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The Black Captain – who was he?

Forest Brothers - photo: Estonian National MuseumForest Brothers - photo: Estonian National Museum
Mart Laar's magisterial work, Metsavennad: Sõda metsas reached English readers in 1992, translated into English by Tiina Ets as War in the Woods: Estonia's Struggle for Survival 1944-1956. (Foreword by Dr Tönu Parming, at the time editor-in-chief of Meie Elu, Toronto's Estonian weekly). Curiously, the Estonian version was published a year later, an instance where the original work was perhaps held back considering the uncertain tenor of the times. Not that Laar has ever been a shrinking lily as an historian. He has always written without fear and with honesty about the times when Estonia was battling for freedom and later, under occupation, when an estimated 30 000 men took advantage of the country's vast forest cover to shelter and wage an armed fight against the hated communists.

The last documented Forest Brother was August Sabe, who was killed by the KGB on September 28, 1978. A remarkable 34 years of survival in the forests of Võrumaa came to an end with his betrayal.

To the best of my knowledge in all of Laar's work about "Forest Brothers", metsavennad, the name of the legendary Black Captain was never revealed. Certainly Hirmus Ants (Terrible Ants) or Ants Kaljurand was identified, a legend who attacked Soviet soldiers until his capture in 1949, and was subsequently sentenced to death in 1951. It is a name that Estonians of a certain generation know well. Must kapten or the Black Captain, however, was a much more mythological figure, whose name was well known, but who was he? Did others take his name as well?

A recent streamlining, organizing of personal archival material unearthed an interview that I conducted in 1990 with a man who claimed to be the Black Captain. At the time I was working at – well, employed by – "Noorte Hääl", one of Soviet-occupied Estonia's higher circulation newspapers, thanks to connections established a year earlier with the editor-in-chief, able to do so by being a regular contributor to "Meie Elu". As a result, I suppose that I belong to a select few – having earned rubles as well as dollars for being an ink-stained wretch.

Connections were everything in those days. Vello Lään is a highly respected radio broadcaster, translator and journalist (sports, humour), who had visited Canada in the late 1970's, written a memoir of visiting Maple Leaf country ("Vikerkaar Niagara kohal" – Rainbow over Niagara, published in 1981, worth looking for, as it provides an interesting perspective of Canada at the time). We clicked well. I expressed my interest in the "Forest Brothers" and he had just the individual for me to meet. This at a time when I had no right to be in Tartu, because of travel restrictions, but Soviet times meant that courage often overcame the law, as long as one did not stand out.

(As a sidebar, Lään invited me to an extended family gathering on the shores of Võrtsjärv, where I encountered my first ever siil, hedgehog, and also sponsored the volleyball game with one Canadian paper dollar (pre-loonie times!) to the winning team. Breaking far too many Soviet rules in the process, especially due to the pain of being on the losing side of the match. Lään is also a long-time badminton fanatic, and the Estonian from Canada lost on that court as well...)


Vello Lään introduced me to a man, who claimed to be the "Must Kapten", Black Captain. I recall, though not in my notes, that thanks to Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost policies, the purported freedom fighter had presented himself to the media in hope of restoring his legacy. We paid a visit to the former Forest Brother. Of that there was no doubt, considering his age, the bullet still trapped under the skin of his scalp against his skull, and the detail that this gentleman went into describing anti-communist guerilla activities.

It must be remembered that this encounter took place at a time when history was no longer obscured, hidden by Soviet censorship and blatant propaganda. Articles about Forest brothers were a regular occurrence, bunkers in forests were either revealed or even restored, and memoirs published, to great acclaim. Alfred Käärmann, Ülo Jõgi and Jaan Laiusk are but three former metsavennad who wrote about that period in occupied Estonia's history, either for newspapers or in book form.

While the interview was fascinating, helped along with the social lubricant of consumption of the excellent Белый аист (white stork) cognac by all present, questions remained even then, and a recent internet search about the Black Captain underscored that it was quite likely that I spoke with someone, who while present and involved in armed resistance, was most likely not who he claimed to be.
(To be continued)

 

 

Tõnu Naelapea, Toronto

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