Evi Carmichael’s remarkable account: Leaving Estonia in 1944

 I was l6 years old when I left Tallinn together with my two elder sisters on 20 September 1944. My mother died when I was six. It was my father, Johannes Koppel, who took us to the docks. We were upset that he was not coming with us. He said he could not, but would follow us the next day. He was in charge of the technical college where he was the rector. The next day however, the Red Army arrived and the second Soviet occupation started. It was to last for 50 years.

My only brother's fate was very sad. Endel had just finished high school and had to serve a year in the Estonian army before university, so in 1940 he was still in uniform when the Soviets came. They forced him into the Red Army, but he ran away and lived in the woods as a partisan until the Germans came in the summer of 1941. Then he had to join the German army and fight the Soviets on the eastern front. He was captured and taken prisoner by the Soviets. He must have been treated very badly because he escaped and drowned himself. This meant that my father was left all alone. He had also been dismissed from his teaching post as politically unreliable.

 At Tallinn docks we, three sisters, boarded a small cargo ship, not knowing who it belonged to or where it would take us. There were other refugees in the hold, while the deck above was occupied by German military hospital personnel, a few Russian prisoners and some pigs. We were seasick for 11 five days, including the squealing pigs. The Russians cut their wrists but were soon stitched up by the army surgeons.

We arrived in Danzig (Gdansk) and were driven to some kind of army barracks for inspection. I remember the beautiful but sad singing of Italian prisoners of war on the other side of the barbedwire fence. We were allowed to leave the next day and ended up in Görlitz. My eldest sister Erika had been told to go to the post office and seek work as a telephonist. My middle sister ie was 18 and was hired to work in the post office staff dining room. Somehow I landed a factory job. It was in a big hangar full of male forced labour: French, Italian, Ukrainian and others. I was the only girl, expected to operate a big welding machine that fused together large sheets of metal. I was never told what the sheets were for and I didn't dare to ask.

The manager, Herr Turowsky who could spy on us from his office window, must have disliked me. When I complained about my sore, cut hands - there were no gloves or goggles - he said: "Wait until the Red Army gets you!" 0n the other hand, the men of various nationalities were very nice to me, even dared to speak to me a little.

 A kind German lady, head of the post office and member of the Nazi party, invited me to stay with her and didn't ask to be paid. She accompanied me to the factory for the 6 am start, but then she managed to change it to a later shift at 8. She was kind but, being 16, I felt very embarrassed and eventually she allowed me to walk on my own. The factory owner was also kind and invited us all to a Christmas party.

 By February 1945 the Red Army was advancing. We kept going to the railway station, hoping to travel south, towards Switzerland. 0n the morning of 13 February we managed to buy tickets for a train leaving that very evening. I didn't tell anyone in the factory that I was going. We, a group of five Estonian girls, had standing room only on the train. It was crowded, full of refugees and German soldiers. Soon there was an announcement that the train was going only as far as Dresden. In Dresden we stood on the platform undecided. We were young and adventurous and decided to do some sightseeing in this city famous for its architecture. Suddenly a train arrived from the north, going to Konstanz am Bodensee. We abandoned sightseeing and fought our way into the nearest overcrowded carriage. We had not travelled very far when the train stopped and all passengers were ordered out to a nearby field and told to lie flat on the ground.

We heard the roar of bomber engines followed by deafening explosions and saw flames light up the sky over Dresden. Only years later we learnt that we had witnessed the destruction of the city that night. Later the five of us telephoned each other on 13 February every year, living, as we then were, in the USA, Canada, Scotland, and Australia, to remember our lucky escape.

Afterwards the train continued its journey south. There were many air-raid warnings before we arrived at Konstanz. The town was full of refugees. We found overnight accommodation in a large hall full of three-tier bunk beds, another night was spent at a convent. Luck brought us to Lindau military hospital where my job was to wash the floors and clean the smelly toilets, but there was accommodation (a large attic room) and food. The food, however, was watery and portions small. Sometimes we sneaked into the basement where the Hungarian PoWs would let us have some potatoes. We would cook them on our iron heating stove. They tasted just wonderful - we must have been very hungry indeed. But I did wonder what if we are caught stealing potatoes? Just before the French arrived the Germans opened all the stores for people to help themselves. I remember biscuits, liqueur and wagons full of beautiful Italian shoes. The French treated the wounded German soldiers and hospital staff as prisoners of war. We were sent to Sweuningen in the Black Forest in an open-top lorry. In Sweuningen we, three sisters, were given a self- contained flat. Breakfast we had to fetch from a nearby schoolhouse: roasted acorns for coffee and bread like sawdust, but we also got a litre of rough red French wine. Lunch was thick pease pudding and in the evening we were given pea soup.

I befriended an Estonian couple, Mr and Mrs Hill Kubu, who ran cabaret shows for French soldiers. Mrs Kubu was the cashier and she sought my help. This work took me to a different town every night and there was free hotel accommodation. After each performance the troupe was invited to the French officers' mess where the food and wine were just wonderful. Sometimes there was even dancing. Quite a life for a 17-year-old!

  The French actually wanted to send us back to Estonia because they understood the country was now free. They thought that Russians were our friends as they had freed us from German occupation.

I heard there were large numbers of Estonians at Geislingen in the American zone, where they had opened a school. I applied and was allowed to move to continue my high-school education. I shared a room in a lovely villa with two Estonian girls. Having just passed exams to assess my academic standards, I heard that an Estonian art studio had opened in the school attic. It would be a kind of art school for me instead of high school - I had always had a passion for art and painting. One of the artists I remember was Endel Köks who later went to Sweden. Our refugee parcels (from UNRRA) were as good as currency and bought us artist's materials in Nuremberg. In 1946 Moscow demanded that all orphans must return to their homeland. I was lucky: a guardian step-father was found for me. He was a complete stranger, but I could stay. I was happy in Geislingen. I sold my very first oil painting of pink cyclamen for 20 Camel cigarettes – that was a fortune.

 In January 1947 my big sister-told me we could go to Britain (while my middle sister went to Canada). There were 20 of us, all female, when we arrived in Edinburgh and 12 found work at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. I worked in the staff dining room. It was a piece of luck to find Edinburgh Art College right across the street. I joined the evening classes, unable to do a full course without anybody to support me, but my life was instantly brighter.

When an assistant matron became a matron at Inverness Royal Northern Infirmary, she invited me and my sister up north to train as nurses. I remember my first monthly wage there was £4.

 I had to buy black stockings and shoes and textbooks. Not much time was left for art, except for drawing beautiful skeletons. Three years later I was SRN, a state registered nurse. To my very great surprise I was awarded the AF Steele Gold Medal

 for proficiency in nursing 1948-51 and local newspapers published my photo and a brief biography. By then I was in a hurry to go back to Edinburgh because I had met a handsome young Scot and fallen in love. In 1952 when we got married I had to leave nursing as there were no married nurses, but years later I returned and worked for 21 years at the University Dental School and Hospital. Looking back, I have been very lucky to have met so many good and kind people everywhere.

 First published in the Journal of the British Estonian Association in September 2013.