An Account of a World War II Refugee

Olav Reidi, born in Estonia in 1938, is my father’s cousin and is now a professor at NYU. This was actually my first time meeting him and I found it to be a very interesting experience. At the age of 6 his parents decided to escape from Estonia, which at the time was in the middle of World War II. Their plan to escape didn’t go as smoothly as they had hoped, though it proved to be an out of the ordinary story to tell later. Throughout the entire interview (though it was over the phone) Olav had a humorous way of answering questions. Nothing was taken too seriously, but he wasn’t joking in a disrespectful way. Within my first few words, I told him I had about 9 questions and his response was, “Just nine questions? (chuckles)”. Olav was prepared for the interview and had his parent’s bible that contained dates of importance, including the date they left for America and the date they ended up returning to Europe unexpectedly.

Olav and his family left on September 20th, 1944 to travel to America. Though Olav was young at the time, he stated that he remembered the experience quite well, and had a lot to say about it:

“I remember it surprisingly, I do remember, quite a few things really clearly. I remember that we were at the hold of the ship, and uh, people were just on the floor. Every family had a blanket to have their own area on the floor, and this was kinda like, y'know, being in a cave, all you could see was this relatively small entrance in the ceiling way up above, so one was in this hold and no escape if the ship got hit with something, and apparently, other people were on top, and didn't want to be trapped in the hold. But they had a chance of being shot as the airplanes came over. Each place had its own advantage and disadvantage, I really remember being in a hold and seeing that entrance, that very tiny entrance, to that very large space, and the space seemed to be kind of pretty dark, and the other thing I remember is when I got on the ship I heard fish, all around. I haven't had that experience again, I guess I haven't been on ships that much, but if you go below water level, you do hear the fish, and there was a lot of noise when the attack occurred. I remembered a lot of sounds and so forth, and when it was over we were safe apparently, and when we got off the ship, that was 2 days later. One could see there was a giant hole in the smoke stack of the ship, and that’s where the torpedo went through.”

He went on to explain about how a friend had told him about how torpedoes work. In the end, the torpedo didn’t go off, and had landed directly in the smokestack of the ship. They were all safe, but their plans on traveling to America had to be cut short.

After this, I asked him if he comprehended the severity of the war after the attack more so than he did before the attack. He responded with another story to prove his point. This gave me a vivid image of the war in my mind:

“Actually, I think I understood it more, because of the incident in the harbor when we were boarding the ship. There was airplanes coming over and shooting machine guns and my parents sort of pushed me under a cart of some sort, I don't know how much that would protect one, but it was better than not being in the open. At that point I realized that there was something really dangerous going on, that there was shooting directly. I mean, on the ship there was a lot of noise, but you didn't see anything cause you were in a hold, but in the harbor there was actually air planes coming, and shooting, and ducking under carts (chuckles). This experience really made me realize that there was something dangerous going on, but before that in march there was a very heavy bombing of the capitol city, and we lived in the suburbs, capitol city is Tallinn, and from the suburbs you could see a huge glow in the sky of the buildings burning and so forth, so I remember seeing from our window, that that was going on, but I don't remember seeing any dead bodies at that point, or any point, maybe my parents just protected me. And I sort of realized when we were boarding the ship that I was going pretty far from home.”

So far Olav had told me a lot about his experience before he made it to the refugee camps. It really opened my eyes to the fact that World War II was affecting everyone. When you learn about it in History class, you get the side from the U.S. We came in just in time and saved Europe from the evils of Germany. His accounts made me think of every single person living in Europe that was in the middle of it, while in America we just watched it from T.V. I wanted to know more about his life after the attack, so my next question brought up the topic of the refugee camps and the time he spent in Germany before he went to America. He had this to say:

“Well, the refugee experience was mostly after the war actually, so we arrived in Germany and some how we got shelter and uh, so this was, in September and the war ended in may of 45, and after may of 45 we were in a British zone and they established various refugee camps, and for some reason or other we were in a bout 5 or 6 different camps. And, uh, it was kinda close quarters, one room per family, shared the facilities, I guess we were glad to be by ourselves, not living somewhere in Germany among Germans, and this was totally an Estonian community, the refugee camp after the war, and the some other nationalities, next to us was a Yugoslavian camp for example and I remember we had soccer matches between the two and so forth, and the Yugoslavian always won soccer because they were very good in soccer (laughs). But when we arrived in Germany, at the end of the war, I guess we were just staying in some shelter that somebody provided. And uh, the main thing during that time, as I remember was there was a lot of bombing by the allies, and so there was a lot of going to air raid shelters, and usually there was a siren and enough time, generally, to go into the air raid shelter, but I didn't experience the very heavy bombing of the Berlinarea because some how we managed to get to Northern Germany in a rail road box car.”

Olav went on to tell me about his arrival in the U.S. He didn’t remember much of Ellis Islandand that his time spent out west made him feel like “a real cowboy”. At the end of the interview, I felt like I had really met my Uncle personally even though the conversation was over the phone. I learned so much about World War II, and mad me realize how truly grateful I am for the fact that I’ve never had to have any personal experiences in war.


Redi family about 1940. Standing in back: Gottfried, Leida, Elmar; next row: ?, grandmother, Leontine (wife of Elmar); front: Helju, Veronika, Olav, ?,?,?,?


Leaving one Camp for another. About 1948.