Estonians — what’s wrong with them?

There is an “old” saying among journalists in the Estonian media: If you want people to click on the headlines of the news you publish, have one of these words in the title: “blacks”, “gays” or “Jews.” The online media has stuck to this rule since it became the mainstream news source.

Not long ago, the most-read news portal Delfi published a news story titled “A hundred-year-old black driver hit schoolchildren on a sidewalk.” G-d only knows what was the relevance of the driver’s race in that context.

Articles that have the words “gay” or “homosexual” in their title are also very popular. “Why are those faggots whining all the time?” writes the average Estonian online news consumer. “These a**-f*ckers should all go back to the closet.” These are among the mildest comments to these articles.

The Jewish question

When a newspaper or a portal publishes news about Jews o rIsrael, it’s better to save your nerves and not read the comments. For example, in 2004, a commenter wrote, “Jews to the oven!” in response to an article. He was subsequently prosecuted and fined EEK 3,000 (about USD 150) for his outburst; unfortunately, the entire internet became a popular movement in protection of his “freedom of speech” — about 99% of the comments whenever either the case or the idiot were mentioned were supportive of the idiot.

It’s somewhat surprising for a country that was one of the first in the world to introduce a law on the cultural autonomy of minorities. That happened in 1925, and the local Jewish community, then 3,045-strong, was the first to take advantage of the new law. Jewish cultural societies, schools and shuls were established and Jewish life flourished. Unfortunately, that all came to an end in 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied Estonia and deported tens of thousands of people, among them hundreds of Jews, to Siberia.

Then, in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the country and almost all of the remaining Jews were murdered. Of about the 1,000 Jews that had remained in the country in the wake of the occupations, less than 10 survived the Shoah (the grandfather of this writer included).Estoniawas declared “Judenfrei.”

Nazi collaborators

As in all Nazi-occupied countries, tens of local collaborators helped the Nazis to execute the Final Solution inEstonia. They participated in rounding up Jews and sending them to concentration camps both inEstoniaand abroad. Some of them looted and stole Jewish property, and some took part in mass murders of the local Jewry. Moreover, some participated in such atrocities also abroad.

After the Nazi occupation, the Soviets returned and didn’t leave for almost 60 years. During the Soviet occupation, the Estonian Jewry started growing again, but in these decades, religion and traditions weren’t encouraged, quite the contrary. The first time the Estonian Jewry could start again rebuilding itself was after 1992 when theSoviet Unioncollapsed and the country regained its independence.

Not a single prosecution

Now, the country has a lot to be proud of.Estoniais a member of the European Union and NATO. It’s part of the ever-failing eurozone, but economically in a very good shape, at least compared with the rest of the euro area. Its national debt is the lowest in the entire European Union, and the current austerity-minded government has done such a good job that they were voted back in power amid the crisis. According to the polls, they also have nothing to fear.

But during these 20 years after the Soviet occupation,Estoniahas failed to prosecute a single Nazi war criminal. My friend Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) and a frequent writer on The Times of Israel, has presented the Estonian authorities numerous evidence, countless documents and testimony, and all supposed investigations have lead to a dead end.

For this writer, someone who lived there 27 years and has afterwards observed the country from abroad, it’s evident that it’s not the lack of evidence that has hindered the investigations into the atrocities committed during the Shoah. It’s the complete lack of political will to see these cases through. These “investigations” that the Estonian prosecutors have opened have lasted years and have all ended in shambles. Harry Männil, a rich Estonian-Venezuelan businessman against whom there was compelling evidence of his participation in the Shoah, was declared innocent and he was allowed to die of old age in Costa Rica. Mikhail Gorshkow, stripped of hisUScitizenship because of his collaboration with the Nazis, has been accused of participating in mass murder of Jews inSlutsk,Belarus. The investigation into his actions was closed in 2011: according to the prosecutors, there was a “possibility” that more than one person with the surname Gorshkow collaborated with the Nazis.

Like the leaders, the people

We usually believe that prosecutors are impartial in their work and, most of the time, they definitely are. The prosecutors inEstoniahave, are, and will be prosecuting the members of the government when they’re suspected of illegal activity. But if your boss insinuates that the subject of your investigation is not really to be investigated, then what do you do?

And if for twenty years the authorities’ official line has been that no Estonian is guilty of any war crimes during the Shoah, what are the people to believe? If every single time when the Nazi hunters send a press release or give an interview, every government official and prosecutor downplays everything they say or assert, who are the people going to side with?

The media unfortunately exacerbates the sentiment. News aboutIsraeland the Holocaust are often, if not always, biased, published most of the time to earn clicks. Nobody deletes offensive, derogatory comments and that sends a clear message. In the light of this, it’s not at all surprising that a gas company decides to advertise itself with a photo of the gate of Auschwitz, or that a newspaper publishes a fake ad on their “humor pages” saying, “Dr. Mengele’s weight-loss pills work miracles on you.”

Lack of empathy

This writer doesn’t believe that Estonians hate Jews. But he does believe that the role models of the Estonian nation are extremely poor when it comes to evaluating anyone else’s views than their own. It’s a complete lack of empathy that has infected a nation when so many people can’t see further from their own back yards.

When the international Holocaust Memorial Day was introduced inEstoniain 2003, the outcry was loud and clear: “It has nothing to do withEstonia.” When the Estonian media publishes any news about the Shoah or Nazi war criminals, the comments say, “I have nothing against Jews; it’s news like this that make me hate the lot.”

As Alla Yacobson, a spokesperson of the Estonian Jewish Community, recently pointed out,Estoniaand its people are in a crisis of morality. It’s going to take a very, very long time for these attitudes to change, but they won’t before the role models change theirs.

About the Author
Sten Hankewitz is a former long-time Estonian journalist currently residing in Chicago, IL.