Reports from a DP Camp: Gert Helbemäe’s Letters to Valev Uibopuu

Maarja Hollo (Estonian Literary Museum)

In my presentation I examine the letters of exile writer Gert Helbemäe (1913-1947) during the time he was in DP camp in Germany to Valev Uibopuu (1913-1997) who lived then in Sweden. Like tens of thousands of other Estonians, Helbemäe had decided to flee his homeland in fall 1944. He arrived in Germany with his wife and daughter and started living in Lübeck, which was in the British zone. Uibopuu was fortunate enough to flee Estonia somewhat earlier; at the beginning of August 1943, along with twelve other Estonian men, he arrived in Helsinki, where he stayed until September 1944, when he had a chance to go to Sweden. He settled in Stockholm, where he worked in the editorial office of the newspaper Välis-Eesti (Estonia Abroad), while continuing his creative activities. In 1945, the novel Foreign Home was published, followed in 1946 by the short story collection Birds in a Cage and in 1948, by the novel No One Can Hear Us.

The correspondence between the two writers began in August 1946, when Helbemäe sent Uibopuu a letter expressing gratitude for his first book. However, the main reason for seeking contact seems to have been the wish to find publishing opportunities in Sweden, where the publishing house Orto was already active under the leadership of Andres Laur. Estonian-language newspapers were also being published in Sweden, and they welcomed contributions from exiled Estonians. The second reason for seeking contact may have been that as a novice writer, Helbemäe needed encouragement, support and advice in a situation where he did not have clear prospects for the future nor assurance whether he would be able to publish the manuscript of his first short story collection.

Among the topics reflected in the correspondence, the first and most important is the writer’s works and publication opportunities and contributions to Estonian newspapers and magazines abroad. Helbemäe less frequently refers to his personal life and the feelings forced upon him by the “monotonous, static life” in the camp. Despite silence about certain topics, Helbemäe’s letters are valuable sources concerning the dreams, hopes, self-actualisation opportunities and future prospects of a creative person living in a DP camp.