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Inspiring Perspective from an Estonian Refugee: Knowing What It’s Like to Not Know

It can be argued that one of the most difficult character traits to impart in children and young adults is an appreciation for one’s condition, especially for those who are less fortunate. There is no doubt that everyone experiences ups and downs, triumphs and pitfalls, but one must also learn from the bad to discover the good. So many today are fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of success or at the very least not be subject to extreme distress. But there is something to be learned in the experiences of those who have seen both the good and the bad of the world – and come out stronger for it.

For students at The Vanguard School, a Pennsylvania Approved Private School for children and young adults, 2-21 years of age with special needs, this is something that teachers and clinical professionals strive to inspire in their students; but the ability and the tact needed to develop a sense of humility and respect is sometimes difficult to achieve. Such is the perspective of Tiia Rettig, a Classroom Teacher at The Vanguard High School for the past 26 years specializing in reading, literature and social studies.

In regards to her philosophy on teaching history, Rettig said, “History isn’t just about studying a date, a battle or a general. It’s about learning what’s really going on, on the ground.”

Rettig holds a very unique perspective as she has lived as a refugee, and survived. In the first Communist occupation of Estonia in 1939, several members of her family were deported to Siberia and the rest went into hiding. When the communists took over in 1944, Rettig (just a little girl at the time) and her family fled Estonia on an oil tanker, one of the last ships leaving Tallin.  That journey was not an easy one. While sailing, Rettig watched torpedoes streak through the waters next to their ship.

Upon arrival, they were put in a Nazi screening camp on the Baltic Sea port of Danzig to ensure they were not Jewish. Because Rettig’s mother’s stepsister was married to a Nazi Officer in Poland, Rettig’s family was allowed to escape to Poland where there were plenty of big cities seeking factory workers.

“So we went to Poland, which was not a good idea,” Rettig said, with humor in her voice. By the winter of 1945, her family was fleeing Poland in horse-drawn wagons. “It was a sight. There was a huge trail with hundreds of horses and wagons, only to end up in Berlin, which was being bombed at the time.”

Her mother’s goal was to keep pushing west toward the French border. “Secretly listening to BBC, we knew the British and the Americans would come,” Rettig recalled, “so we kept moving away from Russia, eventually making our way to a little village in the Harz Mountains in Germany.”

Although the German farmers had managed to hoard a lot of food, Rettig remembers the horrible feeling of constant hunger. When the Americans did make their way to the village, they gave the children food, chocolate and chewing gum. “I was so hungry, I tried to swallow the gum, but was unsuccessful,” Rettig said, with a light in her eyes reflecting true appreciation of what’s she’s lived through. As for the chocolate, American soldiers fed her Milky Way candy bars.  A candy that remains Rettig’s favorite today.

During the later days of the war, the Russians rounded up all the refugees they could, considering the refugees to be their citizens. “Trains did not run, there was no gas for cars—people were stuck,” Rettig remarked.

Her family began cooking for the Americans and, one night, an American officer said, “We’re leaving tomorrow. If you stand by the roadside, we’ll pick you up.”  “There we were,” Rettig said, “riding an American tank to the US zone to a displaced persons camp.” After that, Rettig and her family spent several years in Germany before coming to the United States in 1949, on Christmas Day. As a result of a job opportunity, the family eventually journeyed to Detroit, Michigan.

When her parents came to the United States after World War II, there was a plethora of work and higher education was inexpensive, so much so that Rettig was able to take care of her own tuition by cleaning houses and doing office work. Finally, Rettig and her family were able to enjoy a great amount of success.

“It is much tougher for the immigrants coming today,” Rettig stated. “My parents were fortunate; we came at a time when it was much more prosperous.”

“My father always used to say, ‘The only treasure you have is what you’ve learned, because you can lose everything else in a flash.’” Inspired by her father’s words, Rettig completed her Master’s in Special Education at West Chester University.  She is committed to creating an exceptional learning experience for her students and imparting a sense of independence and ownership–giving her students the understanding that what’s here today could be gone tomorrow.

One of the greatest sources of fear, according to Rettig’s outlook, is the fear of the unknown. Rettig commented, “See right now in Serbia, refugees leaving that area don’t know what happens next. You can walk out of your house and never come back. That can be paralyzing.”

Rettig puts this global outlook into her lessons—finding commonalities and weaving humanity into key moments of all her classes. Employing this sense of commentary, influenced by her personal experiences, lends itself well to this undertaking. “To be able to say I know the sounds of different bomber airplanes that would fly over my house and what it is like to run and stand in a doorway so your house doesn’t fall on you, these are the sort of strange fears our children cannot conceive.”

Perhaps through such inspiring statements, students can be motivated to think beyond the curriculum to understand the experiences of others, gain appreciation for their own conditions and take action to ensure they are equipped to deal with whatever curve ball life throws their way.

“Assuming responsibility and doing things very well with a sense of personal pride is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had. To be able to do nothing to change perilous conditions or the fact that you’re starving helps you appreciate the opportunities you have to effect change and secure the best future possible for yourself and your family,” Rettig concluded.

After decades of teaching, Rettig is set to retire from The Vanguard School at the end of the 2015-16 academic year. She is looking forward to gardening, swimming and enjoying the beautiful New York State countryside with her grandchildren.


J. Jaffe