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50th Reunion

October 17, 1998

Passengers at 50th reunion.

The 50th reunion of the Walnut passengers was held on October 17th, 1998, at the Toronto St. Peter's Lutheran Church hall.  Since more than 100 people were in attendance, the registration of all guests took a considerable length of time.  Passengers got reacquainted, reminisced with each other, and viewed the photo and memorabilia displays.

The event commenced with greetings from Nelly Lind who announced that the guest traveling the furthest to attend was Lia Anderson from California.  Those passengers who had passed away were remembered with a silent prayer.  Pastor Hannes Aasa quoted the story of Jonah and the whale and ended with the words:  "God watch over us today and tomorrow."

Walnut reunion 1998

Above:  Walnut passengers attending the reunion.

The food was organized by the guests with many bringing dishes of their favourite recipes.  The table was laden with meats, vegetables, sauerkraut, salads, etc.   Everyone enjoyed compote -- stewed fruit -- for dessert. 

Memories were recalled by four individuals who gave speeches.   Tiiu Roiser-Chorowiec's two parents were aboard the Walnut.  She outlined the voyage in English based on her father's entries into the Compania Maritima Walnut S.A. Minute Book and the memories of her mother, Koidula.  

Friedrich Heinsar spoke in Estonian how the ship's German navigator left the Ship in Sligo, Ireland.  Since Friedrich had the necessary papers, he was offered and took the vacant crew position. 

Hilja Kuutma recalled vividly her adventure on the sea. Hilja, who had been 12 on the voyage, together with the other youngsters, did not have any fear. On the nice days, she remembers the children gathering on the top deck and playing amongst the orange boxes and crates containing artist Joan Saarniit's paintings. She said it was exciting on the open sea. She recalls the luxury of having a bath in Ireland. Sometimes the waves seemed like huge mountains that rolled over the ship making moving about impossible. Everyone mentioned and remembered well the cramped sleeping quarters -- she described the people sleeping like sardines in a can!  Hilja also recalls drinking Coca-Cola and the New Year's Eve party in Halifax.

Hilja stressed the necessity for children her age at the time to leave their homes twice during four years. Both times they had to learn a new language and start their lives all over again. Fifty years ago there was no such thing as learning the English language in school. We adapted to the culture quickly without any specific problems.

Nelly Lind, well-known in the Estonian community for her love of rhyme, presented a humorous poem outlining her voyage recollections.

The speeches were followed by the serving of an array of cakes, cookies and coffee, and a movie of the Walnut's voyage. The rocking of the ship and the huge waves were clearly visible on the television screen. Manivald Sein shared his many memories followed by traditional Estonian group singing, accompanied by Walnut passenger Voldemar Gustavson on flute. Mr. Gustavson's sister, Nelly Hubel, explained that ever since the voyage, she no longer enjoys oranges because she's convinced that they were what caused her terrible seasickness.

Peter Saarniit had brought the Walnut life preserver to the reunion and former passengers took the opportunity of taking photographs with the life ring. The evening was enjoyed to its fullest and passengers milled about comparing memories. Some had not seen each other for over 50 years and there was much catching up to do!

Tiiu Roiser-Chorowiec - based partially on Estonian article "Üks omapärane juubel" by Paul Rabisson in Meie Elu, 1998. 

The Honourable Michael D. Harris, Premier of Ontario, sent his greetings:

 "On behalf of the Government of Ontario, I am pleased to extend congratulations to the members of the Estonian community as you mark the fiftieth anniversary of your immigration to Canada.

I trust that this auspicious occasion will give Estonian-Ontarians pause to reflect on your rich history. Cultural diversity is one of our province's greatest strengths. And, over the past five decades, you have not only fostered and preserved your values and traditions in Ontario, but you have enriched the communities in which you live.

Please accept my best wishes for a memorable celebration." 

Premier Harris

The following photographs were donated by Walnut passengers and/or their families.   All images on this page are used with permission and are Copyrighted by the image providers.  All rights reserved.    

Thank you to all the individuals who have graciously allowed us to post their images.   A list of contributors appears on the resources page.   If you are a passenger, please help with the captions.   Names will only be posted with the permission of the subject depicted or if the name has already appeared in a published article.  Passenger names are identified in bold.

Estonian Refugees Mark Voyage
Flight to Freedom 50 Years Ago

The Toronto Star - Monday, October 19, 1998 - by Peter Edwards, Staff Reporter 
Copyright © The Toronto Star. Used with permission. 

Nelly Lind's strongest memories of her flight to freedom in Canada aren't about fear. 

And they aren't about the huge Atlantic Ocean waves that washed over the deck of the tiny ship, the Walnut, forcing passengers to cling to the railings or be washed overboard.

Lind's strongest memories are of sauerkraut soup.

"There were lots of little worms in it," she says, cringing at the memory 50 years later. "That was something I'll remember always."

The passengers of the Walnut, a former Royal Navy minesweeper, held a reunion this weekend at St. Peter's Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church on Mount Pleasant Rd. near Eglinton Ave. E.

But the wormy memories didn't hinder the 78-year old woman's appetite during Saturday's festivities, as she enjoyed smoked turkey and kringel, a sweet bread, along with more than a hundred other Walnut passengers and their families.

For Hilya Kuutan, aboard the Walnut as a 12-year-old, her strongest memory is of the pure excitement. "It was an adventure for us. As a child, you were not scared."

The 347 passengers of The Walnut, who braved a month-long voyage to Canada, started their long journey when they fled Estonia for Sweden to escape the Red Army during World War II.

When the war ended, the Soviet government demanded that Sweden return its citizens. In 1948, the refugees watched in horror as fellow Estonians were dragged crying into boats and back to the Soviet Union.

Rather than face the same fate, they decided to flee to Canada.

The journey wasn't easy for most of the passengers.

"I didn't eat for a month, I was so sick," said Lind, who crossed the Atlantic with her husband Tõnis and her sons Tony and Tiit Eric.

The passengers were told before the voyage that they probably wouldn't be allowed into Canada, but they gambled and came anyway. The risk paid off. Parliament created a special exemption to allow them to land on Canadian soil.

"We were really among the first board people," Kuutan said. "It was a refugee boat. We came here illegally. They just didn't call it that."

Although Harald Sarg, 93, and his bride of 49 years Helmi, 78, won't call the Walnut a love boat, they did meet on board and were engaged within three weeks of their arrival in the Toronto area. "He figured I was a good-hearted person," Helmi said with a smile.

Sarg made his living as a construction worker while his wife worked in the office at Sears. Like the rest of the Walnut's passengers, they are proud they were able to support themselves without government aid.

Photo caption: Harald Sarg, 93, and his wife Helmi, 78, enjoy the 50th anniversary reunion of passengers who made their way to Canada aboard the Walnut, where the pair met. 

Walnut reunion

Ene Pomerants Johnson remembers lots of crying, but not much else of the voyage. She was just 3. "I was very ill and I didn't eat at all," she recalled. "My mother even said (jokingly) they were going to throw me overboard."  Like most of the passengers, her family settled in Ajax.

There are about 10,000 people of Estonian heritage in southern Ontario, possibly the largest Estonian community outside Eastern Europe.

It was worth the ocean waves and the worms in the soup to get here, Kuutan said. "You're part of Canada. There are no regrets."

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