Estonia was part of the Russian Empire until it declared independence on 24 February 1918. The secret additional protocol of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact assigned the country to the Soviet sphere of interest, which resulted in a military occupation by the Red Army in June 1940 and annexation as a Soviet Republic in July 1940. After the German invasion of Soviet Estonia in July 1941, the territory of Estonia on 5 December 1941 officially became part of the civilian occupation administration of the Reichskommissariat Ostland as Generalbezirk Estland. At the same time, it remained part of the operational zone of the Wehrmacht. The Red Army re-conquered the Estonian mainland in September 1944 and the islands in November 1944. Estonia’s independence was restored in August 1991.
Before the Second World War, Estonia had a total population of 1,126,413 people according to the 1934 census. Jews constituted a tiny minority of approximately 4,400 people who lived mostly in the cities of Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu. During the Soviet occupation, about 400 Jews were deported as “unreliable elements” to the Soviet interior. On the eve of the German occupation, some 2,000 to 2,500 Jews managed to flee from Estonia, either as part of the evacuation of industry or on their own; some Jews were drafted into military service. About 1,000 Jews remained who were murdered by Einsatzgruppe A and Kommandeur der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD Estland, mostly until the end of 1941. In the autumn of 1943 a network of Jewish forced labour camps was set up, mostly to exploit oil shale deposits. Up to 10,000 Jews from dismantled ghettos in Lithuania and, on occasion, from Latvia and Hungary were dispatched to these camps. Furthermore, there were transports of Jews from Germany and from the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In the summer of 1944, a part of a transport from the Drancy camp in France was sent to camps in Estonia operated by the Security Police and SD. Male prisoners considered unfit for physical labour, as well as women and children, were usually executed upon arrival. Overall, over 7,500 of those deported to Estonia perished, mainly due to harsh labour, inhuman living conditions and targeted mass executions that accompanied the camp evacuations. Less than 1,000 Estonian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but Estonia became a killing site for thousands more Jews who had been deported from other places.
The National Archives of Estonia is the centre of archival administration in Estonia and has departments in Tallinn, Tartu, Rakvere and Valga. The National Archives is a government agency working within the domain of the Ministry of Education and Research acting on the basis of the Archives Act and Archival rules. The National Archives contain collections from Estonian public and private persons, primarily government institutions and organizations operated by government institutions; local governments; and government officials and other employees. There are also a number of archival institutions that work independently of the National Archives in Estonia.
EHRI Research (Summary)
EHRI has identified four institutions relevant to Holocaust research in Estonia, all based in the country’s capital, Tallinn. A full list is provided in the extensive report. At the National Archives of Estonia (formerly known as the Estonian State Archives), where most collections pertaining to the Holocaust in Estonia are stored, EHRI has completed archival descriptions of over ten collections, including records on the German Security Police and SD in Estonia. Outside of Estonia, EHRI has identified several archival institutions which hold, to various degrees, collections relevant to Holocaust-research on Estonia. These include Yad Vashem, the National Archives of Latvia, State Historical Archives of Latvia, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and Beit Terezin.
EHRI Research (Extensive)
A. EHRI approach to Estonia: Pre-existing research and available archival guides
EHRI identified the most important archival institutions holding Holocaust-relevant material in Estonia, relying on pre-existing academic research in the field, such as Ruth Bettina Birn: Die Sicherheitspolizei in Estland 1941–1944. Eine Studie zur Kollaboration im Osten (Sammlung Schoningh zur Geschichte und Gegenwart: Paderborn, 2006); Estonia 1940-1945. Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity (Tallinn, 2006); Anton Weiss-Wendt, Murder Without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust (Syracuse, 2009). EHRI also enlisted the assistance of a local specialist and, as a result, was able to identify important collections in four central archival institutions. In a second step, these collections were described, the descriptions then translated and added to the EHRI portal, where they are now accessible in English and Estonian.
B. Characteristics of Estonia’s archival system and specific challenges
An important number of Holocaust-related sources and collections were created or are deposited in Estonia and can still be found in the country’s archives today. Access to them is mostly unrestricted, but records containing private or sensitive data may be withheld. For instance, personal data are protected for 30 years after a given person’s death, or, if the date of death is unknown, for 110 years after that person’s birth, or for 75 years after a given document’s creation if the dates of both birth and death are unknown. KGB investigation files from the post-war period may be inaccessible due to both personal and sensitive data issues. That aside, researchers are allowed to take photographs from archival documents, or they can order, for a fee, digital or Xerox copies. On a practical level, a working knowledge of Estonian and/or Russian is helpful for any kind of archival research in Estonia. Most Holocaust-relevant documents, however, are in German. The local archival staff can provide help in English.
C. EHRI identification and description results on Estonia
C.I. In Estonia
Holocaust-relevant sources in Estonia are concentrated in the country’s capital, Tallinn, but divided among four archival institutions:
the National Archives of Estonia (Rahvusarhiiv)
the Estonian Historical Museum (Eesti Ajaloomuuseum)
the Estonian Jewish Museum (Eesti Juudi Museeum)
the Estonian Film Archives (Eesti Filmiarhiiv)
At the National Archives of Estonia, EHRI had identified and described a number of fonds containing a limited number of Holocaust-related records. The fonds Commander of the Security Police and SD, Estonian Security Police, Estonian SSR KGB may serve as examples of fonds that are highly important to Holocaust research on Estonia. Smaller numbers of relevant sources have been identified at the Estonian Film Archives and at the Estonian Historical Museum; the material stored in these institutions concerns mostly war crimes investigations. The holdings of the Estonian Jewish Museum mostly concern original materials and testimonies on Jewish life from the interwar period. Four regional departments of the National Archives, holding local documentation from the period after 1944, need to be investigated. They are, however, unlikely to hold significant quantities of Holocaust-related material.
EHRI’s identification and description of these archival holdings has produced an easily accessible overview of Holocaust-relevant sources in Estonia that was previously unavailable in English.
C.II. In other countries
Outside of Estonia, EHRI has identified more archival institutions holding, to various extents, collections relevant for Holocaust research. For instance, the National Archives of Latvia, State Historical Archives of Latvia (Latvijas Nacionālā arhīva Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs) hold the collections Wehrmacht Commander in Ostland and Commandant’s Office of the Secret Police and the SD, both of which are relevant to Holocaust research on the Baltic States in general and to Estonia in particular. Furthermore, Yad Vashem, Beit Terezin and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have collected and/or copied relevant material, e.g. on deportees to Estonia or from Estonian archives respectively.