The story of the Baltic University
(Premiere 18th of October 2015, Toronto Estdocs festival)
a film project by Helga Merits.
'(...) Our institution will be recorded by history, the reason being that it is unique. Refugees usually have not the mental spirit to create a university, but we had the spirit and therefor, our institution can be regarded as a historical event. (...)'
Information Bulletin Baltic University, 13 December 1947.
In 1947 they thought that historians would investigate the Baltic University even after many, many years. But it turned out to be otherwise: the archive seemed to be lost, the buildings destroyed by fire and the institute almost forgotten.
But not totally: there are still people who have a memory of this special university, whose career started right there in Hamburg, who have pictures, documents and stories to tell. It is not yet too late to ask witnesses to tell about this remarkable institute, the students and fraternities. It is still possible to make a documentary film.
I'm a journalist and documentary maker. I came across the subject of the Baltic University when I went through all the papers of my Estonian father. I found his study book of the Baltic University and also a small dairy. In this dairy he wrote that he was so happy to leave the depressing refugee camp and start a new life. He studied only for a short period of time at the university as he got TB and had to spent almost three years at a sanatorium. When he came out the university didn't exist any longer and students had emigrated.
Nonetheless I was curious to find out more about this Baltic University and when I once came across a text of Mr Robert Riggle, an American working for UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), I realised I wanted to do something with this subject:
As a former University Professor I knew only too well the complications of University life and the problems of its administration functioning in normal communities in times of piece and plenty. But the idea of daring to attempt to create a University in de midst of chaos, when even the necessities of life were hard to come by, was the kind of exaggerated adventure to which a man cannot say no.
For Mr Riggle it was an adventure, for the academic staff it was about their work, their life, their future.
It was in the summer of 1945 when Latvian professors in the refugee camp of Lübeck were thinking of starting a university, as it was difficult for refugees to obtain a place at a German University. Professors from Estonia and Lithuania joined and it became a Baltic enterprise.
The planning committee started to work under most difficult conditions: there was no housing available, no equipment, no pens, papers, chairs, desks... There was just an idea. What was achieved within three months was spectacular: a functioning university with eight faculties with 17 departments. In March 1946 the Baltic University opened it's doors. The British Military Government was in favour of a university for displaced persons and so were the first UNRRA representatives. But soon after the University opened it's doors the first problems began.
The university existed only for three years but the effect upon the students was long lasting. As some former students wrote or told me:
'As for many others, my hopes for academic studies were fulfilled when BU opened. This is where my academic career started.'
'I was young, anxious, uncertain in some ways and the university provided a warm environment. As a result of the Baltic University I have had a good, a pleasant, life.'
I have started to work on a documentary film to show the hope, courage and determination of staff and students, but also what can be achieved, even in most difficult circumstances, with different nationalities, who speak different languages and have a different background, if there is a common goal. I do think the story of the Baltic University is a story we all can learn from.
The film will be ready September 2015.