Estonian-American opens photo exhibition of refugee children's memories

Opening of Maria Spann's exhibition
Opening of Maria Spann's exhibition "The Heart We Left Behind" in Washington on Wednesday. January 15, 2020. Source: Delegation of the EU to the US/Twitter

Based on the memories of children who fled Estonia in 1944, Estonian-American photographer Maria Spann's photo exhibition "The Heart We Left Behind" was opened at the Mehari Sequar Gallery in Washington this week.

Spann, a first-generation Estonian-American, said that the subject started interesting her a couple of years ago, when her grandparents died. Following their death, her mother and uncle were the only ones in the family who remembered anything about fleeing occupied Estonia, but their stories differed from those of their parents.

"My mom and uncle, who are in the exhibit — they escaped Estonia when they were 5 and 7," Spann told ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera." "And I always heard the story from my mom about the escape, and what happened, but it was always like it was her mother's story — like an adult's point of view. So then I realized I want to find out what the children remember — as a child — of that experience. So I asked her, and it was different; it was a lot more physical. She remembered the white bread that she got when she got to Sweden. And my uncle remembered hot chocolate."

Spann took portraits of each person, siblings together, if possible, as well as an object — "something they brought with them from Estonia or something that they have kept from that time," the photographer writes on her homepage.

"To this day, my mother can't stand the smell of engine oil as she was hiding in a tool box," she describes. "My uncle has no memories of the boat journey itself, but remembers the soft white bread and hot milk they were served as they arrived in Sweden. This is what I am most interested in when pursuing this project — what memories do these 'children' have of the escape?"

Thus far, Spann has photographed 35 people, but she is hoping to find at least 100 Estonian refugees worldwide. The hope is for these memories and photos to be turned into a book, and for the photos and stories to be exhibited in Estonia as well.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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