A Torah in Tallinn: My Trip to Jewish Estonia
"It dawned on me that this was my first time being on soil where Jews were murdered in the Holocaust."
If you had asked me what I knew about Estonia a year - heck, a month ago - I would have said, “Well, in high school I listened to a pop singer named Kerli from there. She was a little creepy.” Now I can tell you all about its history, its food, and even its thriving Jewish community, thanks to my recent trip there with JDC Entwine, the young professional branch of the leading global Jewish humanitarian organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or ‘The Joint’).
In short, Estonia is a small country (population 1.37 million) with a rich history, dating back to the 1200s, but its land has been conquered longer than it has been a state (sound familiar?). Its occupiers include the Teutonic Knights (a German military order during the Crusades), the Swedish Empire (who were NOT nice to the Jews as we learned in last week’s Helsinki post), Nazi Germany (also not nice to us), and the Soviet Union (also not- well, you get it). Estonia gained its current status as an independent nation in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Jewish community of 2,000 has been rebuilding itself since the 90s, thanks to the help of JDC. Last year alone, JDC supported over 250 elderly and 50 vulnerable children. They also support the JCC Tallinn, which has 1,500 active members. Today, the community is thriving! In the capital of Tallinn, we visited the community center where we sang traditional Hebrew and Yiddish songs with Russian-speaking elderly women, an intergenerational moment of joy that brought tears to my eyes.
The Estonian Jewish Museum provided the history of the Jewish community through the years, and displayed artifacts including an old Torah scroll from the synagogue that was destroyed in 1944 during a Soviet air bombing raid, and photos of members from the community like the body builders below who were murdered in the Holocaust.
We visited the new synagogue (or sünagoog in Estonian, how cute), which was built in 2007 and is super modern and sleek.
We also visited the local Jewish school, which in Estonian is ‘Juudi Kool’ and if that’s not a great stage name, I don’t know what is. The school is an exemplary model of Jewish education, prioritizing kindergarten and connecting the younger children to their faith as early as possible. Every aspect of the school was meticulously designed with innovative thinking in mind, from beanbag chairs in the library to reading nooks in the hall. The lunch of broccoli soup and chicken was healthy and delicious. We were amazed at how the educational materials were in four languages: English, Estonian, Russian, and Hebrew. It was fun seeing a PJ Library book in Russian!
We welcomed Shabbat with the young children, an inspiring moment of Jewish continuity. Together, we ate the most delicious challah we’ve ever tasted and danced an Israeli dance with them. I introduced myself to a child in Hebrew since I don’t speak Russian or Estonian and she understood me. I really felt the global Jewish connection in that moment.
And now for a story…
One moment on the trip stood out to me more than all the others, and that was when we went on a walking tour of the hip, gentrified neighborhood in Tallinn called Kalamaja (‘fish house’ in Estonian).
Located on the water, the area served as the city’s main fishing port from the Middle Ages onward, until it became industrial in the late 19th century with factories popping up. Like SoHo, industrial decay in Kalamaja was replaced by artist residences and creative spaces that hiked up the price of the neighborhood with efforts to preserve the neighborhood’s history. Today, there’s a sauna igloo park, an art museum, and a seaplane museum. Unlike SoHo, however, Kalamaja has a dark past involving Soviet and Nazi occupation.
One stop on the walking tour brought us through an old prison that closed in 2002. Our guide explained how the city’s turning the prison into a cultural center with pop-up restaurants and events to enhance nightlife in the neighborhood. Since it was daytime everything was closed, but we saw tents where the bars would be, string lights hanging from dilapidated stone walls, and a large open space with a stage surrounded by tables and chairs. Elevated above these glimpses of a party scene were bleak sculptures of humans attempting to break free from prison cells by climbing out of windows or dangling from ropes, embodying the spirit of yearning for liberation.
My eyes wide and my fingers snapping photos furiously, I was in awe of this blend of old and new, of dark yet optimistic. I thought, “What a cool concept! This city is so full of life! It’s so hip!”
… until we exited the prison, where our guide pointed out a plaque with a Star of David on it engraved with words in Estonian, French, and Hebrew. Thanks to the plaque and to our guide, we discovered that during 1944, this prison served as a destination for 300 Jews who were deported from France. Only 22 of them survived, shortly transferred to the Stutthof concentration camp thereafter. This was part of a larger plan carried out by Nazi Germany to send 878 Jews in total from France to Lithuania. The prison also held a few dozen German and Czech Jews in 1943, who were the only survivors of the more than 2,000 people who had been brought to Jägala Camp in the autumn of 1942, the rest of whom had been murdered at Kalevi-Liiva. There was a small memorial near the plaque for the victims, its text covered by streaks of bird droppings, almost forgotten and cast off to the side.
My heart sank as fast as the collective mood in the air changed. I went from being impressed and energized to mournful and somber. I felt embarrassed, like one of those tourists who takes selfies at a concentration camp. But I knew not to be too hard on myself since I didn’t know the history of this place. Not that a prison in general has such happy history…
Our guide spoke about how the city is determining what to do with the memorial, if and where they should move it with the opening of the event space. There’s mixed feelings about it, with the need to preserve the past while reviving the culture and nightlife of the city.
While I was forming an opinion on what the city should do with the space, it dawned on me that this was my first time being on soil where Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. This realization held more weight than my first JDC trip to India in 2019, a meaningful but very different adventure. I decided I didn’t need to form an opinion about the memorial and the park right then and there, but could simply sit with and process those heavy emotions, realizing how much more I had to learn and see in this part of the world. And I was thankful for being able to do so for at least these few days.
The Silicon Valley of Europe
On a positive and forward-thinking note, we attended a lecture on e-Estonia. Known as the Silicon Valley of Europe, Estonia is known for its digital government services. With one ID card you can vote online, travel around the EU, conduct your banking, fill out government paperwork, etc.
After Estonia gained independence in 1991, it needed to catch up to the rest of the world technologically and underwent a transformation called the Tiger Leap. The government launched various initiatives to digitize public services, encourage internet connectivity, and promote technology entrepreneurship. Estonia became one of the first countries to provide widespread internet access to its citizens. Today, the country continues to be known for its advanced digital infrastructure, like its own Baltic Start-up Nation. Again… sound familiar?
I also met cool guys from the Baltic Jewish Network, which connects young Jewish entrepreneurs from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to exchange ideas and build partnerships. I met them in a restaurant from the year 1355 that had a well in the bathroom. I💙Estonia!
I was emotionally impacted by this trip in ways I didn't anticipate. Growing up, I had limited knowledge about Soviet Russia, and the weight of losing one's Jewish identity under not one but two contemporary occupying powers was profound. I feel fortunate and privileged to have grown up in the U.S. Even now, residing in a predominantly Jewish city, I am grateful that I don't have to prioritize rebuilding my Jewishness from scratch… even though every day seems like its own journey! But that’s for another week.
‘Til next drop!
- Juudi Kool