If you were born and raised in a Baltic country between the two world wars, you were dealt a tough hand. Through no particular fault of your own, you were destined to become a pawn in the bloody chess game played by two of the most notorious villains in world history, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
In short succession each of them occupied this area of northeastern Europe and installed murderous puppet regimes that carried out ethnic cleansing on a vast scale.
During that time, thousands of civilians were arrested, beaten, murdered or deported to Soviet forced-labor camps or to German concentration camps. Yet people survived those atrocities and lived to tell their stories. Richard Paesuld, who is 91, is one of them.
Paesuld was among the 30 million or so displaced people who were scattered throughout Europe at the end of World War II, desperate to leave behind a violent past so they might find a better future. To him, getting on a boat could either be a death sentence or a ticket to freedom. It all depended on where the bow was pointed.
The tyrants’ shuffle
In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression treaty (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) but secretly divvied up Northern and Eastern Europe. While Germany invaded Poland, Russia occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where Stalin’s terror became the rule. When Hitler broke the treaty and invaded the U.S.S.R. in June 1941, the Soviets were driven out, but there was no reason to rejoice since the new sheriff acted much like the old sheriff.
Men were “encouraged” to join the Nazi military to fight against the Soviets. Some joined voluntarily to avenge the cruelties suffered during the Russian occupation. Paesuld, an earnest man who hails from the coastal town of Haapsalu, Estonia, was 18 at the time. Youngsters were conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD), the Nazi labor service that trained and indoctrinated recruits in preparation for their military service. Wanting to stay off the occupiers’ radar, he volunteered and was shipped to Germany for a year. After his discharge, he managed to skip deployment to the Russian front and returned to Estonia, where he laid low and worked odd jobs. But with the collapse of the Wehrmacht on the eastern front in 1944, Stalin was about to make a comeback in the Baltic, and that was bad news for Paesuld, who knew that his past in the RAD was becoming a lethal liability.
“We had two days to get out before the Russians came,” he recalls, sifting through old photographs. There were two options: Melt into the woods and hope for the best, or find a boat — any boat — and hope for the best while attempting to cross the Baltic Sea. The east coast of Sweden and Estonia’s westernmost islands are separated by roughly 100 nautical miles of open water. But under the circumstances, Sweden might as well have been in another galaxy.
Paesuld estimates that 20,000 Estonians escaped across the water while thousands more perished. He set out with 10 others in a 13-foot nutshell at 5 p.m. on Sept. 19, 1944. And he got lucky. After a night and a day at sea in nasty weather, they were rescued by the Swedish navy. “A lucky break,” he notes without much emotion.
Officially a neutral country, Sweden took in Estonian refugees such as Paesuld, who moved to Helsingborg and found work as a welder. He also found Laine, a lovely girl who also had slipped out of Estonia, and they soon married. “We had a good time,” says Paesuld. But more trouble was coming.
In the fall of 1945, the Soviets demanded the extradition of German soldiers and volunteers from the Baltic who had fought in the Wehrmacht. They also wanted civilians who had fled abroad. The deportees who were handed over to the Soviets knew what was in store: death by execution or death by Gulag. Resorting to a hunger strike and self-mutilation, they tried to avoid being put on a Russia-bound freighter. “One committed suicide by ramming a sharp pencil through his eye into his brain,” says Paesuld, who took matters into his own hands yet again.
Finding another ride
Resolving to leave Sweden for fear of extradition, he joined a group of like-minded Estonians. Together they bought the North Sea herring boat Astrid — a small but stout spidsgatter that could make the 3,000-mile trip to the new world. “Canada is a big country; there is room for us, too,” Paesuld reasoned. He and Laine bet their lives and a fortune on this move. They bought two shares in the boat for 1,600 Swedish krona each (about $4,000 today). “It cost me more than a passage on a luxury liner, but it was well worth it,” he says with a chuckle.
