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Passing History’s Torch: The Baltic Diaspora on Exhibit now in Toronto

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The Estonian Studies Centre in Toronto (310 Bloor Street) is currently hosting a moving exhibit entitled “Sharing Our Stories: The Baltic Diaspora at Home in Canada” in collaboration with the Canadian Baltic Immigrant Aid Society, the Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada and the Latvian National Federation in Canada.

It documents the lives of Baltic immigrants and refugees before, during, and after their journey to Canadian soil. Culled from interviews conducted with seniors still able to recall these tumultuous memories, including a select number of Lithuanians, the exhibit is a jolting reminder of their courage and resilience, as well as a sobering tribute to a generation of men and women whose numbers are dwindling with each passing year.

Looking at the seniors’ various birthdates—1916, 1924, 1917, 1935, 1925, to list just a few—one is forced to put the timescale in perspective: these events are mere blips in the historical record in 2017, and the people who lived through them are now few and far between. As they continue to leave us, their testimonies will be forever silenced—testimonies that all of us need to hear if we are to become the keepers of our cultural heritage. For despite the numerous history books that will continue to be written about the Baltic diaspora, it is only through the lips of these people that the most personal histories can be shared, and the personal histories are the ones that we most remember. The flame of memory passes to the youngest torchbearers, and as the years press on, the flames of these ancestors will flicker away unless the future generations take care to kindle them anew.

This is why it is essential for our younger generations to read the words of their elders. The further removed they are from the horrors of the past, the less connected they will feel to that history, and these testimonies are what bridge that divide. Especially for those whose grandparents have already passed and can no longer tell their own stories, the exhibit does a wonderful job of allowing you to get a sense of their endurance and pain through the eyes of others. Sometimes the memories can only encompass a few brief sentences, yet those sentences haunt. In one section detailing the mass Baltic exodus during the 1940s as a result of Soviet occupation, Marija Gudelienė recounts: “I remember the last morning when I said goodbye to my mother. I kissed her and looked into her eyes, when I suddenly felt that this would be the last time I would see her. It was the last time—what a premonition!” Something like this would be the emotional climax of a work of fiction, only Marija lived this moment. It was as real and as terrible as the Soviet occupiers or the bleached wilderness of Siberia. The realisation of how quickly these people lost what they loved most is a hard thing to come to terms with, but come to terms with it we must.

The exhibit is a massive endeavour, with twenty-nine detailed posters that feature not only the testimonies of Lithuanians, but Estonians, Latvians, and Baltic Germans, as well. And it does not end on a note of sadness; rather, the last poster is titled “Advice for the Young,” which reiterates the underlying reason that this exhibit exists in the first place: to keep the younger generations invested in the histories of their elders, for these histories are all shared and cannot be ignored or forgotten. As someone who is a part of that younger generation, this exhibit brought about a wave of competing emotions within me: fascination, shock, helplessness and, most of all, a deep-seated appreciation for those who came before me. It is one thing to live in a free and democratic country like Canada, and to go about one’s day-to-day life with a fair degree of security. But it is something else entirely to sit down and reflect about the days when such values did not exist, when people had to uproot themselves and settle down in a strange land because it was the only way they could survive. And we cannot take their survival for granted, because if they did not survive, it is quite likely we wouldn’t be where we are today. Maybe we wouldn’t even be here.

“Sharing Our Stories” will be exhibited at the Estonian Studies Centre until Wednesday, March 29th. For those who cannot see it before then, it will be featured at the Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada in Mississauga this June.

Tomas Trussow

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