EstDocs 2015: The Story of the Baltic University

A Phoenix Born of Ashes and Desire: The Story of the Baltic University
After working as a journalist for Dutch and Belguim newspapers and national radio, Helga Merits began making historical documentary films. Her previous film, The Class of 1943 – remember us when we are gone (2012) featured the fate of five Estonian boys of the Tartu Boys Gymnasium forced to join the German army. The Story of The Baltic University is her fourth documentary, which will have its World Premiere at EstDocs Film Festival, Toronto, Oct. 16-20, 2015. DOC member and EstDocs Programme Director Kalli Paakspuu interviewed Merits about the film.

Kalli Paakspuu: How did you come across the idea to make The Story of The Baltic University? Tell us something about this documentary’s evolution.

Helga Merits: My father died at a young age—he had just turned 41—and, as I was only a very small child, I don’t have any memories of him. When my mother passed away, I inherited his papers. Amongst these was his little study book of the Baltic University. I had never heard about this institute and therefore wondered what kind of institute this had been. I asked around. I corresponded with Estonians of my father’s generation and one of them sent me a text written by Robert Riggle. Mr. Riggle worked for UNRRA in 1945, in Hamburg, in the British zone, where the university was created and he was there at the very beginning when the British authorities gave their consent to the founding of the university. Mr. Riggle was truly amazed that refugees who had lost everything were not only thinking of creating a university, but were actually doing it. The city of Hamburg was ruined, but there was this idea, there was the courage and the determination.

This amazing story was in the back of my mind for quite a few years. It was a pity I didn’t start right away working on this story, but at first I thought others would already have made a documentary about it. When it became clear no one had done this I thought I was too late to start working on such a project, as so many years had passed. But then one of the Estonian former students I was in contact with, Reinhold Martin, encouraged me to look for other students. And I just thought: why not? I placed advertisements in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian newspapers and to my own surprise I received very enthusiastic responses. That made me decide that one way or another I would make a documentary about the Baltic University.

KP: How does this film figure into your biography as a storyteller and documentary-maker? How have you evolved as a filmmaker?

HM: As with the other documentaries I made I wanted to tell and show a story which was not really known to a wider audience, and a story which is important to tell. It is about history. There are parallels with today, as war is still going on in so many places in the world and there are so many refugees.

The story of the Baltic University is a sad one, as it is about refugees who lost everything, but it is optimistic as it shows what can be done and what goals can be reached in difficult circumstances if you work together. Like my other documentaries this documentary is about people making something of their lives. The seven former students in the film are full of energy and spirit.

This documentary was the most complicated to make of my career. Former students live in different parts of the world and I had to organize cameramen and interviewers in other countries as I didn’t have the means to travel and do the interviews myself. For my editor, Leo van Emden, this turned out to be a technical challenge: interviews were filmed with different cameras, the sound was not always good and sometimes he had to work on the image as well. Not only were the interviews of different quality, but so were the historical materials and the pictures. He did a fantastic job.

KP: EstDocs Documentary Film Festival has a Baltic theme this year. Your film, The Story of the Baltic University, is about 170 Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian academics starting up a university in a displaced persons camp in bombed out Hamburg. How was a university possible in such wartime devastation? What can you say about Baltic academics or Baltic history that the world should know?

HM: If you think about this idea, of starting a university in a totally ruined city, when you think about the circumstances of the refugees who had lost everything, you would say it was not possible. But the academics of the Baltic Countries made the impossible possible. The refugee camps were depressing and for young people there was little chance to get a place at a German university. For a lot of the students of the Baltic Countries, The Baltic University was their only change to start or continue their studies. It gave students a future.

When the British authorities gave their consent, the academics worked very, very hard, because everything had to be created out of nothing. There were many setbacks, but they didn’t give up and continued their work. The university only lasted three years, but they achieved a lot within these three years. When it had to close its doors on the 30th of September 1949, the Baltic University was a most successful and promising example of international cooperation.

At the 50th anniversary celebration of the Baltic University in 1996, Gisela Böhrk, the German Bildungsministerin of Schleswig-Holstein, made clear that she thought of the Baltic University as an example for “the House of Europe.” Therefore I think it is not only interesting, but important as well to tell this story.

KP: You have located remarkable film footage from the Royal Air Force films of wartime Hamburg and wartime Germany. How did you locate the imagery? Were the archive sources a challenge to navigate?

HM: I contacted many archives, as historical material is of course very important for a documentary like this. I started to search for material three years ago and continued almost to the last moment. Unfortunately, in western European countries, newsreels are owned by national archives and are very expensive for an independent filmmaker working with a small budget. In the USA and Canada, there is the attitude that newsreels should be accessible for the public. Archives, like Eesti filmi arhiiv, has great material within the reach of low budget filmmakers. Working on my last documentary, Class of 1943, I started a discussion with German politicians about the question of who should be able to use the newsreels found in the national archives, as the accessibility is political. This was not a subject high on their priority list. Still, in western Europe, it is good to think about what it means if only highly subsidized organizations are able to use historical material.

The less money in the budget, the longer the search for material, I guess. There is a necessity to look everywhere for material. Sometimes I worked more like a detective than a filmmaker, tracing photographers, cameramen and their archives for documents, pictures, or their families. During this research I asked around and people were willing to help look for materials in archives when it was impossible for me to visit or contact specific people. This was heart-warming. In the end, this film represents the work of many, many people.

KP: Can you talk about the various sources for your documentary footage? We know that rationing was very common in Europe, and yet there were amateur photographers documenting from a different perspective than the German and British main sources. Can you say something about the various archives you accessed? Were there any significant discoveries?

