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The most hardened KGB trooper must have had second thoughts about venturing too far into the forest to try and capture armed, angry men who had nothing left to lose.

"On one hand, we were saving ourselves. But on the other hand, we were also trying to save our country."


The Forgotten War
By Michael Tarm

The war, thank God, was over. The task of reconstruction had begun. At last, after so many years of misery, people across Europe were settling down to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
       But not here.
       And not Alfred Eerik.
       Fifty years ago, as the rest of Europe was still congratulating itself for beating off the Nazi menace, Eerik and thousands of others in the Soviet-occupied Baltic states were hunkering down in the forest to fight for their lives.
       "They were saying World War II was over," explained Eerik, a sprightly, bright-eyed man of 86, leaning forward  on his apartment couch during a recent interview. "For us, though, a new war was just beginning."
       It started in earnest when the Soviets marched into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1944. Over the coming years, as Stalinist-style repressions intensified, more than 100,000 Balts fled to the vast, wooded hinterlands to hide.
       They came to be known as forest brothers, and they included cross-sections of society—everyone from farmhands to professors. They had different reasons for being there: Some sought to save their skins as secret police rounded people up for deportation; others formed well-organized partisan groups and engaged Soviet forces in battle.
       The bloody conflict that ensued as Soviet forces endeavored to liquidate the woodland refugees lasted for more than a decade and cost at least 50,000 lives. It is one of the forgotten chapters in the history of World War II and its aftermath.
       Alfred Eerik's story is typical.
       Like so many others in the 1940s, Eerik, a brick maker by profession, found himself between one rock and a hard place after another.
       He spent most of the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944 trying to avoid being sent to the front by the Germans. As the Red Army drove out the Nazis in 1944, he then spent most his time trying to avoid being sent to the front by the Soviets.
       As the Communists tightened their stranglehold, younger men were in particular peril. If they couldn't adequately account for their activities during German rule—and even if they could—they risked being executed on the spot.
       When the Red Army sent him a draft notice, 35-year-old Eerik joined the exodus into the forest.
       Forests were a natural refuge. Throughout history, for at least 1000 years, Balts had been retreating to the forests for protection from foreign invaders.
       At their most forbidding, Baltic forests are so thick and impenetrable that they can appear to swallow up the daylight. It's easy to imagine how even the most hardened KGB trooper might have had second thoughts about venturing too far into the forests to try and capture armed, angry men who had nothing left to lose.
       Eerik spent the next eight years in the forest. His home was a cramped, inhospitable bunker fashioned from mud and stone. His sole luxury was a portable shortwave radio, tuning in regularly to broadcasts from Voice of America's Estonian service.
       Elsewhere, bands of forest brothers organized attacks against the new Soviet regime. In Lithuania, where resistance was best organized, armed guerrillas effectively controlled whole regions of the countryside until 1949.
       By ambushing Soviet patrols, wrecking power lines and assassinating thousands of local party hacks, Baltic partisans—to put it mildly—became a nuisance for the new Communist authorities. Consolidating Soviet rule had become more bothersome and dangerous than Moscow had bargained for.
       According to Eerik, most people living in the forest worried more about how to stay alive than about how to kill Soviets. Few thought outright confrontation would help liberate their homeland. Eerik and his forest comrades all had guns, but never used them.
       "It would have been folly to attack the mighty Soviet army," he said. "We never even talked about it."
       That said, Eerik argues that all forest brothers were involved in resistance, whether or not they were actually fighting. They were, he insists, all united by the same stubborn refusal to submit to Soviet rule.
       "Being in the forest was clearly an act of civil disobedience," he explained. "On one hand, we were saving ourselves. But on the other hand, we were also trying to save our country."
       It didn't seem to work.
       Many forest brothers hoped that war would begin between the Soviet Union and the West, and that this would lead to the liberation of the Baltic states. That never happened.
       According to Mart Laar, Estonian prime minister (from 1992-1994, and again from 1999) and author of a book on the post-war resistance, many aging forest brothers still feel bitter that the West chose not to take the Soviets on militarily.
       "Nobody believed that Estonia would, for decades and decades, be left in the hands of the Soviets," said Laar. "That wasn't even a possibility. It's only a question of time, everybody thought. But after decades went by, the idea about the West coming to their aid disappeared. The fight in the forest became a personal thing. These people fought because they simply wanted to die as free men."
       And die they did, at an alarming rate. By the early 1950s, Soviet forces had clearly gained the upper hand, and an average forest brother could expect to stay alive for a year, maybe two.
       For Eerik, the end came in 1953. By then, his wife, fearing deportation herself, had joined him in the forest.
       One fateful winter's day, their bunker in southern Estonia was suddenly surrounded. Reluctantly, Eerik urged his wife to surrender to the KGB troops outside, reasoning that at least her life would be spared.
       As he slipped out a side entrance and fled for his life on cross-country skies, he heard the rattle of gunfire behind him.
       Further into the forest, he flung himself into a ditch and waited, praying that pursuing ski patrols would just pass him by. The next thing he knew, there was a rifle barrel nudged hard against his temple. He was caught.
       "I thought, 'Okay, I'm being arrested, but, no matter what, it's always better to be alive than dead,' " Eerik remembered thinking.
       But that was before the interrogation. And that was before he learned that the shots he heard earlier was the sound of troops spraying his wife with machine gun fire.
       "The interrogators beat me so hard," sighed Eerik, shaking his head. "At that point, I wished I was dead."
       After languishing in an Estonian prison for awhile, Eerik was eventually given a 15-year jail term. Other so called enemies of the people later had their sentences commuted. Forest brothers, however, served full terms. When Eerik finally stepped out from behind the bars of his Siberian prison cell, it was 1968.
       Decades later, sitting in his Pärnu, Estonia home, Eerik complains that his fellow Estonians don't understand the sacrifices the forest brothers made.
       "Really, forest brothers should be considered the pillars on which the state is being built," said Eerik softly, rubbing his worn, wrinkled hands.
       He speaks uncomfortably about heroics, casting his eyes down and shifting uneasily in his chair. But pushed, he concedes that, yes, he does believe the forest brothers were heroes.
       "These people fought a war without a battleground, and they went through water and fire to do it," he said. "I would say we were heroes because we always kept our backs straight—we kept our dignity."
       Dignity costs. It cost Eerik his beloved wife, not to mention 23 years of his life, from the time he went to the forest to the time he got out of prison.
       But Eerik says he harbors no bitterness about what he went through. And he doesn't crave revenge.
       He does, however, have one wish.
       If he could, he'd like to rouse one of his KGB interrogators from his grave—the one who so confidently proclaimed that Estonia would never again be free.
       "I'd want to give him a message," said Eerik, his blue eyes gleaming. "I'd tell him, 'Look, look around you, the time of independence did come back, and I am—once again—a free man.'"

                              —CITY PAPER-The Baltic States, 1996.

(Top photo is of two forest brothers in Lithuania; the photo is from the KGB's archives.) 



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