Hilda Katariina Säkk née Kärner

My hobby really is like a box of chocolates, I never know what I’m going to get! When I found this CDV in an Estonian antique store, I picked it, despite its damaged state, because it was identified. I never ever expected this story to unfold!

The girl was Hilda-Katariina Kärner, 7 years old in the photo. I think little Hilda was very excited to have her photo taken and she wanted to look extra pretty for the special occasion. She slept in braids, so that she could have crimped hair for her photo.

Hilda-Katariina was born on February 26 (new calendar: March 11), 1904, in Narva-Alutaguse in Estonia. Her mother Lisa Kärner was unmarried at the time. In 1908, her mother married Aleksander Säkk and Hilda became an older sister to lots of siblings to play with.

Hilda married Nikolai Säkk in the 1920s. Hilda’s stepfather and Nikolai were perhaps distant relatives who shared a surname, and maybe this was how Hilda met Nikolai. Nikolai was 7 years older, born on September 12, 1897.

And now get this, Hilda and Nikolai’s three children were born in Brazil! But in 1955, Nikolai passed away in Estonia, and Hilda 24 years later also in Estonia. That’s intriguing, I had to find out more!

I found Hilda and Nikolai on a passenger list of the vessel “Formose” in October 1925, sailing from Hamburg in Germany to Santos in Brazil. With them, at least 100 other families from Estonia, all travelling to the same destination. Estonia and Brazil – over 11.000 km apart on opposite sides of the globe, two countries that could not be more different! Climate, temperament, language, food are just a few major differences. Why did the young couple expatriate to Brazil, and when did they get back?

I then found an interesting research paper by Sander Jürisson online, on Estonians who had expatriated to Brazil. Turns out that Brazil, especially Sao Paulo, had been a popular destination for Estonians since 1905; 1627 Estonians emigrated to Brazil in 1925 alone, and 60% of all expats in 1925 made Brazil their new home. Land in Estonia was scarce (it’s a tiny country!), but owning land was the biggest dream and motivation for many. And Brazil offered that. Brazilian economy was growing rapidly due to coffee plantations, Brazil was supplying 30% of the world’s coffee beans by then. The Brazilian government looked towards Europe for importing labour force, even offering to pay for their travel expenses.

Perhaps this inspired Hilda and Nikolai. Perhaps the young couple dreamt of a piece of land to own, a steady job with income and were curious to see the world. So they set sail in October 1925. In December 1926 their son Juliano Vergilio was born in Brazil, son Pilvo-Dulio and daughter Virve-Ivika followed in 1929 and 1936.

But when and why did they come back? The same research paper mentions that homesickness and rough conditions were the main reasons why some Estonians wished to return. But by not having enough means to finance the ocean passage for the whole family, they couldn’t. In January 1938, the Estonian government introduced a special credit line to those wishing to return to help finance their travel costs. And guess what – Hilda and Nikolai with their 3 children were among the first to return in August 1938! There was even a newspaper article about the event, including a photo of the Säkks (the middle photo below) – up to 400 relatives received them and their fellow-returnees that Saturday morning with flowers and hugs and kisses.

The initial exhilaration soon wore off as the returnees were confronted with the difficult job market situation, even discrimination on part of the employers. Finding work was difficult for Nikolai as well. But if I’m not mistaken, a new baby arrived soon and that event surely brightened up their days.

We know what happened next. In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and WWII began. With a secret protocol to the Non-Annexation Agreement, Germany had handed the Baltic countries over to the Soviet Union. 5 years of war, arrests, executions, deportations, bombings, nationalisations followed, and Estonia lost its sovereignty for the next 50 years.

I wonder how Hilda felt in the years that followed their return. The Estonia they had left behind in 1925 stopped existing in 1940. World War followed by a Communist regime under Soviet occupation must have been more than sobering. Did she wish they had stayed in Brazil? 

I’m ever so amazed the stories these strangers in my photos tell. I have to remind myself, this is not a novel I’m reading or a movie I stream. This was someone’s life, someone’s everyday, their existance. And these little stories of the everyday people should not be forgotten by history, by us.

I’ve added Hilda’s photo to Geni.com and hope to make contact with her family.

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