Arrival of post‐World War II refugees, extensions to Sydney Estonian House in 1957–1958 and current activities


Published in “Meie Kodu” 20 September 2017. Researched and compiled by Madis and Tiina Alvre.

Assistance to war refugees and expanded activities of the Estonian Society of Sydney – Establishment of the Estonian Relief Committee

In 1945, most of the approximately 700 Estonians living in Sydney and surrounds had congregated around the Estonian Society of Sydney. At the end of World War II, a need was identified to assist refugees who had fled from their homeland, Estonia – the Committee of the Estonian Society of Sydney “Eesti Kodu Linda” formed an “Assistance Sub-committee”, from which was established in 1945 a new organisation, the Estonian Relief Committee.

The first Board of the Estonian Relief Committee comprised primarily members of the Committee of the Estonian Society of Sydney. Weekly, and even twice-weekly meetings were required to manage the overseas correspondence. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Estonian Relief Committee was established in the latter half of 1946, and worked to pack parcels containing cloths, footwear and food, that were dispatched to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe. A welcome reception was held at the “Estonian Society of Sydney’s house” (1) for the first post-World War II Estonian immigrants who arrived in Australia from Sweden in October 1946.

The majority of post-World War II refugees arrived in Australia between 1947-1954. Those who arrived on Landing Permits were assisted by Estonians already in Australia or by the Estonian Relief Committee, who acted as guarantors. The large influx of refugees led to a shortage of accommodation, which was alleviated by provision of temporary accommodation at Sydney Estonian House. Among others who spent their first night in Australia, sleeping on the floor of the main hall in Sydney Estonian House, was the mother of one of the authors of this article, Guldsella Kitsing (Iismaa).

The majority of Landing Permits were issued between 1948-1950. The larger proportion of war refugees arrived in Australia under the auspices of the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), having signed two-year contracts to work where the Commonwealth Government deemed necessary.

During these years, the Estonian community in Sydney increased many-fold. In 1954, there were approximately 6500 Estonians in Australia, of whom 3200 resided in NSW. The Estonian Society of Sydney continued to operate as always, for the benefit of the Estonian community. In accordance with tradition, functions were organised to mark the anniversary of Estonian independence, Mothers’ Day and Victory Day.

The summer solstice (Jaanipäev) was celebrated and a Christmas Party that included a visit from Santa Claus (Jõuluvana) was held for the children. The existing sub-organisations and interest groups of the Estonian Society of Sydney gained new impetus from increased membership, and new and varied additional organisations were established.

Establishment of the newspaper “Meie Kodu” (Our Home)

The newspaper “Meie Kodu” was established on 26 February 1949, but official approval for the newspaper to operate was not received until August 1949. The first paper was published on 19 August 1949 (circulation 300). The Estonian Society of Sydney assumed financial responsibility for the paper on 14 March 1951, and editorial responsibilities on 16 May 1951. In accordance with Government policy, initially, 25% of the content of the paper was required to be in English. Further to a change in this policy, the first entirely Estonian language paper was published on 11 February 1954.

“Meie Kodu” logo, 1949

Packing of the paper “Meie Kodu” for posting,~1950

The Estonian Society of Sydney’s Language School, Summer Camps and Establishment of Sõrve Estonian Summer Camp

In September 1949 the Committe of the Estonian Society of Sydney decided to establish a new Estonian Language School. Mr Voldemar Kaasik was approached to become the School’s Director. The School commenced activity on 8 October 1949. In 1953 there were 80 students, and in 1956 over 100. The School’s Parents’ and Citizens’ Committee assisted the School with organising annual Summer Camps, which were held in Narrabeen (1953-1956), Myuna Bay (1957-1958) and Stuart Island YMCA Camp near Canberra (1959–1960).

From 1962, the Camp has been held at Point Wolstoncroft National Fitness Camp, under the name of Sõrve Estonian Summer Camp.The School’s Parents’ and Citizens’ Committee was responsible for organising the Camp and for training the Leaders until the 1990s. The Estonian Society of Sydney no longer assumes responsibility for organising Sõrve Estonian Summer Camp, but the Sociey’s support of Sõrve continues, with provision of Sydney Estonian House for their fundraising activities.

