In her 94 years she has seen occupations, wars, tragedy, compassion, and the triumph of humanity over hardship.
Invermere resident, Leida Peepre, grew up among the ancient architecture of coastal Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. But her carefree childhood and teen years spent playing within the 13th century city were cut short by the dark shadow of imminent occupation.
During the Second World War, the Soviet Union blockaded Tallinn’s port and on June 14th, 1940, aerial bomber patrols began to fill the skies above the city.
The Soviets demanded that Estonia agree to allow them to create military bases in the country and install a pro-Soviet government. Under the threat of invasion, the administration of Jüri Uluots agreed to the Russian terms and resigned the country to Soviet control.
Life under the occupation was tough and dissent with the ruling regime was not tolerated, Leida said. “So many were killed by the Russians at the time or deported,” she said. “Anybody they picked up from the street, including women and children, they sent with no food on train cars to Siberia. They used cattle cars with nothing but a hole at the bottom for a toilet. Men, women, children, teenagers — as many as could fit in these cars they shipped to Siberia to work camps.”
Although she escaped the Soviet cattle cars, Leida was not left untouched by the Sovietization of her country. “I finished high school in 1937 and there was no question that I wouldn’t go to university,” she said. “I got into university, but I was kicked out when the Russians came because of my father.”
Leida’s father was a factory foreman. Although not a rich man, his work had provided the capital to invest in a car, which at the time gave him a slightly elevated status within his community. “The Russians said, ‘You are a bloodsucker because you have a car and your neighbour doesn’t!’” Leida said.
Through the gloom of occupation the tough young woman did manage to find one shining light. She met physical education guru and champion Estonian skier, Alexander ‘Sass’ Peepre. Their romance led to the couple’s marriage in 1940, when Leida was only 21. They soon had their first daughter, Mari, a year later.
The honeymoon was short-lived as the German Army invaded Russia in June, 1941, and reached Estonia in July that same year. The Estonians welcomed the Germans at first because they believed them to be liberators from oppressive Soviet rule, Leida said. The darker intentions of the new occupiers soon became apparent to the Peepres. In 1942, Sass was working as a physical education instructor for the Tallinn Sports Authority, which was under Nazi control at the time.
“During the first days of April we heard on the radio that Alexander ‘Sass’ Peepre was asking all young Estonian athletes to enlist in the German army to fight the Soviets,” Leida said. “Sass didn’t want to be responsible for the fake message and escaped by boat from Estonia to Finland a few days later to join the Finnish army.” Leida was left behind with the couple’s five-month-old daughter and found herself the focus of Nazi attention.
“About one week later my apartment was searched very thoroughly by German police,” she told The Pioneer. “They interviewed me at home and also at the German police station.”
The Nazi authorities demanded to know the whereabouts of Leida’s husband, but she remained silent and was banned from leaving Tallinn as a result. Although she only knew the beach that Sass had escaped from, she told her fellow countrymen, and it was enough to help dozens of Estonians leave the country. The men that she sent to the beach never returned.
“One evening in late September a scary looking man with only one eye arrived at my door,” she said. “He wanted to meet the lady who was sending him men all summer for transport to Finland.” Leida had never met the local fisherman who had been transporting the Estonian refugees, but a mutual trust was created and the two forged a plan to continue their secret operation. The smuggling of refugees worked until word about the plan became too widespread.
Leida and the fisherman organized for 24 men to be smuggled out of the country in a large transport truck. She ordered a travel permit for the men from the Tallinn Transportation Commission so they could act as labourers working to pull two buses out of a ditch. But as word spread that each of the 24 men had arrived safely in Finland, Leida’s operation, and her life, were put at risk.
“Towards the end of November the Tallinn Police Chief contacted me because he knew that the order would soon be given to arrest me,” Leida said. “I would be sent to an SS camp because they wanted blonde women.”
At 23 years old, and with an infant daughter to care for, Leida was forced to flee in secret with an Estonian lieutenant and six men who had escaped from the German Army. Early in December 1942, the group set off for Finland by hiking through the snowy forest outside Tallinn and catching a ride with the Estonian fisherman. “My mother had made a sheepskin bag for Mari and I was carrying her in a sheet around my neck, which helped to keep her warm,” she said. “The three kilometers through deep snow was the hardest walk of my life.”
