QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2016 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
62, No.4 - Winter 2016
Editor of this issue:Almantas Samalavičius
Merits, prod. The Story
of the Baltic University. Merits Productions, 2015. 52
Baltic university provided a college education to 1200 Estonian,
Latvian, and Lithuanian war refugees from 1946 to 1949. 170 professors,
also refugees themselves, served as the faculty. The university
graduated 76 students.
The film documents the oral history of
the university. It combines archival photographs and footage with
interviews of still-living alumnae. The documentary was released in
time for the 70th anniversary of the university. Consequently, the
interviewees are in their 80s and 90s. All of the faculty and most of
the students have passed away in the intervening decades.
World War II, displaced persons sought to reestablish a semblance of
normal life, including their educational aspirations. The United
Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) offered barely
minimal support for the Baltic University. Commensurate with a post-war
economy, food was rationed, clothing inadequate, and electricity
unreliable. Watery vegetable soup, sometimes bread, and occasionally
margarine were the staple diet. Students worked in the kitchens and as
janitors to maintain their campus. They carried their own chairs
between the dorms, mess hall, and classrooms. Firewood served as
presents for any occasion. Faculty and students lived together in
unheated military barracks, sometimes bunking together to stay warm.
resources were also limited: textbooks nonexistent and notebooks
scarce. Faculty taught from memory with blackboards and chalk. Pencils
were whittled down to toothpick length. The oral exam was very
stressful. After the first semester, the university was moved from
Hamburg to a better physical campus in Pinneberg. Classes were
generally taught in German, but also Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian,
if the professor did not speak German. The students quickly became
bilingual, sometimes even trilingual (Latvians and Lithuanians could
learn each other's languages without much difficulty, in contrast to
Estonian). Gradually, some students transferred to German universities,
while many emigrated abroad.
Students created a vibrant cultural
life with fraternities, scouts, singing, dancing, parties, and
inter-ethnic sports, especially volleyball. Weekend excursions took
students to the countryside. Some even visited the opera house in
Hamburg. Couples fell in love, got engaged, and were married.
few, lucky students who attended the Baltic University developed
life-long friendships. Each of the three ethnic groups created their
own alumnae clubs. With decreasing frequency, they met for major
anniversaries of the university. Their experiences as students of the
Baltic University became the defining moment of their young adult lives.
Merits researched the documentary, visiting archives across two
continents. Seven former students assisted her with the project,
including Paulius Jurkus and Aldona Kirkščiūnaitė-Šmulkštys. Alan
Morris provides the narration in a sweet British accent. Leo van Emden
edited the flowing montage of photographs, footage and interviews.
Twentieth century Estonian classical music accompanies the narrative
portions of the movie. Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian foundations
underwrote the production. The major Baltic communities of North
America and Europe have held viewings of the film, with select
screenings in the three Baltic capitols. The movie is available for
sale from the web site.