Riga Exodus

Coincidentally, as we watch the unfolding chaos of evacuation from Kabul airport, fellow blogger Derrick J. Knight has been writing a series on another hasty exodus. This one involves his great-aunt Evelyn Knight, and her departure from Estonia in 1940.

Derrick has some fascinating family members, and I have been privileged to research a few of them, but for the next series of posts (written with Derrick’s permission), I will confine myself to this period in history.

Evelyn Mary Knight, born 8th November 1882, was the youngest of three sisters who became governesses. All worked in some of the most luxurious houses of Europe through turbulent times such as the Russian October 1917 revolution, the Irish Crisis of 1926 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936. One wonders if it was entirely coincidental they managed to be on the spot each time, particularly when we learn older sister Mabel, a prolific diarist, returned to England in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII and went ‘quiet’. Maybe the British Special Operations Executive holds a secret file on her.

Earlier, in 1922, Mabel went to Reval – now Tallinn – the capital of Estonia. Seven years later Evelyn joined her there. Derrick tells us that “From 1929 to 1940, Evie taught English to Estonians, Germans, Poles, Russians, and Finns; she may have spent periods as a tutor in Latvia and Finland.”

What happened in 1940 is described in Evelyn’s own words in Derrick’s blog post A Knight’s Tale (16: Refugees). I highly recommend you read it.

There is an Australian connection to this story, which sent me scurrying to the newspapers of the day to understand more of this fascinating tale. Too much for one blog post, so I’ll break it in to achievable bites.

Evelyn’s letter tell us, “We left Tallinn early in the morning of 26th October 1940 for Riga where we were joined by parties from Latvia and Lithuania so that we were 174 in all.” The ferocious ferret in me then posed the questions, who, and why?

The 174 were British Nationals comprising 64 men, 79 women, and 31 children. Australian Senator H. S. Foll, Minister for the Interior, said “They are mostly members of families of the staffs of the diplomatic and trade delegations whose work was completed when the Baltic States were absorbed by the Soviet Union”. Well, that was not quite the whole story, as we know Evelyn did not fit that category. To quote various among the evacuees, they “ranged from a five months’ old baby to company directors, teachers — one a Master of Arts — newspapers correspondents, farmers, and representatives of nearly all walks of life.” One was a cotton mill owner who originally hailed from Lancashire. All were British subjects, but many had lived in the Baltic States for over twenty years, or had been born and raised there. Many could not speak English.

Two were children travelling alone. Peter, 14, and Helga,13. Peter was holidaying in Estonia when war broke out and was stranded there. Helga’s father was a journalist, who was arrested immediately after the Soviet occupation. Mrs. Riddell, a Scotswoman, who had spent most of her life in Estonia, was approached by a worried woman ten minutes before the departure from Riga. “My little girl, Helga, was born in Edinburgh. Please, will you watch her for me?” The mother asked. (Presumably, the mother was not a British passport holder and therefore not evacuated). The journalist goes on to tell us Mrs. Riddell “has ‘watched’ Helga, to say nothing of Peter, during the whole of the journey.” We’ll hear more from these two children in future posts.

On reflection, the “why” of this flight from Riga will be too much to include in this post. And I have a problem in where to start. Saying it started with 174 persons standing on a train platform in Riga on 26th October 1940 is much too simple in my humble historical opinion.

29 thoughts on “Riga Exodus

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  4. Gwen – Texans think differently than many other states – not at all indicative of the entire country – each section of the US is almost like a separate country. In Oregon, masks are taken very, very seriously and with recent upticks in covid cases, they are now required outdoors – https://katu.com/news/local/oregon-becomes-first-in-the-nation-to-re-introduce-outdoor-mask-mandate. Roight now, there’s probably a greater chance of getting covid in my home town in Oregon than in Athens! The increase in cases seemed to begin with the Olumpic track and field trials and the thouands who came to view them.

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    • I’m quite convinced Texans have a quirky way of looking at things, judging by my girlfriend’s stories. One asked her if we have trees in Australia,
      You know we did the trip up Pacific Coast 101 a few years back, and everyone we met then was delightful, but not homogenous. You have to take people as individuals.
      We too have mandatory mask wearing. My area is under the pump with rising cases. Over 1200 today. Delta broke out of immigration quarantine and the genie will not go back into the bottle. We’ll be in lockdown officially until end September and I expect that to run through October. It’s not anything the rest of the world hasn’t seen already.
      Don’t feel the need to respond. I know you are moving on, and the travel needs your attention more than this chatting!
      Good luck with the next step.

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      • I’m totally out of it today 😐 as traveling between countries is a slight psychological upheaval after getting used to a place.. Honestly, it’s embarrassing that someone from the US would ask if there are trees in Australia 😳. Your poor friend!!!

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        • In the lady’s defense, perhaps she had only seen photos of the Nullarbor (nil trees) or something similar. And she probably hasn’t had the opportunity to travel far. My girlfriend is very diplomatic, and used to lecture at the local Uni (in communications) so has faced all sorts, but would prefer to move to the east coast or return to Australia (her husband died), but she can’t afford either.


          • That’s too bad… I’ve noticed that this trip has been far more expensive than I’m used to, but traveling during peak season at a time when many Europeans are antsy to get on the move again may be the reason! Can’t wait to get to cooler temperatures in Prague.

