A blessing for the nation

Estonia’s successful national restoration is being highlighted by thousands of cultural events during Tallinn’s reign as a 2011 European Capital of Culture.

Synagogue in central Tallinn 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Synagogue in central Tallinn 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Located on the northeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, the Estonian capital Tallinn is best known for its old town, one of the most impressive and well-preserved in Europe.
Now, as the city holds the title of 2011 European Capital of Culture – a designation bestowed by the European Union for one year, during which the winning city organizes thousands of cultural events – attention is turning to Estonia’s successful national restoration since the fall of the Soviet Union only 20 years ago.
For Tallinn’s small Jewish population, which emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in disarray, the occasion also provides it an opportunity to display its own remarkable revival.
Approximately 3,000 Jews live in Estonia, most of them Russian speaking and many still rediscovering their roots. It is a far cry from the time of perestroika, when many departed for the US, Germany and Israel, and when the only synagogue was a small wooden house donated by a local church.
In contrast to neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia was not a major point of settlement for Jews, whose population there never exceeded a few thousand. Immigration to Tallinn, Tartu and other nearby outposts of the Russian empire only began when Tsar Alexander II approved an 1865 statute allowing Jewish soldiers and artisans to settle there.
Incidentally, this coincided roughly with the Estonian national awakening, during which the country’s largely peasant population began to develop a sense of unity following centuries of subordination to their German, Danish, Swedish, Polish and Russian masters.
When Estonia obtained independence after World War I, it proved a blessing for the country’s Jews, many of whom fought in the successful Liberation War against the Soviet Union, and who later benefited from a 1925 law granting cultural autonomy to minorities. But Jewish cultural independence evaporated along with Estonian cultural independence as World War II approached and the tiny country again submitted to foreign powers.
The Red Army briefly occupied Estonia at the beginning of the war, before being pushed out by the Nazis in 1941 in an act welcomed by many locals. Shortly afterward Estonia became the first country to be declared Judenrein after the extermination of the approximately 1,000 Jews who had either not been sent to Siberia by the Soviets or had not fled. Many Jews returned when the Soviets reoccupied Estonia toward the war’s end, but the government policy of Russification made it almost impossible to rebuild the community.
After Estonian independence was restored in 1991, the former Eastern Bloc’s smallest country undertook reforms that led it to obtain membership in the European Union, NATO and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, to which it was accepted together with Israel in 2010.
A NEW synagogue was opened in 2007 in central Tallinn, adjacent to a Jewish school and other community facilities, with support from American donors and local authorities. Previously Estonia had been the only European country without a permanent functioning synagogue.
The synagogue – an ultramodern building constructed mainly from glass – was designed by renowned architect Andrus Kõresaar, who also oversaw the restoration of Tallinn’s industrial Rottermani quarter.
Tallinn Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot, a Jerusalem native, says the resurrection of a community many considered dead should be seen as a high point for world Jewry, but adds that it has also enriched his adopted country.
“In the beginning we were sure that the synagogue would bring blessing to the Jewish community in Estonia, but in the last two or three years I have seen that it’s not only for the Jewish community, but also for the Estonian nation,” he says, citing educational visits by school groups from all over the country.
The revival has been so dramatic that even members of the more-established Helsinki Jewish community, 180 km. to the north across the Gulf of Finland, have used the Tallinn mikve while theirs is being renovated.
“Ten years ago we got service from them, now they get service from us; things have changed,” says Kot, a Chabad emissary who has been in Tallinn since 2000.
The community continues to expand in many areas. The Jewish public school adjoining the synagogue now includes some 270 students across all 12-year levels, while adult education programs and lectures are held in the same facilities. A Maccabi sports club has also been established.
Meanwhile, Ariel, an annual festival that presents Jewish culture to the public through music, film and literature, will return in November as part of the Capital of Culture program.
DOZENS OF cities have been designated European Capital of Culture since Athens was first selected in 1985. For Tallinn, which shares the honor this year with the Finnish port city of Turku, the importance of the occasion is understood.
Maris Hellrand of Foundation Tallinn 2011 says the program serves two primary purposes: to improve the city for its inhabitants and to boost local tourism, already booming thanks to a record half a million foreign visitors in the first half of 2010.
Tallinn 2011 includes some 7,000 events divided into 14 categories, including one for minority groups, such as Russians – who constitute more than a quarter of the population.
Late Jewish-Armenian writer Sergei Dovlatov, who left St. Petersburg for Tallinn in the 1970s in an attempt to evade censorship, before eventually moving to New York, will be one of several formerly persecuted artists to be honored. Hellrand says that the recent return of other exiled artists has “added to the richness of the [local] culture immensely.”
Among the program’s highlights is the revamp of the city’s once-abandoned port area, headlined by the redesigning of the century-old maritime museum into a hi-tech building by synagogue architect Kõresaar. The project was established by popular demand, after a call for suggestions found that most people wanted a return to the connection to the sea.
“The area was a restricted zone during Soviet time...people couldn’t have boats because we would have escaped possibly,” Hellrand says, adding that the neglect continued after independence.
In July the Estonian song and dance festival, Laulupidu, will provide the year’s musical centerpiece.
This event, first held in 1869, involves a choir of thousands dressed in traditional costume and singing national songs.
Laulupidu was even the inspiration behind the title “Singing Revolution” given to the period of growing defiance toward Moscow at the end of the 1980s, after hundreds of thousands of Estonians converged on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds one day in June 1988 to sing banned patriotic songs.