Sunday, January 16, 2011

I'll Be Back, Part 1

My fifth grade teacher glowered at me as she sternly slapped my paper down on my desk. "The assignment was supposed to be a true story about your family's history, not a made-up story." Never one to argue with my teacher, but genuinely confused, I stammered, "But this is the history of my family." "No," she snapped, "You wrote about your father escaping with Nazi soldiers from a country called Estonia. There isn't even a country named Estonia." Shocked at the disagreement between the teacher and me, a normally quiet, shy girl who never got into trouble, the class looked on in silence. "Yes, there is." I responded. Pointing to the map at the front of the class, my teacher challenged me to find it. It took me all of ten seconds to point out the tiny Baltic country. Genuinely surprised, my teacher apologized.

From a very early age, my father had repeatedly directed my tiny finger at a map and pointed out the country, his country, from which he had been forced to flee. My ears had heard the stories of my grandfather's murder, my grandmother's courage, and the unfailing guidance of a loving Heavenly Father who led them step by step to America. At my father's knee, my heart had embraced a country I had never seen, but, somehow knew I was connected to - Estonia.


My father standing between his father and pregnant mother in Estonia.

The year was 1942. Russian armies were again invading Estonia. In typical fashion, they attempted to eliminate the leaders of society first. Lists were posted in public places giving the names of politicians, teachers, ministers, and other prominent figures who were to be shipped out of the country to labor camps. One dreadful day, my grandfather's name appeared on the list.

My grandfather was a minister. At a time when there were no computers or quick modes of transportation, he worked hard to spread the gospel. Often he used his bicycle to travel from one town to another, sometimes even using it as a bridge to cross icy rivers by laying it down between ice patches or boulders and crawling across. He loved God and it was his desire to share that love with as many as he could.

But 1942 was a dangerous year. World War II was in full force and my grandfather's life was in danger. He was not the only one. Two other men in his church were also scheduled to be deported. Backed by the support of his congregation, they decided to go into hiding.

The forests in Estonia are thick with birch trees. Beautiful to behold during peacetime, they resembled cold prison bars during wartime. Various church members rotated the duty of secreting food and supplies to the hiding men, changing routes each time to avoid detection. At that time one never knew who was a friend and who would betray you for favors from the Communists.

Deliveries were risky and parcels must be small enough to be concealed beneath clothing or in a handbag. There was little time to visit. A clasped hand, a whispered greeting or prayer, and a smile were all the encouragement time afforded before the visitor disappeared again into the maze of trees.

On several occasions, my grandmother made the delivery. I can only imagine the joy they felt at seeing each other and the intense longing in their hearts for everything to go back to "normal" again. But it was not to be.

On one of her deliveries, my grandfather clasped her hand and begged her to stay with him a little longer. "Pray with me," he pleaded. As she looked into his kind blue eyes now clouded with the loneliness and worry of his exile, she must have noticed how haggard he looked. His handsome, clean-cut face was grizzled and the wrinkle lines more pronounced. The effect of living at the mercy of the elements was evident. "Pray with me, please," he whispered.

Grandma was afraid. Her love for her husband was unshakable. But her love for her children left at home was equally strong. If she stayed too long, she might be discovered and taken or even killed. Then the children would have no parent to care for them. "I can't," she said painfully, "I must get back to the children." He nodded slowly. He understood. Tenderly he released her hand and sadly watched her retreating figure until the trees of the forest blocked his view. It would be the last time they saw each other.

To be continued ...