Estonia has made the most strides among the Baltics in coming to terms with its tragic collaborationist history; then again, compared to its Baltic brethren, it was home to few Jews.
Compared to its Baltic relatives, which were true bloodlands during the war, the Holocaust
had a small impact on Estonia. Only about 963 Jews were killed, compared to hundreds of
thousands in its neighbours.
Estonians tend to see themselves as innocent victims of fascism and communism and have
failed to prosecute any accused Nazi collaborators. Neo-Nazi ultra-right marches continue to take place.
Holocaust remembrance exists in Estonia developed in the late 1990s as a response to
international pressure, the need to spruce up applications to join Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union. Those initial efforts appear to have taken root.
Estonia now leads the Balts in both its efforts to acknowledge and pay compensation for the Holocaust. Expropriated property has been returned to either its original owner or their
descendants, reparations have been settled, and the government acknowledged and
apologised for the responsibility of Estonian collaborators. In 2007-08, the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity published a comprehensive report on the Holocaust in Estonia, and the Ministry of Education and Research has produced a handbook for teaching the Holocaust.
Over the past decade, the government has pushed forward with important initiatives in
Holocaust remembrance. Leading politicians attend Holocaust commemorations. Museums work with the Ministry of Education and Research to hold events and seminars. Nearly a dozen monuments are displayed on the sites of former concentration camps and killing fields.
The Holocaust in Estonia
Estonia counted only about 4,000 Jews when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Three
quarters, given time by the near-suicidal resistance of Soviet army units and Estonia’s relative distance from the German border, fled deep into the Soviet Union. The remaining population of less than 1,000 Jews, compared with the 200,000 in Lithuania, 100,000 in Latvia, or the nearly 2.8 million in Ukraine, was by and large elderly, sick, or otherwise unable or unwilling to move.
Such a small and vulnerable population was wiped out, earning Estonia the dubious distinction of being the only country east of Germany to be declared judenfrei, or free of Jews. Only 12 Jews who stayed behind survived.
The story does not end with the death of Estonia’s Jews. The Nazis established a network of work and concentration camps in Estonia and shipped tens of thousands of Jews from
conquered territories to either work or die on Estonia soil. Jews deported from Central Europe and other Baltic countries worked in the oil shale mines in northern Estonia, as well as countless other forestry and fieldwork sites. Jews were beaten, starved, and marched under horrible conditions from subcamp to subcamp, and those deemed unfit to work were separated out and sent off to assorted killing sites to be shot.
As the Red Army approached, the Nazi’s priorities quickly shifted away from developing
infrastructure in Estonia to sustaining their war effort. Jews themselves were shipped back to camps closer to or within Germany to serve as slave labour and three years worth of murders were dug up and burned or otherwise concealed. In some places, the Nazis, or rather the Jews who they forced to do the dirty work, did a good job at hiding the evidence. At Kalevi-Liiva, one of the main killing grounds in Estonia, bodies were not found until 1961.
- 1944: Soviet forces stumble upon the Klooga camp, and later bring war crimes investigators to examine the site.
- 1944-1994: Soviet forces occupy Estonia; Soviet government operates from 1944-1991
and imposes its historical narrative of the “Great Patriotic War,” which denies the
particular suffering of Jews under Nazi occupation.
- 1961: Local Soviet authorities bring charges against four Estonian collaborators accused
of participating in the mass murder of Jews in Estonia. These included one Ain-Ervin
Mere, a former NKVD informer and active member of the Estonia expatriate community.
All were convicted.
- 1962: Local Soviet authorities bring charges against another three killers.
Embarrassingly, the verdict is published before the trial even begins. One of the accused, Karl Linnas, is later handed over to the Soviet government by the United States, the evidence against him declared “overwhelming and largely uncontroverted” by a federal appeals court.
- 1991: Estonia regains its independence. Holocaust education added to national school
curriculum shortly afterwards.
- 1998: The Baltic states establish international commissions to investigate crimes committed during the occupations of 1940-1956.
- 1998: Estonia begins sending teachers to seminars hosted by Yad Vashem every other
- 2002: Estonia declares 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,
Holocaust Remembrance Day.
- 2003: Museum of Occupations opened, covering both the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
- 8 May 2005: Prime Minister Andrus Ansip issues two apologies on behalf of the Republic
of Estonia, as well as an official statement acknowledging the collaboration of Estonian
citizens in Nazi and Soviet crimes.
