Nothing inside Estonia’s Museum of the Occupation spoke like the suitcases in the courtyard. The luggage talked, giving irrevocable testimony against Stalin’s reign of terror towards Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and his own people.
Two months ago, a Boston Globe article noted that few books, compared to Hitler’s time, were written about Stalin’s era. After terrorizing and muzzling his captives for fifty years, Stalin silenced many storytellers through fear of retaliation or death.
My interest began when our book group read the historical novel Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. The story’s told through the eyes of a fifteen year old Lithuanian girl, Lina, exiled to Siberia in 1941 with her mother and brother.
After reading the book and knowing the cruise would dock in Tallinn, I searched the internet for a place to learn more, then found the address for Estonia’s museum.
Walking through the museum, I thought about artists, writers, doctors, teachers, priests, farmers and others exiled to Siberia. Ragged baby shoes, sketches, snippets of journals told tales. I asked myself, “In those frantic moments, what did Stalin’s victims choose to take? to leave behind?”
On a wall in the museum, were the words of a survivor, “We are where we are because we raised our heads at the first opportunity that arose and never lost hope or our yearning for freedom.”
Freedom came through remembering and singing patriotic songs and hymns. In 1987, Estonian artist and activist, Heinz Valk, coined the phrase The Singing Revolution. Over four years, folks gathered and sang songs and hymns, banned by Stalin. In 1991 the walls of soviet domination fell. This August, Estonia celebrates 25 years.
Those immovable suitcases stuffed with stories speak a universal language of suffering and survival, of fear and faith. Neither imprisonment in Siberia nor Stalin’s stranglehold killed the song, hope or faith of a people who raised their heads at the first opportunity.
Every day brings choices to each of us as to what to take for the journey we’re called to, what to leave behind.
From one who suffered and survived come thoughtful words,”May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Nelson Mandela
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