ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2016 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 62, No.4 - Winter 2016
Editor of this issue:Almantas Samalavičius

Movie Review

Helga Merits, prod. The Story of the Baltic University. Merits Productions, 2015. 52 minutes. 

The 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.

After 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.

Educational 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.

The 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.

Helga 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.