The Great Escape to the West in 1944

​Some Estonians left their homeland as early as 1939, together with the Baltic Germans in the course of repatriation or Umsiedlung. In 1941 this was followed by another wave or Nachumsiedlung, when actually more Estonians than Germans left the country. This process continued during WW II, culminating in the Great Escape in the summer and autumn of 1944. About 80, 000 people fled to the West from the Red Army, which was gradually invading the Estonian territory. About six to nine per cent perished en route.

The people escaping to the West were of different kinds: refugees, soldiers serving in the German army, those recruited as labour force in the German rear, and others. The Great Escape mainly occurred across the sea, first to Finland and Sweden, later towards Germany. As the refugees could not stay in Finland for long, they moved on to Sweden. Their main reason for escaping was fear of Soviet persecution. Many hoped that the situation would normalise and they could soon return.

Most of the refugees came from Estonian coastal areas, islands and bigger towns. The journey was undertaken, according to the country of destination, either on a small fishing boat or a bigger vessel, train, car, horse-drawn carriage, bicycle or even on foot. Many lives were lost on the dangerous journey to the West because of the raging warfare. Trains and caravans were bombed from aircraft, the sea was full of mines and submarines. The fishing boats were often in a bad state of repair and the autumn storms further exacerbated the situation.

The refugees represented all social and age groups, although the majority of them was made up of people in early middle age and children. About 40, 000 Estonians made it to Germany and areas occupied by Germany; about 27, 000 escaped to Sweden. A few years later a considerable number of the refugees settled in other countries all over the world. Larger Estonian communities developed in Sweden, the USA, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Some of the refugees, together with those who served in the German army, about 21, 500 people, were repatriated to the Estonian SSR.

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