- 24 July 2005: President Arnold Rüütel acknowledges and apologises for the participation
of Estonian citizens in running the Klooga concentration camp at the opening of a
memorial at the site.
- 2005: The Estonian Ministry of Education and Research begins supporting study visits
for Holocaust education to the United States.
- 2007: Estonia joins the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA).
- 2007: Teacher’s Handbook, with “guidelines on how to teach about the Holocaust,
explanations of terminology, a chronology, background and topical information on anti-
semitism, crimes against humanity, Jewish life and culture in Europe, memories about
Jewish life in Estonia and concentration camps during WWII in Europe and Estonia,
tasks for students (the book); PowerPoint presentations, maps, pictures and films (on
DVD) with subtitles in Estonian and Russian” is published.
- 2008: Estonia’s International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against
Humanity (EICICH) completes its mission, publishes its final reports, and is dissolved by
order of the President.
- 2008: Part of the EICICH is revived in spirit as the Estonian Institute for Historical
Memory, tasked to “give Estonian citizens a thorough and objective overview of the
human rights situation in Estonia during the Soviet occupation”.
- 2011: Estonia adopts a new curriculum that changes how the Holocaust is taught.
- 2012: Holocaust day celebrations institutionalised under the aegis of the Ministry of
Education and Research; commemorations become regularly covered and discussed on
- 27 January 2012: The Gallery of Memory opens, a memorial to Estonian Jews killed
during the Holocaust located in the Jewish Community.
- 2013: Klooga open-air exhibition inaugurated.
Official Estonian engagement with the memory of the Holocaust begins in 1991, when the
country regained its independence. Relative to its fellow Baltic states, Estonia was late to
acknowledge and engage with its role in the Holocaust, and was just as sensitive about past collaboration with the Nazis as Lithuania and Latvia. When the Estonian government
established a Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2002 at the urging of the Simon Wiesenthal
Center, many Estonians expressed their opposition. No official apology was issued until 2005, ten years after the Lithuanian president apologised before the Knesset.
Since then, Estonian leaders have made up for lost time. Estonia’s drive to rejoin the West
included recognising its role in the Holocaust. Malle Talvet-Mustonen, the head of the Estonian IHRA delegation, notes that the EU has done a lot to help Estonian memory along. Milestones came as Estonia was petitioning for membership. The “concrete action” requested by members of NATO as preconditions for admission, led to the establishment of research bodies or to a greater emphasis on governmental acknowledgement of the Holocaust.
Outside pressure collided with internal resistance around 2002-03, as the Simon Wiesenthal
Center pushed to identify and bring to trial Estonian collaborators. The government has
acknowledged the participation of Estonia citizens in the mass murder of Jews and apologised for Estonian actions during the Holocaust. The government today organises an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration, and has scaled it up. Even as the government expands its involvement with Holocaust memory, and works to further bring it into line, it always finds a way to bring up the memory of Soviet occupation.
Despite these material efforts to promote awareness, Holocaust denial remains legal in Estonia, under the aegis of free speech. While there is a law criminalising and penalising “incitement to hatred,” historian Anton Weiss-Wendt say that it is limited in scope and difficult to enforce because of the anonymity provided internet comment boards and chat rooms.
Traces of victimization remain. Gennady Gramberg, a former member of the Estonian IHRA
delegation, notes the lingering conception of Estonia as the “double victim” of World War II. As time passes by, though, the narrative is shifting to acknowledge Estonian collaboration. “The more we integrate into European and Western ways of thinking,” Mrs. Talvet-Mustonen notes, “the more our students are confronted with this knowledge.”
The history of the Holocaust was not taught during the Soviet time. It became part of the
national curriculum shortly after Estonia regained independence in 1991.
Beginning in 1998, Estonia has sent a team of teachers to Yad Vashem seminars. In the
current national curriculum adopted in 2011, the Holocaust is part of the topics of World War II and totalitarian regimes. The Holocaust is explicitly addressed in the ninth grade history syllabus. New and revised relevant textbooks including the topic of the Holocaust are published regularly.
Teachers can choose the format and environment to address topics; in the case of the
Holocaust, they often choose to visit museums, invite guests, organise study trips etc. This is mostly done in January around the international Holocaust Memorial Day.
