Memories of the repressed

patarei vangid

The memoirs are taken from the story collection "Mighty and gloomy Patarei. Memories from the Patarei Prison 1924-1990", Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2007.

Elvi Toss

"The third activity in our programme was a walk in the courtyard. Everyone out! The cell was searched while we were outside. The walking yard was surrounded by a high and dense plank fence that had barbed wire at the top. The guard stood on a platform on the top of the plank. The ground had been stamped hard; it didn’t have a single blade of grass. The circular boardwalk was about a metre from the plank.

A wooden barrel stood in the middle of the yard, half buried in the ground. The barrel was full of filthy greenish water, with a few cigarette butts and lumps of gob floating on top. Some of the more active cellmates had arranged it so that now and then, we could run and exercise on the boardwalk. Not everyone joined in. Some older prisoners leaned against the plank and stood there while the others jogged. They were probably unable to run.

There were rumours that the dead prisoners were not buried. This might be true, because no one’s body was ever given back to loved ones for funerals and a mass grave has not been found either. It was said that the dead were placed in a box of lime, because quicklime can eat away even bones.

I don’t know if that is the case. Others knew that the bodies were given to guard dogs. The dogs ran under the windows between the wall and the sea. We didn’t see them, they were too close to the wall, but we could hear their gnawing and growling. We imagined them tearing at their food and attacking each other with bloody jaws. We preferred to end up in quicklime."

Erich Talve, arrested in 1940 and 1949

"Signs of human misery and hardship were revealed in the prison sauna. One could see bruised backs that had turned blue from beatings, twisted arms and injured limbs. In the evening, having climbed on the bunk after a bath, the smell of unwashed blankets had to be tolerated."

Hans Tammemägi (1928–2014), arrested in 1946 at the age of 18, 1946–1951 in forced labour camp, freed in 1958.

"I ended up in one of the IV division’s half-cells that had a bucket toilet next to the door and 50-60 men sitting or lying by the walls. Men gathered by the door to see the “new” guy. As an “old” prisoner, I knew how to present myself: I told everyone where I was from, under what paragraph I had been arrested, the news, who I knew. Naturally, the "new guy’s" first sleeping place is next to the bucket toilet.

As prisoners get transferred and others take their place, it is possible to move down the cell. According to the guards, the cells housed only political prisoners, traitors and fascists. There were Forest Brothers, members of the Defence League, military men, teachers and lawyers, people from all walks of life. The spirits were high; we were still full of anticipation and hope despite the poor food, uncertainty and insulting treatment.

The wall was about 2 meters thick, it was visible by the cell’s seaside window. Usually there was no glass on the windows; instead, they had massive bricked in bars on the outside. In the summer, the warm sea air eased the heat of the overcrowded cell. However, in autumn and early winter, when I was still in Patarei, I had to cover myself at night to make sure the wind didn’t carry off my clothes and to stop the cold from doing too much harm. Back then, the prison didn’t provide any clothing, not to mention nightwear.

One had to sleep on the floor, side by side with others, wearing whatever one happened to have on, with boots and a little pouch stuffed under the head as a pillow, and a towel to substitute a pillowcase. Still, receiving packages with clothes was allowed. I got a warm and homely patterned blanket, which I sewed into a sleeping bag. There was no place to store the clothes, except under and on oneself.

We measured "borders" on the wall and floor, i.e. a strip for each cellmate to live and sleep on. We used a 40 cm wide piece of cardboard that hung on the cell wall (the rules of the prison) to measure out the space. The backside of this piece of cardboard was used by cellmates to record their names. These lists were considered dangerous information, so the guards often had to change the ruined copies with new ones, while listening to profanities and threats."

Ants Salum

"You had to be careful not to run into a “cow”, e.g. a spy, who had been given a task to get some information from you that might interest the inspector. The “cow” was sent by the prison authorities who were interested in the microclimate of the cell. Usually the spy betrayed himself soon enough.

Detectives came to Patarei quite rarely, so there weren’t many interrogations. The spies were called outside more often than others, because it was necessary to get information from them. If such a person failed to give any conclusive replies upon return, it gave more than enough reason to suspect him. When the spy's next "report" was followed by an unexpected raid that resulted in someone’s knife, pencil, or some other dangerous item being uncovered, the spy had betrayed himself.

