"Arbeit macht frei" was the first thing I noticed in the guestbook. It was part of an elaborate two-page illustration a previous guest had drawn, complete with laborers toiling in an open field under the watchful gaze of a mounted overseer, rifle balanced across the pommel of the saddle.
The overseer in this case was German, a man who had purchased a Vormsi house and its outlying buildings from a Swedish woman who had departed this world, possibly because she was confronted with repairing her fence, the one I’d been invited to rebuild.
“Come out, enjoy the weather and fellowship, work a bit,” the German had written me.
I’d been invited to talgud before. Generally, the atmosphere is collegial with a modest amount of work and excellent food and drink in return for your labor. Much like a Mennonite barn raising, no one gets too dirty, and the spirit of doing something together joyfully overpowers the Estonian love of doing something by oneself.
But interestingly, if you put “talgud” into Google Translate, it is defined it as “carnage.” I think that’s the definition the German had read. “We’ll be working 12 hour days,” he announced immediately upon my arrival.
The German had dragooned his crew from all corners of the earth, and he quickly dubbed us Five Nations Fencebuilding, as if to attempt to build esprit de corps in a colony of slaves. There was me, the Canadian. There was a Finn, an Estonian, the German (if the Kapo could be counted as labor), and a British girl known as the Siren of Vormsi.
The Siren had been living at the German’s place, laboring at home improvement in exchange for living quarters. All members of Five Nations agreed this had been a fine deal for the German, whose home had been significantly improved with a re-built kitchen and freshly painted floor and walls. The Siren, a beautiful girl of rather fragile construction, had somehow even managed to ascend the steep roof and rebuild two meters of the German’s eroded chimney. Where she would have acquired masonry skills was anyone’s guess. We mostly stood in wonder of her ability to fend off advances from the island’s males.
Even our presence did not discourage them, and we bore witness to a half dozen entreaties from accordion-playing men with offerings of dried fish and wilted flowers. One suitor, who arrived in folk costume atop a tired pony, lifted boulders from the ground and heaved them great distances to demonstrate his considerable strength. Another opened beer bottles using his eye sockets (it looked painful) and spit watermelon seeds over 20 meters. It was something from a medieval fair.
But all her island suitors reserved their greatest display of strength for the German: they stalwartly resisted being pressed into service on his fence.
Mornings began at seven with a breakfast of 300 grams of toast, Estonian yellow cheese, and black coffee. Promptly at 7:15 the German led us in calisthenics: jumping jacks, sit-ups, and windmill stretches. We were ordered to count loudly (in German) to pump oxygen in and out of our lungs. At 7:30, we were hard at work on the fence.
Having led a comfortable life, I cannot speculate about whether prisoners of war often took pride in things they constructed. Having half a dozen times watched the 1957 film, "the Bridge on the River Kwai," I know the prisoners led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) were able to boost morale through the construction of a proper bridge. Our fence was not so different.
Ours was a proper gärdgård, the wooden round pole fence typical of Sweden. Made of non-decorticated and non-split young spruce, the fence consists of upright poles in pairs held together by osier lashings. Our Colonel Nicholson was Pekka, a gentle-souled Finn who took great pride in teaching construction techniques that might someday be passed on to others. Pekka, however, too much artist and too little of a slave driver to please our German, who everyone had taken to addressing as Herr Kommandant. It was also a hot July day, and the Siren was working in a bikini. Word travels fast on an island, and men were arriving as fast as Herr Kommandant could run them off. By noon we had only progressed a few meters on the fence.
“We’re in a learning mode,” noted the Estonian member of Five Nations. “It will go faster after lunch.” Lunch consisted of beet soup and another 300 grams of bread.
“Is there any beer?” I asked. There was none, replied the German.
But the Siren knew better. The German had several cases stashed in one of his outbuildings, which the Siren had discovered while reorganizing the place. Given a lunchtime meal as skimpy as the Siren’s bikini, within the hour we were thoroughly drunk, and Herr Kommandant, fearing for his fence, had little choice but to allow us a few hours nap in the shade of his great oak. We slept in a great pile like farm dogs, and I awoke once to find a half dozen islanders surrounding us with cameras, recording our filthy foreign faces for Facebook, irrefutable proof of the superior efficiency of Estonian island labor.
By late afternoon we were in fine form, and Five Nations had covered close to 15 meters. As first-timers we were justifiably proud, but we still remained far short of the German’s 150-meter, first-day objective.
“The light of the moon is with us,” announced Herr Kommandant. “We shall work until midnight.”
And so we did, except for Pekka who departed to have dinner with his wife. I do not know whether it was the darkness, cooler weather, or bulky sweater donned by the Siren, but something put a stop to the visitors, and their absence thrust us into a warp drive enabling the completion of nearly 50 meters of fence line. The German was pleased. “Extra rations for you,” he declared, and we were fed a midnight meal of bratwurst.
Estonians have many aphorisms about careful construction – measure nine times, cut once – and given the German’s reaction the next morning I can believe the Estonian culture now has a new one about fences built in darkness. Not only did it meander outside the German’s property line, but at some point the diagonal slats had inexplicably reversed direction.
As we limbered up for calisthenics, the German sat in quiet contemplation. “Maybe if you planted a few strategic spruce trees,” suggested the Siren. But Pekka soon arrived and declared the fence too great an embarrassment. If we wanted his continued participation much of it would have to be torn down.
And so it was. The German maintained a stoic countenance in our presence, though he vented frustration by feeding baby rabbits to his three English Mastiffs.
Dogs fed, the second day proceeded at a refreshingly easy pace and gave all of Five Nations the Mennonite experience we had come seeking. The German still hounded us about the importance of work: “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen. Arbeit ist das halbe Leben.”
“Ich lebe in der anderen Hälfte,” replied the Siren, which stunned us all, because here was a British girl who could not only build chimneys and fences but could speak German as well. But Forrest Gump’s mother used to say that life is like a box of chocolates. Or Das Leben ist voller Überaschungen as the Germans might say.
Vello Vikerkaar is a columnist for ERR News.