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 An Established Estonian

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Alumnus Recounts the Path from WWII Frontlines to Duluth

Paul Vesterstein '53. (See more photos below)
Paul Vesterstein with the former President of the Republic of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel in Duluth in 1991.

This year, 2011, the Republic of Estonia celebrates its 93rd anniversary. It is also the 20th anniversary of reclaiming its independence and thus ending the decades-long Soviet occupation. It recently adopted the Euro, and its government is an example of the power of free and fair elections.

As the world celebrates the tremendous progress Estonia has made since the end of the Cold War, Duluth businessman and UMD alumnus Paul Vesterstein '53, recounted his experiences as a boy soldier, fighting for Estonian independence. Vesterstein was 15 years old on July 27, 1944 when the Germans expelled Soviet forces out of Tallinn and began a brief occupation of Estonia. Vesterstein joined a group of pro-independence Estonian troops who wanted to defend their country against the looming Soviet reannexation. "I wasn't drafted," he said. "I joined up because I was fighting for Estonia's freedom." The Estonian troops aided a German army detachment which was holding back the Soviet front. Vesterstein and a friend were among the 3,500 young conscripts who manned anti-aircraft guns captured from the Russians. They also protected an oil-shale refinery.

When the Soviets entered the country by capturing Narva on July 26, 1944, Vesterstein’s military commander told the young men to take whatever they could carry because the Germans were going to blow up the storage facility to prevent supplies from falling into Russian hands. “I took about 20 pounds of chocolate from the warehouse,” Vesterstein said. “I filled my backpack.” Vesterstein crossed into Latvia with his military group and not long after, on September 22, Tallinn fell once again to the Soviets.

In October 1944, Vesterstein’s convoy of military trucks ended in Liepaja, Latvia, a city on the Baltic coast. Vesterstein and a young Austrian skier friend, Karl Petter, were bound for Germany. Petter was on board a Red Cross ship, sitting in port and Vesterstein was nearby when they saw Russian planes approaching. Vesterstein had enough time to dive under a railcar before bombs dropped on the ship. Thankfully, Petter wasn't hurt. The bombing delayed Vesterstein’s voyage to Germany until November when his convoy crossed the Baltic Sea.

Vesterstein traveled whereever a worker was needed. In Barsdorf-Trach, Germany, he worked on a farm. “Once, during a snowstorm,” Vesterstein said, “I carried an accordion almost two miles for the local Burgermeister.” In Schonau, Germany, Vesterstein worked in a converted motorcycle factory, making ammunition. He watched as the Allies bombed Chemnitz, a mere nine miles away.

By April 1945, before the war ended, Vesterstein left Chemnitz and boarded a train bound for a displaced person’s camp. Millions of refugees were far from their homes and Allies had begun setting up camps for them. For two weeks, Vesterstein’s train went north, south, east, and west, avoiding the Soviets, until it finally reached Augsburg, Germany. They pulled up next to a big supply train guarded by Allied soldiers with rifles. “Our train was filled with hungry Estonians,” Versterstein said. “We could see their food stores under tarps, just a few feet away. The guards looked at us for a few minutes and then walked to the other side of the train. They just let us take what we wanted. I got a case of grapefruit juice.”

The war ended, but Vesterstein’s adventures weren’t over.

Returning to Soviet Estonia meant imprisonment in Siberia or even death. Vesterstein remained in Augsburg. There 2,700 Estonians and many others were housed in a Displaced Person’s Camp. It was a former Messerschmitt fighter plane factory and had been heavily bombed. Some floors of buildings were serviceable, others were just piles of jumbled bricks, burned wood, and cracked concrete. The residents ate in a common room and took turns in the kitchen and cleaning up. “Within months we had a school in the attic of one of the buildings,” Vesterstein said. “The only books were the ones the professor had. The room was lit by one light bulb hanging from the ceiling.”

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, later the International Refugee Organization and the Red Cross took over the management of the camps in Europe. From spring 1945 until the summer of 1949, Vesterstein lived at the Augsburg camp where he finished high school.

