Remembering the March bombings of 1944 (20)
Wednesday, March 9, marked 72 years since the Soviet Air Forces began bombing the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Three days prior, the city of Narva had been utterly demolished, and over the course of the month, the cities of Tartu, Pärnu, Tapa, and Jõhvi were bombed by Soviet forces as well.
While Narva suffered the most widespread and complete destruction of its city, the March 9-10 bombing of Tallinn involved the most casualties, with over 750 deaths officially reported, including over 580 civilians, and over 600 injured. Approximately 20,000 residents were rendered homeless by the raids as well, which involved 300 Soviet planes dropping over 3,000 explosive and incendiary bombs, mostly on civilian targets.
Many living survivors of the bombings were too young at the time to remember anything. One such survivor, Maie Ruisla Sullivan, said that her family spoke often about how their home in Tallinn was bombed. She said that her parents had died already, and that while her brother, who settled in Sweden, may have remembered the bombing, since he was five years old at the time, she was only three, and could not remember anything herself.
Another survivor’s daughter, Tiina Hele, said that her mother spoke very rarely of the bombings and other difficulties related to the occupations of Estonia — a reluctance common theme among survivors of the bombings, waves of deportations, and escape from occupied Estonia, among other difficult themes of the time — but she had told Hele that she had been on her way home from work and hidden under one of the stone vaults in Tallinn’s city walls when the bombing of the city began. “She wasn’t alone,” Hele said. “Apparently, a quiet, very inebriated German soldier was hiding there as well.”
Karl Altau, a US-born Estonian who has served as managing director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) since 1998, said that his mother Virve was hesitant to speak of her memories of the bombings, but he shared what he recalled her having told him about it.
His mother, who was 16 at the time of the bombing, was the daughter of Artur Tarning, a major in the Estonian Defence Forces originally from Kärdla, and Magda Luise Tarning (née Kentmann). According to what his mother Virve had told him, their family had lived in an apartment on Tehnika Street in Tallinn at the time, near the Baltic Railway Station. When the bombing began, people in the building headed to the basement for cover, but after the first raid ended, she and her father, Altau’s grandfather Artur, ventured upstairs to check for damage to their apartment.
“The second raid then started and the bombing was so close that pieces the plaster and dust from the walls and ceiling shook off and clouded on them as they ran back down to the basement,” Altau continued. “When they got back to the basement, the others there thought they were ghosts, as they were covered white with the dust and debris.”
Altau added that his mother also lost a number of classmates in the bombing, some of whom had possibly been among the casualties at Kino Amor, a movie theater on Harju tänav, which was among the worst hit streets in the entire city. Another survivor’s son currently living in Australia, Toomas Nelson, recalled his mother telling him that she and her sister had been planning on seeing a movie the night that the theater was bombed, but were forced to stay home by their mother, unwittingly sparing their lives.
Ülle Trautvag, an Estonian who currently lives in New York City, was a survivor of the bombings herself. “We slept for several days in our clothes, suitcases packed," she recalled. "The German forces had warned us that a major bombing was about to happen and when they finally said ‘this is it,’ we all went into the basement. What a night! I will never forget it or the morning after.”
Trautvag went on to explain that a German anti-aircraft gun was in the driveway next to their building on Puhke Street, and the noise from its barrage of fire and the whistling of falling bombs kept them awake, ducking and covering, throughout the night. She said that the lights had gone out, leaving only the red emergency bulbs on, and when a her little brother told their mother that he had to use the bathroom, she told him to wet himself.
“The morning after was full of dust, although the sun shone through the overhanging haze,” Trautvag continued. “Shell-shocked German soldiers with smudged faces stood outside our building. They were incapable of hearing questions from our basement manager.”