Estonian Society of Sydney Language School, 1954

Estonian Society of Sydney Language School, 1966

The Estonian Society of Sydney’s Language School no longer operates, but Estonian language classes continue to be held regularly at Sydney Estonian House, under the patronage of the Estonian Society of Sydney. A substantial contribution to the teaching of Estonian language was made by Mrs Tiiu Salasoo (MSc) and Mrs Winifred Oser, who made it possible for many to study Estonian as a subject for the Higher School Certificate.

Since the reinstatement of independence of the Republic of Estonia in 1991, many qualified language teachers who now reside in Australia have continued the tradition of Estonian language teaching in the Estonian Society’s rooms at Sydney Estonian House.

Folk dancing and rhythmic gymnastics

A new folk dance and rhythmic gymnastics group was established as a sub‐organisation of the Estonian Society of Sydney in 1949. Twenty years later the group took the name “Virmalised” (which means Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights). Madis Alvre has served as the longest‐standing instructor of the group, and Raivo Kalamäe is the longest serving musical accompanist. Youth choirs and a modern dance group have also been associated with the folk dance group.

Significant performances include participation in the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, performing at the National Folk Festival in Canberra since 2001, participation of some members, together with dancers from Melbourne and Adelaide, at the Dance Festival in Tallinn in 1994, and performing as “Virmalised” at the XIX Dance Festival “Touched by Time – The Time to Touch” in Tallinn in 2014. This coincided with the 80th anniversary of first performance of Estonian folk dance in Australia.

The folk dance group “Virmalised” consistently performs at functions organised by the Estonian Society of Sydney that are held at Sydney Estonian House.

The Estonian Society of Sydney’s folk dance group, 1952

The Estonian Archives in Australia commenced activity at Sydney Estonian House

In 1952, the Council of Estonian Societies in Australia (Austraalia Eesti Seltside Liit, AESL) determined to establish an archive of books, journals, brochures, periodicals and other expatriate printed material, that would comprise a part of the Estonian Society of Sydney’s Library. Dr Hugo Salasoo assumed responsibility for the archive in 1953.

After extensions to Sydney Estonian House in 1958, the collected materials were housed in a glass-doored cabinet in the room occupied by the Estonian Society of Sydney’s Language School on the top floor. Due to lack of space, the collection was subsequently moved the the archivist’s home in the suburbs of Sydney. In 1993, the Estonian Society of Sydney and AESL signed an agreement to relocate the Estonian Archives in Australia back to Sydney Estonian House. Expenses associated with the relocation were borne by AESL.

Choirs

In addition to the already existing mixed choir, a new choir, the Estonian Society of Sydney’s Mixed Choir “Vanemuine”, was established on 4 November 1953. “Vanemuine” performed at the first national Estonian Festival (Eesti Päevad) in Australia, held from 1-3 January 1954 in Sydney, which included a performance at the “Summer Day” in Thirlmere that comprised part of the Estonian Festival program.

The Estonian Society of Sydney’s Mixed Choir “Vanemuine”, 1954

A new Ladies’ Choir operated from 1949-1953. The Estonian Society of Sydney’s Ladies’ Choir “Leelo” was established on 16 April 1974. “Vanemuine” and “Leelo” no longer operate, nor does the Estonian National Male Choir (Eesti Meeskoor Austraalias, EMA), which was established on board a transport ship to Australia in 1947, and held its first rehearsal at Sydney Estonian House on 5 February 1949.

The mixed choir “Lõke” (The Flame) was established in 1997 by Erik Holm. In the year that the Estonian Society of Sydney celebrates its 90th anniversary, “Lõke” celebrates its 20th anniversary, with a concert-dinner at Sydney Estonian House. For many years, “Lõke” has represented the Estonian community at the annual commemoration of the deportation of Baltic peoples.

