It's hard to image that it is now 70 years since the Walnut's voyage changed the destiny of its many passengers and future generations.
On November 24th, 2018, passengers gathered at a private home to celebrate the voyage. There were noticeably fewer attendees and included mostly those passenger that had been children on the boat. Many other passengers were unable to attend due to their advanced age or ailing health. Others in attendance were the children and grandchildren of passengers.
Standing at sides: Left - Vivi Kivi (Laaneorg) and Ivi Saumets - right.
Going up the staircase: 1st row: Asta Piil, Milvi Jeeger (Silm), Tiiu Ester, and Heljo Puldre. 2nd row: Hans Leppik and Jaanus Leppik.
3rd row: Toivo Madrus and Uno Abe. Top row: Tõnu Lind and Raivo Laaneorg.
The get-together began with the lighting of a memorial candle for all Walnut passengers that are no longer with us and a moment of silence.
The meaning of the memorial candle and plate....
Estonian folklore states that every year there is a period of time when the souls of the dead move about and visit their former homes. The exact time period is rather vague, but it is thought to occur in the fall during important feast days, typically beginning with September 29th (Michaelmas - Mihklipäev), November 10th (Martinmas - Mardipäev), November 25th (St. Catherine's Day - Kardipäev), and Christmas.
During this time, it was traditional to light candles on the graves or window sills of deceased family members. Plates of food for the visiting souls were placed in the sauna (accompanied by a bath whisk and a piece of soap) or on the dinner table.
Although the reasons for leaving the food back then was to ward off any possible bad luck from displeased souls, many Estonian families now set an extra place at their festive dinner tables to honour those that have passed - now as a loving memorial.
Grace for the meal was sung by way of song:
Lord keep you safe,
and bless you now
His face, shineth upon you.
Lord keep you safe,
and bless you now,
be merciful to you.
May He protect you
from all evil things.
Your soul He keepeth safe.
His peace and guiding love
may always be with you.
A slide show of previous reunion images was running in the dining room and guests could watch the video about the Walnut story in the family room. The afternoon was spent reminiscing about voyage experiences. A slide show was presented by Tiiu Roiser showing scenes of Halifax harbour at the time the Walnut arrived versus how the Pier 21 museum and harbour look currently.
Based on a recent cruise to Halifax, the following images represent what the approach to Halifax harbour looks like currently (2016) but the land masses and topography would have been what passengers on board the Walnut would have seen as they approached their final destination. Pier 21 can be seen as the red brick building facing the waterway. The blue structure in front of the building is a gangplank walkway used by disembarking current cruise ship passengers.
In 1948, an older sign other than the current white and blue Pier 21 sign, "Welcome Home to Canada", would have been the Walnut passengers' first greeting at the Pier.
Slide Show Scenes below.
During an "open mic" period, several passengers shared stories and recollections. Thoughts from Walnut Passenger John Leppik:
Walnut Seventieth Year
In getting ready for this diminishing gathering, I have had many thoughts, some of which I would like to share - particularly with those here who were not on the Walnut voyage.
I wonder if we have anyone here today who themselves made the decision to buy a ticket for a trip from Sweden to Canada aboard a leftover coastal minesweeper built for a crew of 18 to cross the stormy fall North Atlantic with some 360 people for Quebec City, Canada. I believe that was our original goal.
We had to leave in a hurry as Russia now considered us to be Russians and they demanded that our departure from Sweden be stopped. It was known by then that any escapees returned to Russia were butchered.
Some Latvians had preceded us to Sweden and the Russians had influence with the Swedish royal family. When Sweden agreed to returns of Latvian soldiers, some preferred suicide. There were pictures of Swedish police dragging arrested Latvians.
That got us Estonians and Swedish people excited, concerned and active. Plans for departure were made in a panic. When Russia demanded that our departure be stopped, the Swedes took a high risk in telling us, ready or not, now is the time to go. They allowed us to slip out at night, slow speed, all lights out, no talking. We were headed out to the North Sea, a refueling in Ireland and across a very stormy North Atlantic for Canada.
The Irish were generous and helpful. In leaving Ireland, the Irish shared their best wishes for a successful crossing and gave us crates of oranges for a safe and pleasant crossing. We had no space anywhere for the crates so they were stacked around the smoke stack.
This soon became a favourite place for us kids. I was ten at the time. Sitting on the orange crates, our backs against the warm stack, we teased the seagulls by throwing orange peelings.
This did not last long, as the winds picked up and the waves started crashing over the bow. We had to time our passages on deck as quick dashes between deluges that might wash one overboard.
One night the crashing waves broke up the extra structures for the extra coal that was thought to be necessary for the Atlantic crossing.
That was too bad, but there was no turning back. We went in huge leaps, not being able to see the horizon when in wave troughs and hoping that we would not tip over when the waves peaked while worrying about Russian submarines. My mother was desperately seasick for the whole trip.
The storm got very serious. The waves broke off a latch on a coal loading door. Water kept rushing in with no way to stop it. At an earlier session, we heard about this. What to do? If it reached the furnace doors, we would explode. Finally an idea! Lard gets stiff when cold. We had lard in the kitchen and it worked.
No shoreline in sight anywhere and the coal supply was dwindling. Time to burn whatever was burnable to keep making headway - looking for other ships for information and possible help. Finally a scream "LAND". Land meant survival and supplies, but what land? We had found Sydney, Nova Scotia. We were headed for Quebec City but this was land! We have survived! But we weren't going to make it to Quebec City because the St. Lawrence was FROZEN! Just a glitch in the planning.
But Sydney was not able to handle us. We would have to go to Halifax. Go back into the Atlantic with Russian submarines knowing where we were and where we were going. NO WAY!!
Eventually a way was found with an escort, between coastal islands and various channels and finally to Pier 21 in Halifax harbour. How to house and feed 360 people? Accept? Reject?
We had some English speakers who could speak to the local authorities. One I remember was a would-be medical doctor, Kask. Two I know well, were former neighbours in Don Mills, Güri and Marcella Raag. Güri died this past week at 101. Marcella is still with us at 98. I wanted to bring her here but that did not work out.
In Halifax we were housed in a closed "military hospital" which really had been a hospital for criminals with communicable diseases. On the back side of this "hospital" was a real curiosity, Africville, Canada's major all-African community. Very poor! Most of us had never seen a black person before.
One day, a horse-drawn milk wagon got into difficulty and the horse died. It was dragged into a shed for butchering. Many wondered what in the world we had done for ourselves. Well, we now know that Canada has done well by us and we have done well by Canada.
Unfortunately, many other similar efforts did not do so well. Let's raise a glass to the people who had the gumption to make such decisions, even though they were helped by the knowledge that by not doing so could have resulted in much worse outcomes."
Above: All reunion attendees, passengers and their families.
Toivo Madrus shared some of his recollections and had brought along a special keepsake - a Swedish spoon from the Walnut trip.
Passengers agreed that five years was too long to wait before getting together again.
Coming Soon --- We were very fortunate to have a special surprise - Warren Leppik of Cognition Productions, a Toronto Video Production Company and a member of the Leppik family - was on hand with his cameraman to document the entire reunion in pictures and video. Once compiled, the video will be available online. Stay tuned !
Do you have any photographs of the 70th reunion?
Please contact us to donate them to our site.