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          • I meant to say west coast. California, etc. I think the expense is because you are in high season. At least from my experience in the past. Given the Greek summer season runs from April to October though, it’s hard to avoid. But either end of that is shoulder. July/August you are right in the middle of it – but of course, you know that better than me.
            When were in Prague and Budapest all those years back, the temps were reaching low 40s Centigrade. It was murder, even for us Aussies. But with autumn (fall) on the horizon, it should start to ease off.

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      • Gwen – thought of you as I was passing painlessly through Zurich and then Prague… I freaked for nothing – they made it easy IF you thoroughly completed all the forms online. Had my heels dug in expecting the worst – never happened! Checked into my accommodation, spent time talking to the in-house manager and now am having a late lunch at the pub across the street. No reason to for long delays in travel. Smaller crowds are easier. BUT vaccines are a must. The only time I will need vaccine + PCR is for the US! Greece is more crowded because of the summer appeal for young Europeans – also waaay more expensive. Happy to be in Prague!

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        • I hope you have a fabulous time in Prague, and the greater Czech Republic. We are not allowed out of Australia for now (unless you’re a sportsperson, VIP or compassionate grounds). I’m guessing that will go on another year. So I’m travelling vicarously through you.

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  5. I am used to naysayers lecturing about traveling solo and at my age – ha ha ha – I ignore them, but sometimes think they are just waiting for something catastrophic to happen to me :o(. I refuse to limit myself and feel physically strong with lots of energy, so will continue to travel until my body tells me otherwise. I’ve never had a ovid mask discussion with anyone. In Czech Republic, they require KN95s or comparable, so I purchased several here in Athens. It’s the paperwork between countries that’s so stressful and laborious – otherwise this trip has been fantastic!!! Now must focus and get of of WordPress.

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  9. Interesting firsthand scenarios Gwen… The situation in Afghanistan is certainly terrifying – who knows what will play out? As an American and a woman, I’m not sure how to react. Things in reality are often much more complicated than reported by politicians and the press. When possible, I’ve been watching Sky News, ABC, RT, and Aljazeera for updates. I recall working as a consultant in Cape Town during the late 1980s, before the ANC gained power in South Africa and Nelson Mandela became president in 1995. There were such high hopes for the new government – 26 years later, things are not much improved for Africans (some say considerably worse) under the ANC, but at least apartheid is over! My personal opinion is that everything went downhill and rampant crime and corruption took over after Mandela died – an outstanding human being. My travels throughout Europe over the past several years have made me graphically aware of how immigration has changed the EU. In some cities it’s truly shocking – Berlin, for example. According to news sources in Greece, the Greek migration minister says they won’t allow refugees from Afghanistan to cross its borders into the EU. Over the past few days, there have been several demonstrations in Syntagma Square – signs in Greek, but clearly having to do with Afghans being allowed to come to Greece.

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    • A thousand apologies for the delay in reply Sue. I just found this comment in the spam folder. Weird that it ended up there. You make so many great observations. In the mid-late 90s the documentation for international trade with South Africa became very difficult as so many “whites” were leaving and the newcomers weren’t trained in banking and terminology, and then we started seeing those who left turn up in our workplaces and at first they were insufferable. Actually that started even earlier as they saw the writing on the wall. It was almost as if our company was the staging post for Australianising them!
      And I read an article the other day about Greece and their fear of being overrun by Afghans. It’s a valid concern, I think. But where is everyone to go?

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      • I think the hope in the EU (?) is that Afghans remain in their region of the world, where the culture is a closer match for them. Iran and Pakistan are mentioned most often. I don’t know how feasible that is? The Middle East – supposedly now to be referred to as part of Asia – is such a complicated subject! The Syrians I saw in Berlin did not seem to have acclimated to the German world at all. Instead, I noticed they were always in groups of all Syrians speaking their native language. They also had their “area” of Berlin – a country within a country. Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken thousands of Afghans back to the US – or so I hear from news sources. The UK is also taking thousands.

        The problems in South Africa are tremendous now, and it seems to be getting wore and worse, so it’s unlikely my idea of retiring there will work – too many issues, crime is off the chart, and I’m white. I hear you about the shipping issues, just completing a simple bank transaction there became a nightmare. It’s such a beautiful place! I travel to Prague on Monday and am busy completing all the PLF (Passenger Locator Forms) and other paperwork… Since my flight stops in Zurich, I also have to complete transit paperwork for Switzerland. I’m trying to keep all the QR codes on my iPhone for easy reference and scanning, but each organization sends them a different way. So far, on my phone I have vaccination record, etickets, lodging confirmation, PLFs for several countries, old PCR tests, etc. :o( Guess I should delete all the Turkey stuff, but if I decide to return, I would need it… Serbia was the easiest country – I guess. At one point it gets crazy. I hope to be able to get a covid booster and a flu shot in Progue. Research shows that’s possible – but then what kind of documentation will be required? It’s certainly a great exercise in keeping on your toes!

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        • You are certainly intrepid and determined to be travelling to multiple countries at this time, but I guess it is a matter of, “if not now, when?” I don’t hold much expectation we’ll be able to leave Australia until the year after next.


          • And I’m guessing you’d get caught in a loop of same-same conversations and crazy behaviour. My girlfriend in Texas says every time she turns up to her pool competition, the others pull her mask off her. She’s up to packing twenty per trip. They think she’s a crazy Australian, both for wearing a mask, and for being vaccinated.

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