer-right of the recording is expired. This was again a great surprise. Now I can use the song.

Choirs and Music – Part One

I once heard a story regarding a special concert from an old Estonian man, who had been forced during the Second World War to join the German army. This man had been taken prisoner by the British at the end of the war and was brought to the prisoners of war camp Uklei, in Germany, together with other soldiers from the Baltic Countries.

The camp consisted of a large nature area and the British didn’t have enough men to guard the camp, so the rumour was started that the British will help to liberate the Baltic Countries and therefore most people remained in the camp, waiting for the moment they would be able to join the British army and return to an independent Estonia.

In the meantime they had to cope with little food, hardly any shelter and nothing to do. So the Estonians decided to organise a choir and they sang regularly. Then they heard the Latvians had done the same and they got the idea to give a concert together, somewhere near Lake Uklei.

The evening came, the Estonians headed for the place to have the concert and so did the Latvians, but the area was big and somehow they lost track of each other. After searching for the other group in vain, both groups gave a concert, though separately, for the men who had come along to hear both choirs. According to the story the evening was warm, the environment beautiful and the men sang wonderful.

In the end the British did not help to liberate the Baltic Countries but brought the prisoners a few weeks later to another prisoner of war camp, this time in Belgium, with guards at the gate and a high fence around the camp. There they stayed until March 1946, when they were brought to refugee camps in Germany.

Knowing this story, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the Estonians, around 75 people, who were brought to Geislingen in autumn 1944, to work in the WMF factory, formed a choir and even gave a concert. When the war had ended and the Estonian refugee camp was organised in Geislingen a year later, one choir was obviously not enough and quite soon there were four.

To be continued.

Clean up!

Spring cleaning is a very old tradition, practiced in many countries and cultures. Ten years ago Rainer Nõlvak gave this idea an interesting twist by organising Let’s do it. This campaign was initiated to clean up forests and countryside. It was a huge success. On May 3rd, 2008 over 50.000 people participated in this large cleaning event.

Seventy years ago, in Geislingen refugee camp, cleaning was a serious business. The authorities were afraid of infectious diseases and other health issues due to overcrowding in buildings. Rooms were disinfected and cleaned over and over again to get rid of vermin, dirt and dust.

In 1948 they made once more clear that all inhabitants were responsible for the cleanliness of the houses: the head of family or room elder was responsible for keeping a room clean, building commission was responsible for shared spaces: kitchen, toilets, and stairs. There was also an assigned  housekeeper or house elder, who would receive the soap and cleaning materials and had to see that everything was done according to plan.

There were rules to obey and orders to follow, there were inspections and controls;  buildings, gardens, sheds were checked on a regular base.  This was done in a thorough way, even the garbage bin was not forgotten and if it was clean, it still could be that you had thrown away things you were not allowed to.  

Punishment consisted of naming and shaming, warnings, not getting your ration of cigarettes – which was quite something as cigarettes were used, until the money reform of the summer of 1948, as currency.  If warnings didn’t make a difference you could even be thrown out of the camp.

Reading about all the inspections, about dishes still in the sink, about bits of paper in the garden, about dust underneath the stairs I started to look at my own home in a different way. Had the inspectors of ‘48 come to my house now, I’m afraid they would have looked with a mixture of bewilderment and abhorrence at the rooms where I keep all my books, documents and other archival material as dust is on top of many piles, there is an occasional spider and my windows need to be cleaned.

They would probably have questioned me: how on earth can you live in such a pigsty… I would be mentioned in the Information Bulletin for having rooms which are in a total mess and I would get a serious warning: you’ll have to better your life immediately. Clean up!

Walter Benjamin

While working on a new edit of the film and carefully reviewing how the interviews, footage, pictures, work together I’m becoming aware of the fact that the outcome is only one possible way of putting all different parts together. Someone else might do something completely different with the same elements.

The way each element of the film is placed and followed by another element, the pace or rhythm of the changes, directs the view of the audience and in some ways the associations and thinking.

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was already much aware of the way film interrupts the process of associations the audience has by quick changes of scenes. Benjamin wrote about this in 1935, in an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

In this essay is a short overview of history of art; how art was at first related to religion and how the aura of an object of art, contemplated by a single viewer, was of most importance. This is in contrast to the modern era where an art form like film can be used for political means and viewed by masses.

