"It's fate that made my life so colorful," says pensioner Ellen Salumae, agreeing that her life deserves to be made into a feature film.
Salumae celebrated her 90th birthday this month. She was pleasantly surprised and excited to learn that her old friend, Hans Kastrup from Germany, still remembers her and desperately wants to meet her.
At the beginning of December, the Tallinn bureau of The Baltic Times received an emotional e-mail from Kastrup's daughter. This marks the start of our engaging story.
"My father is looking for his old fiancee. He lost her in Estonia during World War II," ran the message.
The information she provided was not much to go on, only the name of the missing woman and her address in 1943, which later turned out to be wrong. A photo attached to the message dated back to the same year. It showed Ellen Salumae in her late twenties returning home from work somewhere in Tallinn.
Nowadays, Salumae is a rather common name in Estonia, although Ellen is fairly rare. The address provided by Kastrup's daughter gave nothing away. There is a new house in the place of the old one, which was destroyed during the war.
But finally, after several weeks of searching, Ellen Salumae was found. When I called her, I heard the way her voice trembled when she heard the name of Hans Kastrup, and the immediate offer to meet personally indicated that she was positively and agreeably amazed.
The whole sad story
A navy soldier and holder of the Iron Cross, Hans Kastrup arrived in Estonia in 1942 along with thousands of other German troops. The Kriegsmarine Naval troops resided in Tallinn.
Salumae remembered how cheerful the people were when the German troops entered the city. "Everyone was smiling, and there were lots of flowers," she recalls.
Fate had really made sure that Salumae's life was as difficult as the life of a woman in wartime can be. She married for the first and last time in 1934, and lost her husband 10 years later. Recruited by the Soviet army after the occupation of Estonia in 1940, he was killed in the battle for the Russian city of Velikiye Luki in 1943.
Ellen learned of her husband's death from an Estonian who served with him in the Estonian corps of the Red army. The message was so dramatic she couldn't believe it. She didn't believe it for many months, and that became one of the major mistakes of her life, as she puts it now.
Ellen met Hans in 1944. "We were both young, and we had a romance," Ellen explains.
Kastrup helped her a lot, and got a ticket for her on the last ship leaving for Stockholm in the chaotic autumn of 1944 so that she could later emigrate to Germany and meet him again after the war.
"I went to the port, but there was an enormous crowd trying to push its way to the ship's gangway. I managed to do it, and the soldiers on board yelled at me to move faster as the ship was already leaving," said Salumae.
She stepped on the gangway and walked almost halfway across, but then she stopped. "What if the message about my husband's death is a mistake," she thought.
"Then I turned around and looked at the beautiful outline of Tallinn - the weather was splendid, it was a fine Estonian autumn - and I walked back to the pier." The last ship left the port, and the next day the Russian tanks were in Tallinn.
Today, Ellen bitterly regrets she turned back that day. Later she received official confirmation of her husband's death. She never married again.
"I even feel guilty, because I promised Hans I would leave Estonia on that ship," she said. Hans was later captured by the Russians and spent four years in a military prison in Estonia before returning to Germany. Ellen knew nothing about it until she received a letter from a mutual friend in 1948.
Ellen remembers how she was questioned several times by the NKVD, the predecessor of KGB, about that letter. She was afraid and burned everything related to Hans. The only picture of him she dared to keep was a group photo of the band he used to play in before the war.
She did not have his address, and until now that letter in 1948 was the last one she got from her friend. She was too terrified to try to look for Hans Kastrup during the long Soviet occupation.
Ellen lives alone. The only relatives she had, escaped to Australia in 1944 and died there in a fire in 1964.
Today, after almost 60 years, Hans' daughter wants to give him a special present - a journey to Estonia for his 80th birthday. Ellen said that she would be delighted to host them.
Using all engines
This may sound strange, but the Internet is probably the best way to find anything in Estonia. If you are trying to trace someone, local search engines often provide completely irrelevant results in comparison to powerful international search engines like google.com.
If you are sure the person you are looking for suffered during the Soviet regime, the Kistler-Ritso Foundation will probably be a useful contact. It was established to help the victims of repression and has access to the archives of the Soviet Interior Affairs Ministry. This database is also currently being updated with the help of other sources. Call 372-650-5280 or visit www.okupatsioon.ee.
Public databases, for example phone directories, turned out to be absolutely useless in this case, but you should probably use them during any search for missing people. A free database is available at www.1182.ee.
Getting hold of information from official institutions like state archives or the Interior Affairs Ministry takes much longer than surfing on-line databases. All queries must be presented in written form and any institution here has the right to spend up to 30 days looking for the information you requested and then say something like "We are very sorry, but you should address another department."
The Ministry of Interior Affairs managed to lose my own first written request. Fortunately, that was revealed after just a week, and a second application was filed. A week later, the ministry recommended I address the police directly (although this is under the jurisdiction of the ministry). But the police said there was no data on Ellen Salumae in their archive.
The police forwarded the request to the state archives. One woman called Ellen Salumae was found there.
"She was born in 1921, resided in Viru county and was repressed after the Soviet occupation began," Jaanus Jogi, a state archive official, told me. But the right Ellen Salumae lived in Tallinn. The search went on.
If you consider yourself a lucky person, you could contact the Citizenship and Migration Board and ask for their help. My own request seemed too vague to the board, and it declined to reveal any information on Salumae.
Kadaka Market, situated at the southwestern edge of Tallinn, offers numerous possibilities to get hold of illegal software and databases. It has to be taken into account when conducting any missing person search.
The first significant case of a large, stolen directory of phone numbers, addresses and car registration details occurred in November 1996. This was discovered by the daily Eesti Paevaleht, and cost up to 50,000 kroons ($3,000) on the black market.
The second time the state database was stolen in 1998, it was apparently copied thousands of times. Two years ago it might have fetched up to several thousand kroons. Today, IT-acquainted people can get the CD for free through personal contacts.
It's easy to use and written for MS Access. Simply type in a name and you'll find out where he lives, his residence permit number, his personal code, phone number, mobile, car registration and even how many traffic fines he has received.
Ellen Salumae, the right Ellen Salumae, was found in notime using that 1998 state database. It was thrilling to find her.