This happened to a young lad in our cell, who had to face a punishment for what he had done. The men decided to beat his naked back with a long wet towel. It was awful to witness. The punishment was carried out by young and strong farmers, who had been caught with a knife. On the same day, the “cow” was taken away from our cell."

Ülo Uusma (1930–2011), arrested in 1950 at the age of 20, 1950–1955 in forced labour camp

"I was held in the new part of Patarei, in cell number 25. My companions were Artur Rinne, “Ants the Terrible”, doctors, lawyers, farmers, and others. The cell had a fixed agenda. Every newcomer had to give an overview of the latest news in foreign policy and outline what had been written in the press. The days consisted of lectures. Every man spoke about his profession, what he had been reading etc.

A. Rinne was certainly the busiest. As expected, he gave an overview of music history, which he illustrated with singing. After the transfer to the sea-facing side of Patarei, Tuudur Vettik and colonel Olav Mullas were placed in our cell. The latter announced that he is a communist and a mistake had been made. He was ignored. Like all newcomers, he too had to start his cell life by the bucket toilet."

Harik Norralt (1928–2018), arrested in 1946 at the age of 18, 1946–1952 in forced labour camp

"I once ended up in a punishment cell or a so-called “smithy” for a week. Nõu, an assistant to the operative (boss) Kaardimets, invited me to his office. He eventually proposed that I become a “cow”, a spy in the cell. I refused. I got seven days in a punishment cell. /---/ It was cold as hell.   

I had to constantly force myself to excercise to keep warm. When I had been in the cell for seven days, the operative had another word with me. Same result, another seven days. After two weeks in the punishment cell they finally left me alone. In the punishment cell, I was given 300 grams of bread a day. I don’t remember any other food."

Luule-Laine Johanson (1929), arrested in 1945 at the age of 16, 1946–1951 in forced labour camp

"After being busted for using Morse code, I was taken to the punishment cell, where I met people from Võrumaa. I was 16-17 years old during my year and a half stay in Patarei. There were many things that were not allowed in prison, whether I liked them or not. The punishment cell was dark; the floor was made of cement.

I remember taking off my boots and putting them under my head. It was very cold on the cement floor; I had to constantly roll over to avoid one side cooling down too much. We stayed warm by lying close to one another. Later, I was taken to a solitary cell, as there wasn’t enough space for the three of us in the punishment cell. For some reason, there were three of us there as well. /.../

Majority of the solitary cells were for those on death row, waiting for their last minute. Our cell windows opened to the sea. The old building with its big cells stood on the left. It was for prisoners who had already been sentenced and were now waiting for their transfer. Every evening we climbed to the window and sang “Good night, we wish a good night to everyone; the night has come, good night, good night…” Even the guards didn’t stop us."

Vaike Jaaks (Vilta, 1933), arrested in 1949 at the age of 16, 1950–1953 in forced labour camp

"Our cell had political prisoners only, so the situation was much more humane. However, everyone didn’t fit on the bunks in this cell either. A so-called „cow“ was brought in, we uncovered him thanks to various clues. We beat him to a pulp. He yelled so loudly and pounded on the door that the guard had to come and rescue him to take him away from our cell. I and a girl named Silvi were taken to a punishment cell for five days.

The punishment cell was a tiny room without a single window, and a small electric bulb for lighting. The bunk bed was a bare wooden slab, little above the floor. We were given about 200-300 grams of bread and half a litre of hot water a day. /---/

Once a day, we were taken to the toilet, sometimes even twice, if the guard happened to be lenient. There were several punishment cells. Some of them were particularly cruel – so-called cold cells, where one wasn’t allowed to wear any clothes. The longest punishment was a 10-day cell."

Valter Kannik (1926–2011), arrested in 1949 at the age of 23, 1950–1954 in forced labour camp

"I have one slightly fonder memory of the punishment cell. I was nervously pacing in the tiny, cold and damp cell, three steps forward, three steps back. Suddenly, the door hatch opened quietly. I saw the smiling face of a pretty young female guard.

She beckoned me over by the door, handed me a lit cigarette while pressing a finger on her lips, telling me to keep it a secret. It’s amazing that even at a time and place like this one could come across a humane and compassionate angel! She took a great risk. On the other hand, this ruined my plan to quit smoking."