After the original captain dropped out, a replacement was found. Astrid was provisioned, and on July 5, 1948, they slipped the lines in Gothenburg. Twenty-nine people, including children, were packed into the hold. “We kept the fishing nets up in the mast,” Paesuld notes. “We did not want to look suspicious.”
His job on board was looking after the 60-hp hot bulb engine — Paesuld calls it a “hot head.” It was simple and reliable, took almost any kind of fuel and could run unattended for days on end. The sail was used for stabilization. Astrid made 7 mph, he says. “And when [the engine] stopped, you had to restart it with a candle and compressed air.” Luckily, they had to do that only once during the passage.
His biggest task, however, was transferring fuel from one of the 31 diesel drums on deck to the tank with a hose. It was a delicate job, especially in foul weather, that could have doomed the mission if done poorly. To keep seawater out of the fuel system, he sealed the opening of the barrel with a cloth.
“Sometimes the boat bounced so hard, it took one guy to hold the cook and another one to hold those two — all to fry an egg,” he says with a laugh.
There were no barf bags in the cramped quarters, so they strung a can in the hold, which swung about and was easy to reach when needed. And that, according to Paesuld’s recollection, was early and often because the ocean showed them who’s boss.
What did they do for food? “We stopped in Stornoway on Lewis Island in the Hebrides to get herring,” he says, making it sound like a trip to the mini-mart at a gas station. “They were good, fat fish, delicious with dry bread. I ate them with the bones. Herring bones are good for my bones.” And, he adds proudly,“ My wife and I never got seasick.”
A new life in a new country
After 40 days and 40 nights, the crossing came to an end on Aug. 12, 1948. Without being detected or harassed, Astrid docked at St. Johns in Newfoundland. She was the first and smallest of four such boats to reach Canada that month — perhaps a quarter the size of the 164-foot SS Walnut, an old minesweeper that docked in Halifax on Dec. 13 with 347 people on board. Hungry, dirty and exhausted, but full of hope, these “boat people” finally had reached a safe haven.
Astrid’s contingent of 29 Estonians was dwarfed by the reported 80,000 immigrants in total that had entered Canada during the first eight months of 1948. They were considered displaced persons, not refugees, because they had left Sweden of their own volition. Still, Canada accepted them because they were seen as “good types” who blended in.
“Everybody was interviewed and got a landing visa,” Paesuld says. “Then we were sent to a refugee camp near Montreal and spent [nearly] three weeks there.” On the day of their release, Aug. 31, 1948, the young couple rolled up their sleeves, determined to work and make Canada their home. With seven dollars in his pocket, Paesuld found employment at Eaton’s department store, his wife at a restaurant. They lived simply and frugally, following a lifestyle ingrained by the deprivations of war. He became a contractor — self-taught, of course — and worked in Maple Ridge, just east of Vancouver, British Columbia, where they had settled.
Richard and Laine — Isa and Ema as their grandkids would call them — had saved and invested enough money to retire when he was 52, spending winters in Arizona and in Mexico. But in 2013, Laine, his companion and wife of 66 years, passed away. To blunt the pain of his loss, Richard moved to a retirement home in Sidney, British Columbia, close to his daughter Anne and her family, including great-granddaughter Zara, whom he adores and loves to hold on his lap.
“I had a good time here,” he says of coming to North America. “I have no regrets. Brighten your mind, you can make money. Nowhere is it as easy as it is here.” And he did not forget Estonia. After the Berlin Wall came down, he went back in 1991. “It was too early. The Russians were still there,” he offers. But nothing more.
Sitting in a recliner in his room, neatly dressed in shirt and slacks, blue eyes behind black-rimmed reading glasses, Richard Paesuld, the nonagenarian, still is a formidable man. He looks back on a long and fulfilled life and on difficult times he managed to survive. But not everyone was so fortunate. Among the thousands of Estonians the Soviets deported, many were his kin. “My relatives and my wife’s died,” Paesuld says. War is a cruel business, and the difference between life and death sometimes is not all about fortitude but a stroke of dumb luck. And getting into a boat that will carry you to freedom.
March 2015 issue