Writer John Soosaar was eight years old when his family arrived in Hopewell by train from Quebec in October 1949. The Hopewell train station no longer exists. John is photographed on the tracks approximately where it once stood.
Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Journalist John Soosaar shares his memories of being a young Estonian refugee
On Christmas Eve 10 years ago, I received a small, round, handmade wooden box etched with an Estonian pattern. On the bottom was a tag with the inscription: Estonian Handicraft: Made in Estonian DP Camp Schwarzenbek, Germany.
It was a reminder of a journey that began in the wreckage of post-war Germany and ended in the pastoral countryside of Pictou County, N.S., by a group of displaced Estonian handcraft workers and their families. To most of them, Canada was a distant land of which few of the migrants had any knowledge.
Much of the history of their migration to Canada and how it changed their lives has been forgotten. No films or books have recorded this little bit of history, which was repeated many times by others in those difficult years.
In the case of our little group of 37 men, women, and children — who arrived in Hopewell by train from Quebec on a cold and wet night in October 1949 — it was the beginning of a journey not unlike that taken by Scottish settlers who came to the county more than 200 years ago on the ship Hector. In many cases, we were greeted by the descendants of those early settlers.
As an eight-year-old, much of our journey from the camps in Germany to our ocean voyage and our arrival in Quebec City and then Nova Scotia left an indelible mark in my memory, which I have relived often over my adult years.
We were what historian David Nasaw describes in a recent book as the last million; Europe’s displaced persons after the Second World War, who had lost their homelands and huddled in displaced persons camps throughout Germany, waiting for western countries to take them in.
In our case, Communist Russia had occupied Estonia and demanded those who had fled to Germany be returned by
the allies. Some were sent back, but thousands who had lived through the first brutal communist occupation of their homeland in 1940-41 refused.
Canada was one of the preferred countries, but there was reluctance on the part of the Mackenzie King government to take in too many. Interestingly, Estonians and Latvians were the preferred nationalities because they were “honest, ingenious, and good workers,” according to Major M. C. Bordet, second in command of the Eighth Army Corps’ DP camp section.
David Wilson, a teacher and part-time farmer in the Pictou County community of Marshdale, had been an officer in the Canadian army and worked with the United Nations Refugee organization in Germany. He had seen the work of Estonian craftsmen and women in the Schwartzenbek camp and on his return to Nova Scotia began working on a plan to establish a handcraft community on his farm.
After more than a year of correspondence with the King government officials, plans were made to bring over an initial group. Others would follow if the plan succeeded.
Wilson had a contractor build eight small two-room huts on some cleared land across the road from his farm, and on arrival after a two-day train trip from Quebec City, we were welcomed by the community at the tiny railway station.
The New Glasgow Evening News announced: “37 Estonians Given Royal Welcome by Hopewell-Marshdale Residents on Arrival to set up New Homes.”
Publisher Harry Sutherland had urged the community to help the new arrivals and soon truckloads of clothing, furniture, and household items began to arrive. A truckload of salt cod was donated by a Lutheran congregation in Lunenburg. Unfortunately, no one knew what to do with the heavily salted fish.
The first weekend, cars lined the road as curious villagers came out to see the new arrivals, but few knew any English so most stayed inside. Some children came out after being warned by parents not to get too near because of concerns that communist agents could be among the visitors. The fear was caused by agents in émigré camps in Europe, urging refugees to return to their native countries.
As winter set in, the huts were wrapped in tar paper, outhouses were built and firewood cut.
Some of the migrants had brought their handcrafted items along, but work began on building a workshop.
The following year, as work on wood, metal, knitted goods, and leather items continued, it soon became clear there was little demand locally for the Estonian crafts. Some contracts were signed with Ontario firms, but a regular income was necessary for those with young families. An exhibition of handcraft items at a New Glasgow department store drew praise on the quality of the work but few sales.
“Poor Handcrafts Market Hits DP Settlement Plan,” reported a local newspaper.
Some settlers began leaving for Upper Canada where larger Estonian communities summoned.
A newspaper quoted Wilson as saying some of those who left, “went unwillingly and some with tears in their eyes.”
Then, prominent lumberman Gordon MacKay from Lorne came offering work in the woods in Trafalgar. Most of the men went, purchased a used military vehicle and a new spirit emerged in the community. Gardens were planted and locals began visiting as the language fog lifted.
In 1950, we children began learning English at the home of retired teacher Annie Crockett, and by the following year, we started school.
By then many families had left, but some, like ours, had decided to stay in the county, found work in nearby New Glasgow, and eventually moved there.
Over time, Wilson brought in more refugees, hoping to have them take over abandoned farms in the area, but again money was tight. Markets were meagre, although some decided to try farming.
The Latvian Balodis family stayed and over the years succeeded and became a prominent fixture in Pictou County agriculture and other undertakings, as did the Kaleva family in Lorne.
In their case, Gordon MacKay sponsored Karl and his wife, both Estonians who came from Britain. They worked on the MacKay farm until they bought their own property nearby, farmed, and raised three children who became teachers and a lawyer.
Our family moved to New Glasgow where my father, Olaf, a cabinetmaker, found work at Eastern Woodworkers. We moved our humble two-room house from Marshdale, added rooms, and modernized the interior. Other Estonians from the initial group of refugees also found work in New Glasgow, lived next door to each other, saw their children through school, and became part of the fabric of the community.
My brother Henn became an architect and I a journalist. Our Estonian friends became soldiers, bankers, and businessmen.
Years later, publisher Harry Sutherland saluted those who had chosen to stay in Pictou County in an editorial he wrote on the passing of my father.
“It was shortly after the end of World War II that Pictou County learned with shock that a group of displaced persons were living in one-room homes, little more than shacks, in a field outside Hopewell.
“It was mid-winter and times were hard. But the folks reacted and help in the form of goods poured in. The displaced persons were surprised as folks here were shocked. They explained their tiny homes looked good to them … here they were free and that was important.
“Work was scarce here, so many had to go to Quebec and Ontario … But some refused to go; they elected to stay where people had been friendly to them. They did fit into our county. They took our hard times.
“One of those Estonians was Olaf Soosaar whose end came this week. He found work because he was skilled and willing.”