Walter Benjamin wrote the essay in the same year when the film Triumph de Willens, a Nazi propaganda film, was made by Leni Riefenstahl. What it meant to film masses of people for the same masses – using perspectives, in a quick succession, which the human eye would not be able to see in reality, but only in film,  thereby appealing more to the emotions rather than the ratio, was not to be underestimated.

Benjamins essay has a pessimistic tendency as he writes about the worrying aspects of filmmaking. I’m inclined to say that this is evident knowing it was written in 1935, though I doubt whether he would have written an optimistic story had he lived now and seen what was produced for propaganda.

But there is also another more obvious side of making films: showing the possibilities to discover and reveal worlds unknown, peoples, cultures, nature, to hear stories otherwise not shared, but also tragedies otherwise not noticed. Film can be used for indoctrination, but also for awareness, for  critical views and empathy.

Still, despite the fact that the essay was written over 80 years ago, much of what Benjamin wrote in this is still relevant. Therefore it is valuable to read it while editing, to have in mind that it is important to give the audience room for thoughts and ideas while watching the film.

Karl Hintzer

Karl Hintzer, an Estonian photographer, took pictures in several refugee camps in Germany after the war. Geislingen was one of the camps he visited. Geislingen was overcrowded, however, when you look at the pictures Karl Hintzer took of the streets you wonder: where is everybody?

How is it possible he could take pictures as if it was the most quiet place you could think of? Empty streets, or just a few people walking around. The feeling of an early Sunday morning, when everyone is still asleep.

After reading about Geislingen, about the amount of people living in one house, guessing at the numbers of people living in one street, the pictures form an enigma. At the same time they tell a story: of a small undisturbed town, where the wartime years had left the surroundings untouched.

In the pictures there is no sign or hint of a before and after, a period so decisive for the refugees. It is an aesthetic point of view, maybe a moment to forget what had been, to show what is still there and could be the future for the Estonians in Geislingen: living in a peaceful place.

There are other photographers like A. Kalme who shows streets full of people, waiting, walking, talking. There are also school pictures by other photographers, family pictures, pictures of events, but also the official portraits to be send to sponsors in other countries, or to use for official documents.

All pictures tell a different story, all direct the view in a specific way, neither right or wrong – just different. Sometimes I wonder what is outside the frame, what is left out, what is not told. What does the photographer want us to see, but also: what not?

The same question can be asked with a story, a newspaper article, but also with a documentary film. The answer would be a multitude of other stories.  

The next question would be: on what grounds was this decision made to choose one image, one story, one point of view rather than the other. I can tell from my experience that the decisions are not made easily but are the outcome of a continuous struggle.

© Herder Institut, Marburg

Specialised jobs

In 2011 EstDocs screened a documentary titled: Roots: One Hundred Years of War and Music. This documentary, made by Katrin Laur, is about the conductor and composer Olav Roots, an Estonian refugee, who moved to Columbia in 1952 where became the conductor of the Bogota Symphony Orchestra.

Reading and rereading all the Information Bulletins printed in Geislingen, it becomes clear that Columbia had started to search for professional musicians already in the late forties. This was a time when countries started to realise that refugees might not only be an interesting group to recruit workers from, but also a group where some very talented people could be found.

Columbia was also searching for so many different scholars to teach at university level, that they could start an entire refugee university. Other countries followed, like Pakistan, searching for highly educated people for their universities.

But they were looking also for a different kind of specialised people and it seems some things never change: Columbia looked for a professional football player, to be precise: a very good player. What that meant, was not made clear, and who knows whether it was even open for discussion. Morocco was searching for professional football players as well.

Just to give an idea what kind of announcements sometimes were published:  in 1949 Venezuela was looking for one female cook, who knew French and Italian cuisine and could speak French, English and Spanish. The cook should work for the consul of Denmark.  

Who was the consul of Denmark at the time? Was he somewhat spoiled or was it normal for a consul to ask of a country to please him with a great cook, able to speak Spanish for practical reasons and French and English to discuss with his wife the menus? As it happened, in Geislingen language courses of all three languages were offered.

