Fleeing Soviet Oppression: Stories of Escape and Survival

Alex Mendez ‘17 and Janae Barrett ‘17 meet with Ago Ambre, originally from Estonia, in Washington, D.C.

Students find unexpected connections in Estonia

As a 2016 article in Williams Magazine put it, “Some of the students in Gaudino Scholar Lois Banta’s ‘Documenting Stories of Escape and Survival’ took the Winter Study course to hone their filmmaking skills. Others wanted to learn more about conducting oral histories. Still others wanted to better understand the World War II era. They got all that and something they weren’t expecting: a deep connection to the small Baltic nation of Estonia.”

The course consisted of a project to collect oral histories from 10 members of the Estonian diaspora whose families fled Stalin’s second occupation of Estonia in 1944. This project represented the start of an ongoing collaboration with the Estonian-based Unitas Foundation (now merged with the Estonian Institute for Historical Memory), which is dedicated to documenting human-rights abuses under totalitarian regimes.

Hannah Weinstein ’18, Janae Barrett ’17, Emma McAvoy ’17, Grace Sullivan ’18, Ian Concannon ’18, His Honor the Ambassador from Estonia to the U.S. Eerik Marmei, Lois Banta (Gaudino Scholar), Alex Mendez ’17 and Suzanna Penikis ’19 at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in January 2016.

After two weeks of immersion in the history of Estonia through documentary films, gaining some background in oral history and video editing, and practice interviews, the seven students and Banta traveled to New York City and to Washington, D.C., to carry out their interviews. They were hosted for dinner and rich, thought-provoking discussion by Gaudino alum Ken Kessel ’74 in New York, and by Gaudino Board member Barbara Bradley Hagerty ’81 in Washington. They also had a wide-ranging discussion with the Estonian Ambassador over lunch at the Estonian Embassy.

The final two weeks of the course were devoted to editing their 90-minute interviews (filmed by a professional cameraman sent by Unitas) down to 15-minute clips that are available by clicking on each interviewee’s name below and in an online database that is being used in educational settings across the Baltics. There is also an Estonian Facebook page featuring clickable photos of each student in the course that link to students’ statements about why they took the course.

The interviewees were: Priit Vesilind, Peeter Teedla, Mari Teedla, Arvid Truumees, Imbi Truumees, Ago Ambre, Kaja Weeks, Tiina Ets, Karl Altau, Toomas Sorra.

The course, co-sponsored by Gaudino and the WWII Fund, was co-taught by Banta and husband-and-wife team James and Maureen Tusty, documentary filmmakers who in 2007 produced The Singing Revolution, a film about Estonia’s successful nonviolent movement to end decades of Soviet occupation. Two students from the course shared their reflections on the project and some of the video clips at a Global Studies Colloquium in March of 2016. The course is now being replicated for media studies and oral history students at Tallinn University in Estonia.