HM: When I started the film I was a bit afraid I would not be able to find enough historical material. Now, I have a great collection of pictures. When the university opened its doors in March 1946, they realised they hadn’t asked a photographer to come. It was an official opening and they needed an official photographer. They found Hugo Smidt.

Strangely enough, I have not found many official pictures of the Baltic University, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just means I haven’t found them. Sometimes material is hidden in archives you haven’t discovered. Just by chance in the Amsterdam University Library I found papers concerning the Baltic University of Professor Stanka, the Lithuanian rector. Professor Stanka had emigrated to America. How these documents ended up in this library in Amsterdam, I don’t know, and neither does the Amsterdam University Library.

Estonian photographer Karl Hintzer made some beautiful pictures at the Baltic University. But the most interesting pictures were taken by the students themselves, showing their fellow students when they were studying, sitting together, and having fun. These are the best pictures, as they have a kind of intimate atmosphere.

The pictures and documents of the Baltic University are spread all over the world. Tartu College in Toronto has a very interesting archive, but also the Academic Library in Riga, Tartu University Library, the Hamburg Museum, the American Lithuanian Cultural Archives….

I found the official archive of the Baltic University in Uppsala University Library. I found some documents in Tartu University Library that came from Uppsala, so I wondered if perhaps Latvian and Lithuanian documents about the Baltic University were in that library. Then I received an unexpected answer: there were 47 large boxes of material! An Estonian scholar who had been working for many years in Uppsala was quite irritated that no one ever told him this archive was in their cellar. Not even the librarian in Uppsala knew about it. These boxes had been forgotten.

So I found pictures, documents, but footage was hard to find. Then one of the former Estonian students, Arved Ojamaa Ashby, suddenly wrote to me. He explained that, while studying in Germany, he made contact with a family in America that became his sponsor. They were interested in making a film about the Baltic University, and so they asked Arved to make it for them. They sent him a few packages of real coffee to sell, so he could hire a camera crew. The film was made and sent to America, though Arved never watched it.

Arved was 92 and the daughter of the sponsor family was 93 during the making of my documentary. It was hard for me to believe a that such a film still existed, but the film was found. It was sent to Arved who went to a specialised company to have a DVD made of the old film. Then I received an email: “This is the most difficult letter to write. The film is junk and I have already disposed it. It has been extensively edited. (…) Please do not write me. I feel most embarrassed.” It was a Sunday, so the garbage bins would not have been emptied. I immediately contacted Arved begging him to send it to me, so I could at least have a look at the material. Happily, he was willing to do so. But it didn’t arrive. Then it was clear it had been sent to the wrong address and to an unknown neighbour by the postman. I got it in the end and the material was great.

KP: Another historical documentary that we will show is Those Who Dare, directed by Olafur Rognvaldsson about how the western democratic world reacted to the Baltic states’ claim for independence from Soviet occupation in the years 1989-1991. Do you see a connection between how other European countries respond to the Baltic states? Those Who Dare is told sympathetically through Mr. Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson (JBH), the former Foreign Minister of Iceland.

HM: There was the Atlantic Charter of 1941. Great principles were written down, one of them being: “territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned” and “all people have a right to self-determination.” You would think by reading this that the United Kingdom and the United States, which had made drafts for these statements, would fight for the independence of the Baltic countries. The Baltic University was in the end dependent on individuals willing to fight for their cause, as countries like Great Britain—reading the Atlantic Charter, had a moral obligation to give support—were later unwilling to help any more. Winston Churchill was afraid for the safety of Great Britain and decided that the Baltic countries were a different case. The declaration was not to be applied to the Baltic countries.

A lot of things changed in fifty years. The late eighties and early nineties were a different world, but perhaps the idea of safety was still the same. Ideals and highly praised principles are often overruled by the idea of interests. So for the bigger or more powerful western countries, clearly the question remained whether it was in their interest to take a risk and assist the Baltic countries in their struggle for independence. For the Baltic countries there was a need to find allies.

As for the Baltic University: there was a need to find individuals interested in their cause. Though Great Britain was at first in favour of the Baltic University this interest faded away fairly rapidly. The staff of the university tried to move it to other countries, but without success. There were economical reasons which prevented this, but sometimes there was a fear for intellectuals coming form eastern European countries as well.

The academic staff contacted universities worldwide. There was help, from institutions, committees, but in the end it all took too long. When the university had to close its doors in September 1949, there was still a committee in the USA of ‘The Baltic University in Exile’ trying to move the university either to America or Canada. But it was too late, the university had ceased to exist.

KP: Is there anything more you want to say about The Story of The Baltic University? Do you see another documentary that needs to be made?

HM: Next year it will be 70 years since the Baltic University opened its doors. Pranas Jurkus, a former student, has organised a celebration every year to commemorate the opening of the university. But in the past years fewer and fewer former students have been able to come. So I think it is time to take the torch from Pranas and see if it is possible to interest younger generations about this institute, not only to remember the it, but to be inspired by it.

On February 13, 2016 there will a conference about the Baltic University at Tartu College in Toronto. I will speak there about the research and film. There will be a celebration in Chicago, London, Adelaide, and probably Tartu in Estonia. I have just started to organise. Any university, institute, or organisation which would like to organise an event next year about the Baltic University, please contact me.

And yes, there are many stories which could and should be told. I have several stories in mind, but whether it will be possible to realise another documentary I don’t know yet. Though I work with a low budget it is still rather difficult to get a documentary financed. But whatever the outcome, I will continue to do research and correspond with elderly people who have witnessed the tragic events of the 20th century, to know what they have experienced, to know how they have coped and how they have lived.

See the full line-up for the 2015 EstDocs Film Festival here.