A Century of Hardships and Happiness 

Celebrating her 100th birthday this year, Aino Reisenberg is an epitome of strong Estonian women who survive, adapt and move on despite the multitude of hardships in their lives. 

I met Aino two years ago when I went to visit her at a retirement home in Beaverton, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. She had just turned 98 and it was the weekend after Thanksgiving, a very American holiday of big meals and getting together with your friends and family.

“There is always too much food,” she told me, sitting in a comfortable armchair in her cozy apartment. “But I’m not complaining, the food is very good and you can choose whatever you like.” Her favorite foods are avocado, almond butter, yogurt and banana. When people occasionally ask for the secret of her longevity, the good food must be it.

Had I not known her real age, I would have guessed Aino is in her seventies. She is sharp in her speech and keeps switching between Estonian and English, with an occasional word in German. She also knows some Russian.

There is a treadmill in her living room but she tells me she does not use it much. She had fallen recently while going out and now she’s not that mobile any more. “But when my grandchildren come to visit, we go out, for example go shopping together,” she tells me excitedly.

Aino brings out an old family album. “This is the only thing I took with me from Estonia and I have carried it with me through my life.” Flipping through the pages, marred by time, she tells stories of her childhood, adolescence and marriages as if they happened just yesterday. While, in fact, these stories span over a whole century.

Another publication she proudly presents is a book that was made by her daughter Mai-Liis and granddaughter Linnea a few years ago. The book is a short memoir of Aino’s as told to Mai-Liis in the fall of 2011, describing mostly her family in Estonia. A copy of “Aino’s Story – The First 100 Years” is now also part of the Baltic collection at Stanford University Libraries.

Her story itself is worth a whole library.

Childhood in Estonia

Aino was born in Kunda in 1915. At the time, Estonia was still part of the Russian Empire, but little Aino was happily unaware of the fact. She probably got a first hint that something was about to happen as her father Julius joined Estonian War of Independence that started in late 1918.

When the war ended two years later, the family got a land grant as a token of gratitude from the government of the newly independent state. Building a home for his family, Julius Heinrich Hallikma was something of a local Benjamin Franklin: being a self-made businessman, he was also the head of a volunteer fire department and started libraries in Haljala, Kunda and Võsu. He was the first person in Võsu to get a novelty gadget of that age – a telephone. “I won’t ever forget this,” tells Aino in the book. “I called a friend in Narva.”

But things turned out not so well for Julius. Being perceived as “bourgeois” and “rich”, he made many enemies in the small village. A man who was working for him as a sausage maker lured him to a forest near Käsmu, killed him and dumped his body in the sea. Aino was 12 at the time. Her mother Anna was left alone with five kids. Aino had 3 brothers – Erich, Ants and Arno and a younger sister, Helga. Anna tried to continue keeping up the family farm and store but eventually had to give up both. Anna Mathilde Hallikma became ill and died in 1939 when her youngest son Ants was only 10. The family house was left unattended until the communists took it.

Aino had been helping her mother from an early age but officially started working as a Sunday school teacher when she was only 17. A year later she got a job in Tallinn in a music store owned by Leopas family. She also studied home economics and then took book-keeping/business courses. After obtaining her diploma, Aino started working as a book keeper for a lumber factory. “When the Russians came later, the factory owner was deported to Siberia,” she mentions in the book.

War and life in DP camp

A few years later Aino married Ervin Thompsen, a Baltic German from the German Army in the Second World War. When the Russians re-invaded Estonia in 1944, Aino escaped along with the German Army, boarding a ship that was taking German soldiers back home. She was told her husband was later killed on board of another war ship that was attacked by the Russians. In reality he was captured and sent to Siberia. She only found it out around 1969 or 1970 that he had returned to Estonia.

