The Immigration Story of Igor Timtschenko (Estonian Refugee)

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My refugee career started in Tallinn (Estonia) on September 20, 1944.

Very early in the morning a group of people gathered at our apartment; Mille Viidikas, my aunt (in her 40’s), Imibi Harak, my mom’s best friend (in her late 30’s), Aino Harak, her daughter (Age 12) and my playmate, Lia Sarv, my mom’s co-worker (age 18?), Laine Sarv, her sister (age 19?), Piret Timtschenko, my mom (age 37) and me Igor Timtschenko (age 13).

Each person was instructed to bring one suitcase or bundle (only what you can carry). I was sent to get a horse and cart at the end of our street. We loaded the cart and proceeded towards the harbour, about 1 km away.

At the harbour there were two ships, Wartheland and Minden. We were directed toward Wartheland. We climbed aboard and were settled just under the deck on mattresses which covered the whole area.

Once settled, we went up to view the scene. The flow of people arriving was orderly, there was no shouting, yelling or pushing. Everything proceeded in silence. In the crowd we saw; Ellen Mattila, a family friend (in her 30’s), Arbo Mattilla, her son and my occasional playmate (age 9). We waved and called, but they did not hear us as they boarded the Minden.

In the afternoon a couple of cars arrived. From one, our Prime Minister, Dr. Mae appeared with a couple of others. The other car carried Dr. Litzmann and his entourage. He was the German overseer in Estonia. They boarded Minden.

At dusk, we slipped out of the harbour. There were a few people left behind and they waved good-bye, in silence. Our flotilla consisted of two ships and five to six patrol boats. We settled in for the night – no conversation, mostly silence.

The next morning was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and the water was calm and nobody was seasick! We were told that we were travelling along the Kurland Coast of Latvia but there was no land in sight. We were also told that Russian tanks had entered Tallinn, and we all became gloomy. Suddenly, all hell broke loose! Machine guns and cannons were firing, and it was deafening!

We were herded below, scared and not knowing what was going on. The ship picked up speed, zig-zagged and we were truly scared. This went on for about ten to twenty minutes, and then silence and then the ship reduced speed and continued in a straight line. We were allowed back on deck and when we went up; we saw all the spent casings everywhere.

We were told that two torpedo planes attacked our ships. The torpedo aimed at our ship missed the target. The other torpedo aimed at the Minden was released at an excessive angle, and when it was close, it jumped out of the water, pierced the funnel and continued its journey. It did not explode.

At nightfall, we entered Dantzig harbour and we met Ellen and Arbo from the Minden and they were surprised to see us. We all gawked at the hole in the funnel of their ship. They considered themselves very lucky!

People were then loaded on a train, destination unknown.
In the morning we were unloaded in a pine forest. It looked like some kind of a camp. Later we learned that it was built for the 1936 Olympics. Here we were able to have a shower and feel like humans again. We were able to exchange ost-marks for deutsch-marks and then obtained some type of documents. Officially, we were now free to go, but go where?

Now we were a group of nine people and we decided to stick together. All of us could converse in German, more or less. Someone produced a map of Germany and we had nine destinations picked out in no time. Knowing that the western front was nearing the German border, we decided on Freiburg in the Black Forest. The people at the train station informed us that special permission was needed to travel to Freiburg so the next choice was Goppingen, a small town between Stuttgart and Ulm.

Our journey was interrupted in Heilbronn. We ran out of food and coupons to buy food. We walked into the Red Cross office, just across from the station. We explained our situation and they looked after us, and provided food, shelter and showers. The next day they told us that our destination would be Geislingen-um-der-Steige, not far from our original objective. We were then told somebody would come to help us. A man came and told us that in Geislingen, there is a factory where adults will find work and children will attend school. Off we went, by train to our new ‘home’.

The small town was nestled between valleys. Apples were ripening on trees, and it was very peaceful. Heaven! The factory was Württembergische Metallfabriken (WMF).

We ended up in a camp in a town for foreign workers (mostly female Ukrainians). We were not happy. After some strong words and arguments, we were allowed to look for room rentals with local families, and everyone found accommodations. The local people were quite happy to earn some money. Everyone had plenty of money since in Estonia there was nothing to buy. So we settled in our new home. The adults worked in the factory and the three children (Igor, Aino, and Arbo) went to “school”. It was a class for foreigners (Ukrainians, Yugolsavians and Estonians). There wasn’t much learning, but it was OK.

In the spring of 1945, at the end of April, the American army entered Geislingen. The Estonian community had grown to about 100 people. There were a few men, and mostly women with children. These people were located in a storage area of the factory, converted into a dormitory with double bunk beds. The Americans setup an administration office for all these different groups. Meals were served in the factory ‘cafeteria’ at noon. This became the focal point for social activity and news, but news was scarce, rumors were plentiful.

We mingled with a group of French officers (POW’s) and some French workers who were recruited to work in Germany whose camp was at the edge of town. They told us that the Soviet officers were looking for Soviet citizens. These Soviet officers were the heroes of the day, as they defeated Germany, and captured Berlin. The Americans assured us that we did not have to fear, we would be OK, but we were not convinced. Overnight the Ukrainians disappeared and the Yugoslavians were next. The French officers suggested that we join them and go to France.

Our group of nine were divided. Lia and Linda Sarv decided to stay as did Imbi Harak and her daughter Aino. When the French were leaving, we (Mille, Ellen, Arbo, Piret and I) left with them in a convoy of US army trucks. The journey was long and bumpy. Bridges and overpasses were destroyed; towns and cities were in ruins. We crossed the French border at Saarbrucken. We were sprayed with DDT and had to produce some identification. My mom had her Estonian passport, but I had none, as we had destroyed our German papers. The French had a problem with our name, as it contained the letter, “č”. There was no French equivalent so they decided to write our name phonetically. The letter “č” became “tsch”.

