On the Margins: Essays on the History of Jews in Estonia

On the Margins: Essays on the History of Jews in Estonia

On the Margins: Essays on the History of Jews in Estonia

On the Margins: Essays on the History of Jews in Estonia

Synopsis

Estonia is perhaps the only country in Europe that lacks a comprehensive history of its Jewish minority. Spanning over 150 years of Estonian Jewish history, On the Margins is a truly unique book. Rebuilding a life beyond so-called Pale of Jewish Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Jewish cultural autonomy in interwar Estonia, and the trauma of Soviet occupation of 1940–41 are among the issues addressed in the book but most profoundly, the book wrestles with the subject of the Holocaust and its legacy in Estonia.

Specifically, it examines the quasi-legal system of murder instituted in Nazi-occupied Estonia, confiscation of Jewish property, and Jewish forced labor camps and develops an analysis of the causes of collaboration during the Holocaust. The book also explores the dynamics of war crimes trials in the Soviet Union since the 1960s and so-called denaturalization trials in the United States in the 1980s. The haunting memory of Soviet and Nazi rule, the book concludes, prevents a larger segment of today’s Estonian population from facing up to the Holocaust and the universal message that it carries.

Excerpt

Ralph Waldo Emerson has written that “all history is autobiography.” the observation is borne out by this moving and innovative volume, which is both an account of the history of the Jews of Estonia and of how the author came to take up this subject. Its title, On the Margins, could apply to both the author and his topic. Anton Weiss-Wendt was born in the town of Narva in the extreme east of Estonia, in which during the interwar period about one-third of the population was Russian-speaking (today, as a result of Soviet rule, the percentage has risen to over 90 percent). His paternal grandfather, Helmut Weiss, was a young Jewish communist from Dresden, whose tragic life is painstakingly reconstructed in chapter 4 of this book. Helmut’s father, an accountant, was born in Chervonohrad (until 1953 called Krystynopol in Polish and Kristinopol in Ukrainian), a small town situated about 65 kilometers northeast of Lviv (Lwów) in today’s Ukraine. His mother came from Leipzig. Helmut’s father died a natural death in 1939 while his mother vanished without trace and was probably murdered by Nazis in occupied Poland. Helmut, their only son, immigrated to the Soviet Union in December 1934, where he hoped to work as a journalist. in spite of his commitment to the communist cause, he soon, like most foreign communists, aroused the suspicion of the nkvd. During the period of Great Terror he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of corrective labor on cooked-up charges of espionage and terrorism. His wife, another communist émigré, Erna Brandt, attempted unsuccessfully to intervene on his behalf and may have been arrested herself. Weiss never heard from her again.

The following ten years Weiss spent in Dolinka, Kazakhstan, where he met his second wife, Elisabeth Luigas, who came from a mixed EstonianRussian family. She wound up in the Gulag after being arrested in July 1941 because of her membership in the Russian Christian Youth Association (a youth movement sponsored by Russian émigrés in France). in No-

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