Caught between Nazis
Vändra, a novel about the tiny state of Estonia during the World War II era
By Byron Toben
Montreal journalist and recently retired Concordia professor Enn Raudsepp has written his first novel, Vändra, named after an Estonian town where he was born, before becoming a refugee to Canada as a babe in arms.
This book is a good read. While briefly informing the reader of the history of Estonia, which in some respect is similar to the other Baltic states, it concentrates on the World War II era when the native citizens were invaded by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis from Germany, then a retaking by the Soviets.
Through this seesaw period, native resisters took to the huge nearly impenetrable vast woods and bogs north of Vändra to wage guerrilla resistance.
In the 13th century, the Baltic area was largely inhabited by pagans who followed a pantheistic Druidic local religion. Pope Celestine III called for a Northern Crusade to Christianize these areas. So, soldier-monks of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword pushed north from Latvia. Resistance under warrior leader Lembit lasted nine years.
Lembit, the first Estonian to ever have his name recorded in history is the figure brandishing a sword on the pedestal on the cover of the book. (I took an instant liking to Lembit, seated, relaxed, while heroes of other nations are mounted on great stallions. Like Johnny Rodgers of the Montreal Alouettes football team, 1973-76, he appears to be just an “ordinary super star”.)
Like British King Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur, plucked out of a rock by him, Lembit’s sword achieved mythic qualities that whosoever wielded it would free Estonia. This missing sword plays a key secondary role in the novel.
Finally, in 1290, Denmark invaded, took over the north coastal regions and conceded the south to the Livonians. Thus, for centuries, many Baltic peoples were colonized by Germanic fiefdoms and became serfs. (This reminded me of Irish writer Fintan O’Toole’s observation that English rule in Ireland was a model for taking over tribes in the Americas.)
The main protagonist is the Reverend Karl Kingsepp of the Estonian Lutheran Church. An unlikely candidate for a position as pastor, being the second son of a crop sharing family instead of from a German nobility family, he had not only been ordained, but transferred back into the parish where he had been born. He and his wife Evely became popular with the local congregation both for his fairness and sense of humour.
Threatening their peaceful existence were the unsmiling local Soviet commissar, Zhukov, assisted by his translator, Kivisik, who sought to bribe him into ‘educating’ the populace into turning away from the ‘sham’ of a ‘primitive’ way of thinking. Kingsepp’s refusal increased the chances of his being sent to Siberia.
Later, after the Nazi invasion, the smiling Major Hauptman introduced new threats, especially after suspecting that the pastor may have aided Vändra’s lone Jew, Mr Mandelbaum, into escaping.
(Vändra) concentrates on the World War II era when the native citizens were invaded by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis from Germany, then a retaking by the Soviets.
Sandwiched into this are scenes of resistance fighters hiding in the vast forests, a mysterious possible assassin, a teenage pregnancy, a suicide and the search for Lembit’s sword.
The dilemma of being squeezed between ruthless regimes reminded me of a scene in the 2007 Polish film Katyn by Andrzej Wajda, based the place where Stalinist troops massacred hundreds of non-combative young Polish military cadets and attempted to hide up their crime by claiming the Nazis did it. In an opening sequence, hordes of Poles fleeing west across a bridge are blocked by an equal horde fleeing east.
Such is the dilemma created by extreme true believers. As m’man, Willy Shakespeare, declared, “A curse on both their houses!”
Mr Raudsepp, who lives close to Westmount, is already working on a second novel, a murder mystery.
Vändra, published by Lakeshore Press of New Hampshire, can be obtained on Amazon.
Read also: Greek princess cannot be buried away
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.