When they reached the beach, a small rowboat ferried them out to a larger fishing vessel that was hidden out of sight behind a cliff. Despite the cover of darkness, the bright snow lit up the area and made the party stand out. The sea was rough that evening with light snow, which made it harder for both Soviet and German patrols to spot them, Leida explained. After a short while on the boat, disaster struck. The engine gave out, leaving them floating aimlessly in the Gulf of Finland.
But luck was on the side of the small drifting dot in the blackness of the northern winter ocean. The engine eventually restarted and after several hours the group made it to Finland. There they were picked up by the Finnish Border Patrol and moved to a refugee camp close to Helsinki. That was the last Leida saw of the fisherman, who she estimates helped about 2,000 people escape from Estonia during the war.
“I never knew his name. I only know that he was shot in 1944 by the Russians when he was planning his last trip to Finland with some men who were hiding in the forest,” she said. “He was going to take his mother, but she was also killed.”
After spending several days in Helsinki recovering from a sickness she had acquired during her escape, Leida received word from her husband that he had arranged a home for the family with a Finnish ski manufacturer. She moved in with the Rossis and made a small home for herself and her daughter. Bombing of Helsinki during Finland’s war with Russia forced the family to move to their summer cottage. Leida made the most of the experience, living with her daughter in the changing room of the family’s sauna.
She was finally reunited with her husband on September 22nd, 1944. The war in Finland had ended and Leida’s family was forced to move again.
“One of the agreements that Finland agreed to with Russia was to send Estonians in the country to Siberia,” she said. “About 3,000 Estonians went to Rauma to try to escape to Sweden. The Finnish government organized their train tickets and broadcast on the radio that every Finn with a boat should collect at Rauma and take people to Sweden.”
The family had only two days to get out of Finland because the Russian army was very close, Leida added. When the Peepre family reached Rauma they were greeted by thousands of small fishing boats. “We were among 842 people packed on to a boat named Venus,” Leida said. “We were told that there would be food and water on board, but there was nothing.” The voyage to Sweden was supposed to take five hours, but a horrendous storm and a faulty motor caused the trip to take two days and nights.
The group finally spotted the rocky Swedish coast and was picked up by the Coast Guard. They had arrived 800 kilometres further north in Sweden than they had planned, Leida said. At their second refugee home, the Peepres had to live in a schoolhouse for several months. The family made their last big move in 1950 after a Swedish ski manufacturer suggested the rugged country of Canada.
“I liked everything about the country right away,” Leida said. The family settled in Toronto and Sass, Leida’s husband, immediately applied for a job at the YMCA as a janitor. After finishing his daily duties, Sass would teach the young men fitness tips at the facility. The instruction from the Estonian did not go unnoticed by management. Soon, the YMCA asked Sass to work as a physical trainer.
The fitness expert eventually garnered the attention of the University of Guelph, who hired him as a physical education instructor. Sass used his skills learned while working as a soldier in the Finnish Armed Forces during the Second World War to bring the sport of orienteering to Canada. He is known as the ‘Father of Orienteering’ in Canada and was honoured with an Achievement Award by the Government of Ontario for his dedication to athleticism and physical education.
“I can be very proud of my family,” Leida said. The Peepres have three children, Juri, Mari, and Mall. Sass tragically passed away from brain cancer and Mall also succumbed to the illness a few years later. But Leida takes solace in her five grandchildren, of whom she is very proud, she said. Although unable to complete her education due to the turmoil in her home country, Leida instilled a passion for knowledge in each of her three children. “I was told that I was a pushy person with education, but it was because I never got my full education, which was my dream,” Leida said.
Every Peepre child has attained a masters degree or PhD since the couple came to Canada. Leida’s son, Juri, lives in the valley with his wife Sarah. Their son, Alex, is currently working towards his own post-secondary education. When asked how she maintains her health and happiness at 94 years old, Leida explained a simple solution. “You have to work hard, talk a lot, and enjoy your life,” she said, “because it doesn’t matter what you can, or can’t, afford, as long as you’re happy.”