IRO, the International refugee organisation, made clear that refugees should not lie and they need to be honest when filling their papers. Otherwise, if found out,  they would be punished. It must have been challenging not to twist the truth a bit, when trying to get out of Germany and seeing the announcements for work calling for other than physical labour jobs.  

I was surprised to find an announcement in April of 1950, only few months before the camps would be closed, for work in England: they were looking for a documentary filmmaker. Would there still have been anyone in the camps who would come forward for this job? Unfortunately I don’t know, but it would be interesting to find out.

The mathematicians of Geislingen

I’m working on the texts for the voice-over. These texts allow me to explain some facts and figures which are not mentioned in the interviews. But there are many facts and an incredible number of figures. Everything was counted and accounted for. Starting with the number of inhabitants.

When the war had ended there were 6 small refugee camps in Geislingen: four Polish, one Yugoslav and one Baltic. The people living in the camps had been forced to work in a factory that was located in Geislingen. 120 Estonians stayed in the Baltic camp.

At that time, in the summer of 1945, it was not clear how the camps would be organised. Yugoslavs, Russians, Poles, they were all sent back rather quickly to their home countries; whether they wanted to or not. Some Latvians and Estonians were moved to other camps.

Probably the Estonians returned soon when Geislingen was turned into an Assembly Centre for Estonians in the American Zone. And many more came. Far too many. There was a shortage of houses and available rooms. So in March 1946 some 400 people were sent to a camp in Dornstadt.

The remaining people had to be regrouped which was quite a task. But already in April the people who had been moved to Dornstadt were brought back, as well as 300 people from other camps. The regrouping and dividing of rooms started again.  

The number of rooms, square meters, how many people fitted in each room was known. The quota was  4 square metres for each person. For some time people went out, more came in, counting and recounting.

But the numbers of people, square metres and available beds were just a start. Then all other things need to be recounted and divided: the amount of bread, potatoes, wood, cigarettes, toothbrushes, soap, toilet paper, razor blades, chocolate…  A never-ending task.

Geislingen an der Steige

Last year I went with cameraman and editor Leo van Emden to Geislingen. We were well underway, and I started to recognise the landscape: gentle rolling hills, small towns and villages. On the signs we could already read Geislingen. When we entered the town by the main road, it seemed vaguely familiar.

But I didn’t recognise the streets. I had come here by train several times but now I was slightly confused. We stopped to look at the large map next to the road. A family, living close to the street, was watching us patiently, waiting to ask their inevitable question: do you need to be in Geislingen, or Geislingen an der Steige? And off we went, 100 kilometres in the direction we just came from.

I wondered what it was like for the first UNRRA team to find the right roads. UNRRA, the international relief organisation, had set up two bases in Normandy,  to assemble and train teams to organise the refugee camps. One base was in Jullouville. This is where the UNRRA team for Geislingen was formed.

There was a shortage of staff and instead of the thirteen people every team was required to have,  only five went to Geislingen on 27th of May 1945. Five people from different nationalities, most likely  none of them familiar with this part of Germany. According to the map they had to drive over 1000 km. It took them ten days to arrive.

I have found no reports of these ten days, but they were accustomed to chaos and probably there was nothing unusual to communicate. Once arrived they wrote about their location: Geislingen, sometimes Gieslingen, but not: Geislingen an der Steige. So I guess they were unaware of the existence of another town with the same name.

But they did know it would be wise to give some directions where to find them and so, on the first report it was written: Location: Geislingen. Directions for reaching: road no 10 South Stuttgart. Had we used these directions, we probably would have had no problems reaching Geislingen an der Steige, the place where once the refugee camp had been.

Repatriation

I’m writing and rewriting the script. I add information and leave information out. Every time you get a slightly different story. It is sometimes difficult to say which one is better, but it does make clear that writing is about selecting, not everything will be told.

In my research I tried to get an idea about the range of different stories, sometimes hidden behind the facts and figures presented in the Information Bulletins. One of the stories was of a woman who repatriated. In the monthly reports, it was stated for obvious reasons that no one had repatriated. Until suddenly there appeared the figure 1 and a name of a woman.

With the help of the National Archive in Estonia and the willingness of the family to share the story, I found out more: she was in her mid-forties, came from the country side and was on her own. She had no education, no knowledge of foreign languages. How would she be able to cope when the refugee camp would be closed? Countries were looking for young, healthy women. Emigration would become problematic.

