Scarred books in Estonia

In 1944 Soviet troops advanced into Estonia, and tens of thousands of people fled their homes, many travelling into exile in Sweden and German. Before they fled, many buried their family treasures and valuables for safekeeping, possibly anticipating only a short exile before returning home.  Mats Burström’s short book Treasured Memories describes the attempts by the children and descendants of these exiles to recover their family’s possessions, often more than half a century later. The burial of valuables in times of danger or uncertainty has a long pedigree in Estonian society and elsewhere, and Burström describes the families searching for buried heirlooms such as silverware, glassware and even telephones in landscapes transformed beyond recognition.

Burstrom book cover

Alongside treasures buried for their monetary value there were other items – including guns and paramilitary uniforms – which could have implicated their owners in anti-Soviet activity. Buried alongside these more violent objects were artefacts of cultural resistance: Estonian books. While some books were buried to protect them from destruction, according to Burström:

The books that according to the stories were buried were largely the sort that were forbidden by the Soviet authorities … The forbidden books that feature most often in the stories are history books – both world history in general and Estonian history in particular – and reference books, usually in Estonian. The Soviet ban was part of a campaign to eradicate Estonian identity and nationhood. (Burström 2012: 107)

Burström discusses a four-volume history of the world in Estonian – published in the 1930s and entitled Üldine Ajalugu – bought second hand in Tallinn in 1996 by Toomas Petmanson from a middle-aged man whose relative had buried them in 1944. The burial of the books as the Soviet army advanced into Estonia was used to explain the water damage and generally decrepit state of the books, which Petmanson – who treats the books as precious artefacts of Estonia’s past – regards as “the scars that witness to the books’ own history” (Burström 2012: 89). As Burström points out,

The hiding of books can be read as a way of protecting the works on the shelf that would probably have been the most expensive to buy, but also as an act of defiance: even if you did not dare to leave to the books on the shelf, you refused to accept the eradication of written Estonian history, the sum of Estonian knowledge, and the Estonian language. (Burström 2012: 107)

The burial of books for their protection, to conceal them from discovery and potential destruction, links the Estonian texts to the paperback belonging to the anonymous prisoner in Stalag Luft III, and arguably to John Dee’s manuscript books. Like these other buried books, the Estonians consigning their literary and historical treasures to the ground risked punishment if found in possession of the texts. Given the widespread practice of burying possessions in wartime Estonia it is not unlikely that more books will be unearthed in the future.


Burström, M. 2012. Treasured Memories: Tales of Buried Belongings in Wartime Estonia. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

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