A teacher handbook includes guidelines on how to teach about the Holocaust, explanations of terminology, a chronology, background and topical information on anti Semitism and crimes against humanity. In the classroom, memories of survivors (from books available at school libraries), are added. There are lessons guiding students to reflect on human values and on moral dilemmas, thus developing empathy.
The country also hosts seminars of its own, organised primarily through the Ministry of
Education and Research. Both the Estonian government and the American Embassy spent part of their budgets funding a series of projects covering the Holocaust, including the creation of history textbooks for high school students entitled Tell Ye Your Children, and another edition entitled What are Jews and What is the Holocaust? In 2004, an Estonian translation was published of Benjamin Anolik, a Holocaust survivor from an Estonian camp.
The government cooperates with both the international institutions, the Jewish community and with the various museums in commemorating and educating about the Holocaust. It has financed the creation of many, many monuments at concentration camps and killing sites, and has four official commemorations for victims of the Holocaust.
The first is 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The second is 23 August, the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Totalitarian Regimes. The third is 5 September, the commemoration of the victims killed at the Kalevi-Liiva site. The fourth 19 September, the anniversary of the liquidation of the Klooga camp.
The January 27 commemoration takes place either at the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery, or at the Klooga memorial. Since 2012, the Ministry of Education and Research has taken over responsibility. National media, radio and television cover the event, often accompanied by interviews with assorted opinion leaders and researchers. The Ministry of Education and Research also organises seminars and conferences for educators around this date.
Four sites related to the Holocaust are protected as national monuments in Estonia, these are: an execution place and mass grave in Kalevi-Liiva, a mass grave in Klooga, a mass grave in Reiu and a burial ground at Metsakalmistu Cemetery in Tallinn. The Klooga open-air exhibition, established according to the Government’s action programme, now organically connecting all monuments erected on this site in earlier times, has attracted most of the interest and visitors since its inauguration in 2013. The Klooga site, where mass killings took place in 1944, became a place of Holocaust commemoration after Estonia regained independence in 1991, and can now be considered the central Holocaust memorial in Estonia.
Few non-governmental organisations are dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. The three
museums that mention it are generally focused more on other topics, from the Soviet
occupation, as in the case of the Museum of Occupations, to general Estonian History, as in the case of the National History museum, to Jewish history, as in the case of the Jewish museum.
Some religious leaders are active in memory in Estonia. Christian groups cooperated with the Jewish community in setting up and running Holocaust Remembrance Day. The majority Lutheran Church condemns the Holocaust, though it has not commented on the presence of Lutheran chaplains in killing squads.
Records pertaining to the Holocaust are mostly found in the National Archives and the
department of the latter, the Film Archives, both in Tallinn. To a lesser extent, records of
relevance can be found in the Tallinn City Archives, the Estonian History Museum, and others.
Researchers have free access to all archives.
Parliament passed principles of restitution in 1991, allowing both Jewish survivors of the
Holocaust and Estonian survivors of the Soviet era to reclaim their lost property. By now, the restitution process is completed. The expropriated property was returned with no distinctio being made according to the nationality of the owners.
Even though Estonia is home nationalist and far-right parties, few focus their ire on Jews or the Holocaust. The Estonian Independence Party is dedicated to achieving independence from the European and the Conservative People’s Party is aims “to protect Estonian national values and interests” According to Mrs. Talvet-Mustonen, the far right “is not picking enemies from history. Instead, it is focused on refugees.”
When in 2017, one far right politician Georg Krisberg suggested deriminalising Holocaust denial and enter a correct teaching of the history of the Third Reich,” his party disavowed him.
No significant issues of Holocaust revisionism appear in the media. Estonian news sources are sensitive to the memory of the Holocaust, especially the state networks, and they often cover events of commemoration. Some Estonians are frustrated that the media focuses so much on the Holocaust, seeing it as unfair given the suffering of Estonians and other national groups during and after Nazi occupation.
About 2,500 Jews live in Estonia today, most in Tallinn. The government often collaborates with the Jewish community on commemorative events, and the community feels it has begun taking more of the initiative.
Estonian Jews are pleased with the government’s initiative in remembrance, as they feel that commemoration cannot be only a Jewish issue. They believe that, though it may take a while, it is critical that non-Jewish Estonians understand and are invested in the memory of the Holocaust. The government also provides support for the Jewish museum, located within the synagogue grounds.
-Author: Justin Jin