She probably missed her family, as well as the countryside. How difficult the decision was for her to return, is not known, but she decided to do so. Her half brother helped her to get a job in gardening on a collective farm.

She passed away in 1970. Her story will not be in the film and yet it is part of the whole collection of stories which form together an idea, an image, of camp life in Geislingen.

Starting the film

I learned about Geislingen refugee camp while I was working on the film about Class of 1943, about the school class of my Estonian father. One of his classmates stayed in Geislingen for some years and he had a wonderful time there. He was reunited with his family and fell in love. Even being in his eighties he still longed for Geislingen.

I had plans for a documentary film, but it was two years ago that I decided: now I will make the film. Last December I finished with Leo van Emden, the editor, a first rough edit. It is a fascinating and exciting stage in the working process: finally everything comes together, all the research, interviews, pictures and footage. You see the script come alive.

This first edit allows me to see how all elements of the script work together, how tension builds up, how the storyline works. Then time is needed; it is even essential, as it creates a distance to have a critical look. Now the script needs rewriting, a new edit needs to be made and then we will go through this process at least once more.

It sometimes reminds me of making an Italian bread: you kneed the dough, you let it rise and rest, kneed it once more, let it rise and rest and then a third time, before it goes into the oven. It is possible to put the dough in the oven after it has risen just once, but for tasteful, light and airy bread you have to go through the whole process. You just need time.

The Film Makers

Director: Helga Merits

Coming home soon is my fifth documentary film. All my films are related to people who are uprooted due to the war and need to build a new life in unfamiliar places. How do you keep on going? How do you build a new life? Do you keep connected to the past or is it better just to focus on the future? These are questions which interest me.

My first film was about my Estonian father, who also had to leave his country. My debut film was a trial to see if I could bring to life my father’s unknown past by the few texts and letters I had inherited. For this film, Kallis Paul (Dear Paul) (2007) I received the Theodor Luts prize.

I felt that I was not done, and needed to explore my dad further and made a film about the high school class of my father, Class of 1943- remember us when we are gone (2012), is about the fate of boys who were all constricted to German army of 1943.

While doing research in Poland for Class of 1943- remember us when we are gone, I discovered Sam Freiman, a Polish Jew, living in Britain, a man who was born and raised in a small village near Warsaw. From my relationship with Sam a documentary about his youth: Sam Freiman – memories of a forgotten world (2010) was born.

My last film was about a remarkable institute: the Baltic University. This was a university created by refugees of the three Baltic Countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Hamburg in 1946. Although they didn’t have a penny to their name and Hamburg was in ruins, even though they were homeless, they still had the courage to think about a way to organise education for students of the Baltic Countries. The film is titled: The Story of the Baltic University (2015). I received the medal of the Baltic Assembly for this film.

Now I’m working on a film about Estonian refugees who lived all together in camp Geislingen during 1945-1950. It is a film about the history of Estonia, but also about refugees in post-war Germany. It is a film about people who needed to go on and live with the consequences a war had forced upon them. The film has a strong link with the current situation in Europe.

My background is a study of philosophy (University of Amsterdam). I worked for years as a journalist for national radio both in Belgium and Holland and wrote for newspapers in both countries. But what I missed was a way to visualise the stories, to bring these to life, to work with another dimension. This is the reason I started to work on my first documentary; working with image, sound, and text allows me to create powerful stories while still continuously learning how these mediums influence one another.

 

Editor: Leo van Emden

I have been trained as a classical dancer and worked as a dancer and performer for 20 years. I worked for a few years as a production and performance manager, but then decided to get training to be a filmmaker. Since 2012 I have worked as an independent film maker and I make films by commission, and also free productions. My company is called Roemfilm.

The edit for the documentary “The Story of The Baltic University” was my first edit for a long documentary, it was also my first cooperation with Helga Merits, a beautiful adventure where I first came into contact with stories of refugees from the Baltic states and what they experienced during and after the Second World War.

I saw a lot of common ground with my own background, but it was also almost disconcerting to discover that there is a lot of common ground with refugees today. The stories are still very up-to-date: black-and-white images made way for color and people are fleeing from a different direction, but every story has so many similarities:  the impact on the lives of the people is enormous and history seems to be constantly recurring. All stories are far from being told and these badly need to be told.