We were allowed to change some German marks into francs, and we were told to exchange the rest of our money in Paris. Some officers offered to change the money for us, which we did. We received some temporary papers and continued our journey by train.

Suddenly, the train stopped. Word quickly travelled through the train that Soviet officers were searching for ‘their citizens’. Mille, Ellen and Arbo were shoved into the nearest toilet and told to lock the door and not to open it for anyone. Mom and I found refuge in the next carriage toilet. The same rules applied! When the train started to move again, we were allowed out. The rest of the journey was uneventful.

In Paris, with the help of a couple of officers and a French worker, we ended up in a cheap little hotel. As we realized our money would not support us for long, mom sold some valuables and began to look for work. We were told to go to the Soviet embassy to exchange our remaining German marks. Merci beaucoup! We got our paperwork sorted out and with luck, mom found a job as a maid for a lawyer’s family, Mr. and Mme. “M”. This opportunity came along none too soon since the Frenchman and officers wanted to return to their families and resume their life.

Our new home presented some big problems. The only person in the family who spoke a little German was the lawyer. The wife and their three teenage daughters did not. Our life was like a silent movie. No spoken words, but a lot of gesticulations.

We registered with “Croix Rouge” (Red Cross) and the International Refugee Organization (IRO), as refugees. This allowed us to search through long lists for friends and family in other countries who escaped Estonia. Meanwhile, Mme. “M” took me to school – Ecole primaire 1 ere année.

I was 14 years old in grade one and my classmates were all 6 years old. I am sure they wondered what was wrong with me – I was not ‘normal’. I learned to pronounce the letters A, B, C …. My progress was good. I was then promoted to 2e année. This grade had reading and writing, wow! At the end of the school year, I was in 3e or 4e année, but I was not yet ‘normal’. At this point, I could read and write, but my comprehension of French was limited.

Mme. “M” then took me to an evaluation centre for aptitude testing, which consisted mostly of physical skills. The results showed a strong aptitude in “électricité”. Meanwhile, mom and I got our residence permits for one year, to be renewed yearly.

My new school was Centre d’Apprentissage, and the main subject was electricity. This was like a regular workday, 8 to 9 hours of French dictees, literature, history, geography, mathematics, physics and chemistry with an emphasis on applications in electricity. Other subjects included industrial drafting, elementary woodworking, metal work and forging (blacksmithing). In these classes I made some of my own tools such as screwdrivers and chisels. Also, part of my studies was physical education and the history of art. This subject opened a door for me – the appreciation of art. I roamed the museums on weekends as museums were mostly free on Sundays.

The electrical studies started with splicing wire and cable, installations in homes and buildings. Later on, we worked on industrial installations, motors, transformers and studied the basics of high voltage and transmissions. The formulae kept coming and there was a lot of math involved. There were no text books or manuals, only lectures and you took notes. I had a big problem, as I could not decipher my notes at the end of the day with my limited French. This is where my classmates came in. Every day, I borrowed the notes of other students - those with the most legible writing – and at home I would copy these notes into my own notebooks with sketches and diagrams. My day was not done before 10 or 11 pm. My mom made sure the coffee was there. This was the best way for me to learn both French and the subjects. I kept this arrangement for the next 3 years.

Our search for family and friends paid off. We found my uncle and his family in Sweden and he was planning to immigrate to Canada.

At the end of 3 years, I applied for the state exam, and if I passed, I would receive my Certificat d’Aptitude Professionel (CAP). This commanded a higher pay in the industry. The success rate was not encouraging as only about 60% passed. I passed! Now I needed to find a job. The problem was my residence permit was about to expire and in order to get the extension on my permit I needed a job, but to get a job you needed a residence permit. Firms were not hiring me so a classmate who was working, recommended me to his boss. The employer wrote a letter stating that he was willing to hire me if I was to get my permit. It worked, so I was good for another year. Since this permit issue was a concern, I considered immigrating to Canada and my uncle was prepared to sponsor me. We discussed the idea with Mr. and Mme. “M”, since this family had done so much for me. They encouraged me to follow up on the idea. I found that the IRO was prepared to provide the transport to Canada.

I submitted the required documents, and as expected the bureaucracy was slow. Almost at the same time that the Canadian Embassy notified me that my application was approved, I received a new residency permit which was valid for 10 years! “Carte de sejour de resident privilégié”. What now? Canada, here I come!

This decision was not difficult. There was no hope for a return to Estonia, and to stay in France, I would forever remain an ‘étranger’, meaning foreigner. My uncle was already in Montreal and told me that Canada was a good country. Now the paper chase began.

I needed a “Titre d’ Identité et de Voyage”, kind of a passport, and visa for Canada. Once all this was sorted out, I informed the IRO I was ready to go. That was March 1951.

On April 21, 1951, I was at the train station in Paris – Gare du Nord. My family and friends were there to send me off to Canada. The first stop was Bremen, then to Bremenhafen, the port and onto the ship.

The M/S Nelly was a troop carrier, charted by the IRO. The journey was uneventful. The arrival however was a big surprise. There was a band playing, speeches being made and I did not know what was going on, as it was all in English and I did not speak a word of English! It turns out, there was a celebration of the arrival of the 100,000th immigrant to Canada (it wasn’t me). The date was May 5, 1951.

My career as a “displaced person” was finally over. A new language and a new life was waiting for me.

Ottawa 2017