"Sailboat Refugees Arrive" from Life Magazine, 1946

That time my great-great uncle was an illegal immigrant and the West actually responded quite well. (Eventually.)

I’m going to cheat at blogging today and tell a story that isn’t new, and that didn’t actually happen to me, but it’s a good story and it’s a true story and I think you’ll find it interesting. So come gather round and Aunty Zoe will tell you a tale…

Our story starts in 1946, in Sweden, where there were two Estonian brothers, having an argument. We don’t know what exactly they were arguing about, but tradition tells us that it went something like:
“We should get out of Europe, before it all falls to the Soviets.”
“I know, I’ll sail this 38-foot sloop to America. Come with me!”
“You have got to be joking, there is no way I’m going to try and cross the Atlantic in that. Are you crazy? You’re a small-time fisherman in the Gulf of Finland, not a sea captain.”

And the (perhaps more safety-minded) brother ended up taking his family to Australia, in, you know, a real ship. His daughters live there to this day; one of them is my Oma.

As for the crazy brother… Well, until a few years ago the family of the brother who went to Australia only knew vaguely what had happened — that his boat had arrived and his family had settled in the US. But with so many newspaper archives online, it occured to one of them (full credit: my Mum) to have a look and see if anything had been written, maybe in the local newspaper of the city they’d ended up in.

In fact, the story didn’t even need searching in small-town newspaper archives, it appeard in Life magazine, September 23, 1946, an article about a subsequent boatload of refugees. Here we find the dramatic twist that the Estonian boats and their passengers had been denied entry to the US and were “in custody of immigration authorities pending further study.”

You see, these “refugees from Russian political domination” (as Life put it) did not have anywhere near the right documentation to migrate to the US. There was some back-and-forth, which can be summarized mostly as:
Estonians: We’re fleeing the USSR because we agree with you that it’s bad!
American authorities: But we didn’t mean for you to actually do that.
The situation also stirred up public opinion, including one Louise Hurlbutt de Wetter who wrote to the New York Times on September 14, 1946 (subscription required):

“I think there are times when orderly processes have to be dispensed with, and each group judged on its merits and its probable contributions as citizens of our country rather than what they posses in the form of offical documents.
[…] We surely can afford to be more generous and less strangled by red tape. Our country would not be the loser in admitting a group of human beings who have proved their courage and caliber in such a forceful manner.”

After a couple of months, the government accepted the appeal and visas were granted. Cynical me realizes they were well aware of the PR opportunities of accepting refugees from the USSR, but we’ll close the story instead with this rousing extract from an editorial in the New York Times (November 4, 1946, subscription required):

A Victory For Courage

The forty-eight Estonian refugees who wanted so much to live in a free country that they crossed the Atlantic last August and September in three tiny boats can breathe easily today. By Presidential Order they are not to be deported. Like some earlier refugees who crossed in a ship called the Mayflower, they can settle down, become citizens and grow up with the country. No one who admires courage and determination would have been satisfied if President Truman had decided otherwise.

[…] The human impulse can sometimes admirably replace the strict letter of the law. We can be happy that it has done so in this case, and we can confidently expect that this country will be enriched, so long as this Estonian strain holds out, by these adventurous arrivals.

And that, kids, is the story of how my great-great uncle was an illegal immigrant — a boat person, even — and yet somehow didn’t destroy the foundations or prosperity of the West and was even welcomed by the editors of a major newspaper.

Photo credit: Life magazine.

Edit to add: I only had a copy of the text I quoted here, I don’t actually have a NYT subscription, but rumour has it that the final quote was actually a quote from President Truman in a news article, not an editorial. If anyone has a subscription and wants to check that, I’d be happy to make a correction if needed.


3 thoughts on “That time my great-great uncle was an illegal immigrant and the West actually responded quite well. (Eventually.)

  1. bevchen

    How exciting! Your family hi isn’t so interesting :-D

    And a timely reminder to us all that immigration doesn’t mean the end of society as we’re know it. Refugees are people too! (My grandad was imprisoned in a German labour camp during WW2 and sent to the UK after being rescued. Not nearly as dramatic as rowing to America!)



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