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.