After the war ended in 1945 Aino narrowly escaped from Eastern Germany to the Western side. “I knew we had to get where the Americans were in Western Germany. The trains were full but I had a doctor’s certificate because I was pregnant,” she reminisces in the book. “When we got to Berlin, it was already burning. Bombs were being detonated and everything was black./…/In Berlin I called the Estonian Society. There was a pastor who lived on the second floor of the Leopas house. He told me to go to Jena. Estonians were meeting in a restaurant there. When I got there, the Russians were already bombing./…/ Jena became part of the Russian zone. The Balts went on to the American zone because the Russians wanted to send us back. We fought that. I thank God that we reached the US zone.”

She arrived in Augsburg displaced persons (DP) camp. According to International Tracing Service (ITS) there were eight to nine million displaced persons and refugees in West Germany, Berlin and Austria at the end of the war. Roughly 2,500 displaced persons camps provided shelter for them. Various relief organizations were able to repatriate between six and seven million people and helped about 1.5 million people to emigrate to other countries, such as Australia, Israel, Canada and the USA.

Aino recalls that out of the 5000 people in Augsburg camp there were 2000 Estonians. She ended up staying there for 6 years, managing the rooms and helping others. Her son Matti was born there in 1945. He was disabled and she had to give him up. “This was a terrible time!” she now summarizes this period in her life.

Things were actually getting slightly better as she met her second husband, Elmar Reisenberg in the camp. He had been living in the forests in Estonia, was captured by the Russians and escaped through snow, contracting tuberculosis while on the run. Their first daughter Anne-Ly was born in the DP camp. Mai-Liis, who is now the president of San Francisco Estonian Society, was born a few years later when the family already lived in their own apartment.

One of Aino’s brothers was killed in the war and the other two later died in Estonia. Her sister Helga who lived in Tallinn most of her life, passed away only recently in 2015, at the age of 94.

Getting to the Land of the Free

“Something was pushing me out of Germany,” Aino recalls. “They looked upon us as second class citizens, I did not want my kids to grow up as second class.”

A pastor they knew helped them get the papers and come to the US. Her husband could not join the family because of the tuberculosis. Elmar Reisenberg stayed in Bonn representing Estonia as a consul in exile. Aino and the girls – Mai-Liis was 3 years old and Anne-Ly was 4,5 – arrived in California in 1956 after twelve years in Germany.

She had a good feeling about United States from the beginning: “In this country you can do anything!”. She started out by working in a Swedish restaurant as a book keeper and later became a manager. “The kids took me there because they were yearning for red cabbage and the next day I started working there.”

They lived in Los Angeles for 18 years, buying a house in Sun City, on the outskirts of LA. There was a vibrant Estonian community in LA at the time. “The kids had so much fun: there were summer camps, arts and crafts, national dance groups.”

“The girls started working too, I told them: “You have to keep your tips in the bank for your university!”.” And both girls did go to good schools. Her older daughter settled down in Oregon and later asked her mother to join her there as she was suffering from bad health. So she sold her house near LA and moved up to Oregon to be closer to her daughter.

Anne-Ly passed away a few years ago, but Aino is still surrounded by her grandchildren, some of whom live close by. She is very proud of her 7 grandchildren, pointing out that one of them is a medical doctor in Brooklyn, NY and another works for a Veterans hospital in Seattle as a dietitian. Aino shows me a framed family tree on her wall, also a gift from her grandchildren.

***

“I never wanted to go back to Estonia because I had bad memories,” she bluntly admits. Unlike so many refugees, she does not paint a picture in her mind highlighting the vivid colors nor making the shadows less apparent about the country where she was born and grew up.

While being frank about that position, she has never stopped feeling proud about being Estonian. Teaching her children, both of whom were born in Germany and never visited Estonia before they were already grown up to speak Estonian is a proof that speaks for itself, as at the time there was no guarantee that they could ever see the country re-emerge from the Soviet grip. Her daughter Mai-Liis has admitted that it is very important for her to preserve and improve her Estonian as she just loves the language.

“I am amazed by what I have seen and lived through,” Aino summarizes her life in the book. “Estonians have always had to fight, have almost always lived under oppression. That is why we hold on to our identity. We are Finno-Ugric people. Unique.”

 

Many thanks to Mai-Liis and Liisi for contributing to this story.

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