A particularly significant achievement has been performing as part of the project choir “Kooskõlas” (In Harmony) at the Estonian Song Festival. “Kooskõlas” is the first choir from Australia to audition successfully and be invited to perform at the Song Festival in Estonia, performing in 2014 at the festival “Touched by Time – The Time to Touch”. “Lõke” performs regularly at functions organised by the Estonian Society of Sydney at Sydney Estonian House and is working towards performing again in Tallinn, at the 150th anniversary Song Festival in 2019.

Other organisations and activities

In the decade after the end of World War II, in addition to the sub‐organisations of the Estonian Society of Sydney mentioned above, groups using Sydney Estonian House included The Estonian Society of Sydney’s Cultural Committee, Ladies’ Auxiliary and Library, billiard‐, corona‐, darts‐, Bridge‐ and chess clubs, Estonian Scholars’ Group, Technical and Engineers’ Groups, Chamber of Commerce, university students’ organisations, fraternities and sororities, literary groups, philatelists, arts and crafts enthusiasts, Estonian Scouts and Guides, sports groups, theatre groups, the Estonian Ex‐Servicemen’s Association NSW Division and the Returned Services League (RSL) Estonian Sub-Branch. There was a Club and Music Committee, orchestras entertained, dances and balls were held.

Dinner Dance,~1954

Ball,~1955

Extension of Sydney Estonian House 1957-1958

During the 1950s, it became clear that the house that had been built for the Estonian Society of Sydney in 1944 no longer met the needs of the significantly enlarged community and therefore extensions to the house were deemed essential. The buildings on the adjacent blocks of land that had already been acquired were demolished, with manual labour voluntarily supplied by members of the Estonian Society of Sydney.

Demolition of existing buildings for extension of Estonian House, 1957

The Foundation Stone for the new part of the building was laid on 24 August 1957. The Estonian Society of Sydney invited all users of Sydney Estonian House to provide an item of historical significance to be placed in a time capsule that was encased next to the Foundation Stone; information to hand has not revealed what has been placed in that space.

Laying of the Foundation Stone for the extension of Sydney Estonian House, 24 August 1957

An additional storey was built, with rooms intended for use by Scouts and the Estonian Society of Sydney’s Language School. A club room and reading room for members of the Estonian Society of Sydney were built on the first floor; this space has subsequently been divided into two rooms, one of which houses the Estonian Archives in Australia and the other is the Board Room.

The ground floor extension included a small hall for seminars and other functions, and a fire‐proof room intended to house the Archive as it existed in the 1950s, but which proved to be too small to be used for this purpose. The extension to Estonian House was officially opened on 6 April 1958. Building of the extension on the blocks of land adjacent to the existing house was managed by the architect Hans Mitt and cost almost £20,000.

Official opening of the extension to Sydney Estonian House, 6 April 1958

Official opening of the extension to Sydney Estonian House, 6 April 1958

Sydney Estonian House, ~1980

The 90th Anniversary of the Estonian Society of Sydney

Under the auspices of the Estonian Society of Sydney “Eesti Kodu Linda”, Sydney Estonian House is available for use by the newspaper “Meie Kodu”, the War Veterans, the folk dance group “Virmalised”, the Estonian Archives in Australia, the Estonian Society of Sydney’s Arts, Handicrafts and Ethnographic Association, the choir “Lõke”, Estonian language classes, the Estonian Society of Sydney’s Children’s Play Group and many other organisations, including former members of the Estonian National Male Choir, who now meet socially as Old Friends (“Vanad Sõbrad”).

With completion of extension to the premises, Sydney Estonian House has proved more than adequate to meet the needs of the Sydney Estonian community from the 1950s to the present day. Only for large functions, such as the national Estonian Festival “Eesti Päevad”, is it necessary to hire larger venues. In its own home, Sydney Estonian House, the Estonian Society of Sydney organises functions to celebrate national and other important anniversaries, and supports activities that are in keeping with the objectives of the Estonian community and are essential for the preservation and perpetuation of Estonian culture.

The Committee continues to operate with unwavering commitment, to look after the home that was built by our predecessors, to make it available for us all.

(1) Rampe L ‘The Estonian Relief Committee and Thirlmere Retirement Village’ (Estonians in Australia I, Haas Õ & Siska V, ed), 1988