Saturday, April 7, 2012

Uprooted: The Value of Learning a Foreign Language

This is the story of Estonia during WW2 as told to me through the eyes of Ralph Kand.


Since the Russian army had arrived, the brewery was doing more business than ever. The soldiers drank because they were lonely and away from home. And Estonians drank more because they remembered how things were before the Russians came. Little did Ralph know that a day would come when his ability to speak Russian would save his life.

The Russian Secret Police (NKVD) operated separately from the army. One day two vehicles pulled up behind the brewery and men in greatcoats came through the rear entrance into the small dining area. One of the men had a list with six names on it. The secret police inquired where these various persons worked and one by one each was brought into this dining area for detention until all were assembled. One man, as he was being led down the narrow hall, saw the others with despairing, downcast eyes and tried to make a run for it. He was shot right there in the hall.

Ralph had been one of the first brought into the dining area because his workstation, the order desk, was located just down the corridor. As two NKVD agents went to the furthest end of the brewery to retrieve the last man on the list, a Russian soldier had come in to pick up his order for the soldiers stationed nearby. No one was there and the soldier began shouting for service. As his shouts got louder and more vehement, the NKVD agent told Ralph to go fill the order.

The Russian soldier had come to pick up a pallet of vodka. The cases needed to be carried to his truck. Ralph offered to help, but when they were outside he told the soldier that the man in the greatcoat behind the counter was NKVD and had come to take him away. Ralph, in Russian, asked the soldier to permit him to use the cases of vodka to build a wall but leave an opening so he could jump in behind the barrier when the last case was brought out. The soldiers, like the Estonians, also hated the secret police and this one agreed to Ralph's request.

As Ralph brought out the last case, the Russian was already in the truck. Ralph had instructed him to drive through the gate without stopping. The secret police officer, when he realized what was happening, came running out and fired a couple shots, but the truck had already exceeded the accurate range of his pistol.

“If I hadn’t learned Russian I wouldn’t be here today,” Ralph told me.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK: The Day It All Broke Open
@ Ennyman's Territory

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