A young Estonian woman, Helgi Tonnison, who had met Vesterstein in the camp, had an uncle who worked at the Hemlock Garage on Fourth Street in Duluth. She contacted her uncle and asked if he could help Vesterstein. At that time, YMCAs and the Red Cross were finding homes around the world for displaced persons. Tonnison's uncle contacted Duluth YMCA director Bill Hansen. Hansen offered to sponsor Vesterstein and give him a job at the YMCA.

Vesterstein thought he was to become an accountant for the YMCA in Duluth, so he brushed up on bookkeeping practices. When he arrived in the summer of 1949, he found out his new job, "counter clerk," meant he worked at the YMCA recreation counter, distributing athletic equipment. That summer he became a counselor at Camp Miller, and soon after that, a swimming instructor.

Vesterstein enrolled at UMD in the fall of 1950. “My friends kept telling me I should go to UMD,” he said. “The language was tough at first. I walked through the halls with a dictionary in one hand and a textbook in the other.” Vesterstein kept his job at the YMCA. “Every day I would go to school, then I’d go to work, and then I'd study for my classes till two or three in the morning. It was round-the-clock.”

After Vesterstein settled into the college routine, he found time to participate in track and cross-country skiing, a sport he enjoyed as a boy. His ski team did well. “No one had ever heard of our team,” he said. “We surprised them all and came in second place at the national championships in Utah.” Vesterstein made many friends at UMD. They nicknamed him “The Count.” He graduated from UMD in 1953 with a degree in physical education with minors in health education and mathematics.

After graduating, he continued to work at the YMCA as physical education director, program director, and acting general secretary but eventually Vesterstein’s experience on UMD’s ski team propelled him into a new adventure. He entered the ski equipment business. “A lot of the things that happened to me weren’t planned,” he said. He came from a skiing family. His father was a furniture manufacturer in Estonia and made skis on the side. Vesterstein’s older brother had won 14 Estonian national slalom championships. “Because I had some contacts in Germany, I was able to get ski equipment that was a little better, and a little faster. My friends asked me to order similar equipment for them.”

Vesterstein began importing skis. “When I could see there was a strong market, I rounded up $1000 each from six friends and opened Continental Ski Shop.” It became one of the largest ski importers in the area and settled into its current location in 1971. Paul taught skiing at Mont du Lac, and he launched a travel business. He chartered planes to Colorado. As many as 200 skiers would travel on tours to the resorts at Vail, Sun Valley, Snowmass, Copper, and Keystone.

For over three years, Vesterstein lost track of his family in Estonia. “They didn't know I was alive, and I didn't know how many of them were alive until 1947,” he said. That’s when a friend's mother saw a picture of Vesterstein’s brother in a Mexican magazine. Soon he located his three brothers and a sister all living in Estonia. “Luckily my parents were still alive, and they had escaped the terrors of the Soviet occupation,” Vesterstein said.

Family, business, and UMD have played strong roles in Vesterstein’s life. He and his wife, Joy, have five children, Lisa, Karl, Kirk, Marc, and Scott. His business ventures have taken him from hotels, to real estate, to serving as the North American importer of the renowned Estonia Piano Company. Vesterstein hosted the then President of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel, and Rüütel's wife, Ingrid, on a state visit to UMD in 1991. Vesterstein also served on the UMD alumni board of directors, including a term as president. He presented the UMD commencement address in 1993 and twice received the Distinguished Alumni Award.

Estonia still calls to Vesterstein. He has returned many times, and he is currently helping to organize the first UMD student trip to Estonia in May 2011.

Written by Cheryl Reitan.

child camp boat
Paul Vesterstein, scout uniform (l), in Estonia with his mother, his nephew, and his brother, Karl (r).
Vesterstein (jumping) playing volleyball at the displaced person's camp in Augsburg, Germany.
Vesterstein on his way from Germany to Duluth, Minn. on a ship.

ymca shirt campmiller ski trip
In Duluth.
As a camp counselor.
Vesterstein (r) with a group on a Colorado ski trip.

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