Friday, March 11, 2022 – I sit in my cozy, safe attic office looking out over a hushed Canadian neighbourhood. Snow falls, coating trees, sidewalks and cars with a pristine, late-winter mantle of white.
Half a world away, millions of Ukrainians flee their own country while Russia’s military bombs civilian targets including residential blocks … even a maternity hospital. The Russians justify their attacks with misinformation and lies. There is speculation Vladimir Putin aims to rebuild the Soviet empire of the Cold War era.
It’s a haunting backdrop for work my current documentary project “Anna Kaljas: The Untold Story”. Anna and her family were among an estimated 70,000 Estonians who fled their homeland in 1944 when the Soviet Union occupied their country after the Second World War.
Anna arrived in Canada in 1950 and built a life around caring for others. At first, it was other displaced people like herself, then alcoholics, ex-convicts, those living with mental illness – all people on the fringe of society, all struggling to live a dignified life.
Estonia had already endured a two-year Soviet occupation from late 1939 to 1941 – under which, more than 10,000 Estonians were jailed, deported to Siberia or executed. As the Germans pushed eastward during the early days of World War II, they occupied Estonia and the other Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia.
When it became clear Germany would be defeated, its troops withdrew and the Soviets moved back in and continued their occupation until 1991 when Estonia became an independent state once again.
Sunday, March 13, 2022 – A message pops up on my phone from a videographer living in Estonia, with whom I’ve been collaborating on the Anna Kaljas documentary.
Although she is not Estonian by birth, she married into an Estonian family. She has established a career and a business in this small country of just over a million people.
She has been helping me record interviews and B-roll footage in Estonia for about a year. We were planning a shoot to gather drone footage and scenes from the places where Anna grew up.
I’m hoping for word about her shooting schedule, but instead:
As you know, the invasion situation (in Ukraine) is not ideal, especially with the daily escalations. While we are geographically far away from Ukraine where active fighting is happening, we still share a border with a ticking time-bomb. It will take the invaders just a little over 1 hour to reach my city, should they decide on a whim that they have nothing to lose. Even though Estonia is currently not under any direct threats, we are still worried given the history. Most people get on with their lives just fine, tuning out the news when it gets overwhelming and then there are some who do not want stick around to wait for it to be a war zone. My family belongs to the latter – we have decided to move out of the region as soon as possible, to relocate temporarily until there is visible deescalation …”
My heart sinks – over 75 years after Anna Kaljas fled Estonia with her parents, another successful, Estonian family is forced from her home by the thought of a Russian occupation. History is repeating itself, while I sit in my cozy home.
The weight of all this violence hangs over me; but it also reminds me that the stories of refugees, such as Anna Kaljas and the many others around the world, must be told again and again. Their stories counteract the darkness of the oppressors and bring us all hope and infuses us with resilience.
Production of “Anna Kaljas: The Untold Story” is made possible by a grant from the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund and by a donation from Susan Coulter and Frank Etherington: