Recollections of the Holocaust: Jasper woman’s story featured in ‘Postcards’
JASPER — As she sits in her rocker, occasionally gazing out her window overlooking the front lawn of Sunrise Village in Jasper, Aino Lavoie shares an incredible “Coming to America” story — a story of tested strength, willpower and determination, of family separation and separation from her homeland.
Aino (pronounced ‘I know’) was born and raised in Estonia, the oldest of Hildagard Grossberg’s two daughters. She never knew her father, yet had a close family with aunts, uncles and grandparents all watching out for each other during the unsettling times leading up to World War II.
Estonia, bordered by Russia on the east, Latvia to the south and Finland across the Baltic Sea to the north, had been taken over by the Russian military when Aino was a child, and then was controlled by Germany for a few years leading into World War II.
The country became a victim of war, and Estonians sought escape any way they could.
While under Russian control, many Estonian people were taken to Siberia, including Aino’s grandparents, her aunts, cousins and her younger sister, Helju. Aino and her mom fled west.
“We went through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland with hopes the war would end and we could go back,” Aino shared. “It didn’t happen like that.”
While in Lithuania, Aino and her mother had a chance to take a ship to Germany or to travel by train. Not fond of the water, Aino, then 14, pleaded to take the train.
“We later heard the ship went down,” said Aino, though her own fate wasn’t easy. While traveling through Poland, she and her mother were captured by Nazi soldiers. They were packed into cattle cars and sent down the railroad tracks to work camps.
Aino told of how the Nazis separated their captives — the Jews were sent to concentration (death) camps, and the non-Jews like Aino and her mother were sent to work for the Germans.
“We went through several concentration camps,” said Aino, who ended up in western Germany.
Nazi soldiers shaved the heads of their captives, and Aino said they were given very little to eat — usually one meal a day of soup, potato peelings and a slice of bread.
“We lived in barracks and all we had to cover up was one blanket,” she said. “Some of the people that they captured were farmers, and they snuck food that they kind of hid.”
Because they were doing work for the Germans, the captives received advanced warning — the sounding of sirens — anytime they were in danger. When the sirens sounded, they’d hide in bomb shelters.
Aino recalled the last time the sirens sounded and she and her mother went to the bomb shelter. They were the only ones there.
“We couldn’t figure out why us two were there and no one else came,” Aino recalled. “Then we found out it was the end of the war and the sirens were going off (in celebration).”
At the end of the war, the Red Cross welcomed people of all nationalities into its camp, including Aino and her mother. The Red Cross provided them with food, helped them search for their families and connected them with sponsors to relocate to another country and a new lease on life.
“We tried to see if we could get ahold of some of my family, but we didn’t have any luck,” Aino said. Little did she know the rest of her family was held captive in Siberia — her only family, as her mother died before they could resettle.
Through contact with an Orthodox priest and his family while housed by the Red Cross, Aino had hoped to travel with them to California, but a legal adoption didn’t happen fast enough and she had to stay behind. Her wait was only four months.
At age 19, Aino left Germany via ship, bound for Boston, Mass. From there, she took a train to Chicago and then on to Minneapolis, where she was met by the Rev. Charlie Sumption of Ruthton. Sumption and his wife, Anna, sponsored Aino’s trip and brought her to their home in southwest Minnesota.
Aino found work — and soon found a husband in the Sumption’s son, Kenny.
Aino and Kenny settled in 1960 in Russell, where they raised their three daughters, Rita, Lilah and Peggy.
Aino, who had learned some English while growing up, quickly caught on to the American way of life. Her Swedish mother-in-law taught her to cook and bake, and she was so intrigued by wringer washing machines that she insisted on doing it herself instead of teaching her three daughters.
“My mom was always a hard, hard worker,” Lilah shared, noting that at one time after she became a single parent, Aino worked three jobs to provide for her girls.
“One Christmas we had meatloaf for supper and red Jell-O with whipped cream,” Lilah recalled. Her mom didn’t have any money for Christmas gifts for the girls, but gave them a package of mints.
“That was the best Christmas,” Lilah said. “We didn’t care — we just wanted to be with the family.”Finding family
Rita, Lilah and Peggy grew up hearing their mother’s stories. So when Lilah was working in Pipestone and a group of international guests visited the college campus, she asked offhand if any of them were from her mother’s homeland of Estonia.
She was shocked and excited to find an Estonian in the group. After telling him the story of her mother, he vowed to return home and help her search for any family that may have returned following the war.
“He found he only lived 30 miles from my great-uncle Paul and great-aunt Heine,” Lilah said. “When he told them Aino was alive and in America, they just cried and cried.”
Aino received her first letter from her Estonian family shortly thereafter. In the summer of 1994, she and her three daughters travelled to Estonia for a visit.
“She got to see her sister for the first time in 50 years,” Lilah said.
Helju had no telephone and no way of knowing her sister was on her way. They showed up in a caravan of vehicles, and Lilah said her aunt was living in a small shack and came out to meet them wearing a housecoat.
“She started cursing at my mom, saying ‘I am a sister and you leave to America and leave me here,’” Lilah recalled. Then, she opened her arms and welcomed Aino to her home.
They had just three hours to visit, and Aino brought pictures and gifts to share.
Lilah said they were so thankful for the few hours they had together. Helju died six months after their visit, on Jan. 12, 1995.
Aino was also reunited with an aunt, Heine, who now resides in an assisted living facility in Estonia, as well as numerous other cousins.
During the 1994 trip, and again in 2000, Aino and her daughters had their entire visits coordinated by their cousin, Juri.
“Juri owned Agfa film,” shared Lilah, adding that he wrote a book about his family and hosted a huge family reunion in 2012, which Rita and Lilah attended. During that reunion, they visited the family burial plot and the family farm, which was eventually given back to them after the war.
“We broke out champagne and flew the Estonia flag,” Lilah said.
Aino, at 87, couldn’t make the last journey to her homeland. In 2011 she moved to Edgerton, and earlier this year moved to Jasper.
Aino shared her story with Pioneer Public Television last November while visiting the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum in Granite Falls. The museum includes an exhibit on the Holocaust, with a boxcar similar to the one Aino and her mother rode in after they were captured by the Nazis in Poland.
Pioneer Public Television will air Aino’s story as part of their Postcards segment at 7 p.m. Sunday and 1:30 p.m. Monday; or visit pioneer.org/postcards. The original airing was Thursday night.