Working with Helga is good, we have a  harmonious and cooperative relationship and it has led to personal substantive enrichment. It has given me new insights into how you look, and think about, history.

The research work and the work Helga is doing to make all the ends meet is enormous. Both for the film on the Baltic University and the new film we currently are working on. To bring together, and bundle, all material is a beautiful adventure. You slowly see a sketch become a fully-fledged painting that, as it were, slowly comes to you from afar. We are now working on a new documentary in which we are faced with all kinds of new challenges and we are searching together for the right form.

It is also nice that people are usually very old, which means for me empathizing with a completely different dynamic and searching for a rhythm and timing that fits. And no matter how often you look at a part of the interview, you always see more and more layers. There is so much behind those eyes and there is so much said without words…

The Story of The Baltic University – proloog from LEO VAN EMDEN on Vimeo.

Composer: Peter van Os

I have been playing the accordion since I was eight years old and graduated from the Hilversum/Amsterdam conservatory. Besides the accordion, I’m a passionate player of the trombone and of course the piano.

I master a wide range of musical idioms and skills, and the scope of my musical preferences ranges from contemporary classical to Balkan and theatre – music.

I’ve performed contemporary orchestral music with several Dutch symphony orchestras. I have also accompanied several Dutch singer-songwriters and theatre plays and wrote music for documentaries and theatre plays.

As composer and improvisor, I´m used to add music to performances and texts.

Very much interested in the history and music of the 20th century, I combine contemporary composing techniques with folklore influences.

For instance, in Helga Merits previous film: “The story of the Baltic University” and my latest composition: “Novecento”. (For orchestra and performer after A. Barrico’s novel).

As an accordion-player, I was touched by the Estonian folklore-music Helga Merits gave me, as inspiration for her previous film: “The story of the Baltic University”.

Familiar with all kinds of folklore-music from over the world, this was new for me at that time. Acquainted of course with (choral) music of Pärt and Tormis; (Estonian contemporary classical music), I transformed folklore melody’s to “wide tonality” or even atonality.

For the new project Helga Merits is working on, I’m again challenged to find sounds, melody’s, musical colours and silence that will support text and images of the film. Therefore I’ll try to catch, in an associative way,  “motions and emotions” of persons and their surroundings in the film and put them in a score.

The instruments: a string quartet, because of the wide range of tonal possibility’s and non-tonal expressions and accordion. Together they will connect Estonian, German, folkloristic and contemporary classical sounds.

Music Samples

Film: The story of the Baltic University
Music: Peter van Os
Title: 2 variations on Kuldne Noorus
Accordion: Peter van Os
Viola: Ro Krauss

Support Us

All the research and interviews have been finished. I have been able to gather a great amount of rare historical material from various archives and museums of Europe. The first rough edit of the film has been completed, but to be able to continue to work with the editor, composer, musicians, actor and designer I’m in need of support.  I can say that from all material I have gathered you will discover an interesting story which relates to all who had to cope with difficult struggles at one or another point in their lives.  With your support I hope to finish the film by May 2018.

2018 is the celebration of 100 years of Republic of Estonia. There are all kinds of activities, meetings, congresses. It is important to screen this film telling a part of the post war history of Estonia during these celebrations. With your help I can tell our story with Coming home soon at the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies conference in Stanford in June, at the Baltic Heritage Network conference in Tartu at the end of June, and at Estdocs in Toronto late October.

I am looking for a total of € 15.000 which is needed to cover the costs of editor, composer, musicians, sound technician, actor, designer and director.  

I have received support from the Estonian American Fund, Estonian American National Council, Tartu College in Toronto, Böckler-Mare-Balticum-Stiftung. The Herder Institut Marburg supports the film by letting me use their pictures for free (Hintzer collection). This support has helped me to organise the recordings of the interviews, to do research in special archives, to buy documents and other historical material.

Now I’m searching for your support to be able to finish the film.

All support, small or large will be helpful and will be greatly appreciated.

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Enter “Geislingen” as the Special Instructions for your donation.

Other Countries

Please enter the recipient: merits@xs4all.nl

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