“We share a commitment to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust.”
-- Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust
In 1926, Jewish cultural autonomy was declared in Estonia according to the Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities. This gave the right of self-determination in cultural matters. In the 1930s, there were over 4,300 Jews living in Estonia. With the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, Jewish cultural autonomy, in addition to the activities of Jewish organizations, was terminated. 414 Estonian Jews (10 percent of the Jewish community) were deported to Siberia in the course of the mass deportations of June 1941.
During the German occupation (1941-1944), the Nazis murdered approximately 1,000 Jews who had failed to flee Estonia. In addition, approximately 13,000 Jews from other parts of Europe were transported to Nazi camps in Estonia, where most of them perished.
Currently, the Jewish community in Estonia consists of about 2,000 people. In March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. After the restoration of Estonia's independence in 1991, the Jewish Cultural Society was reorganized and the Jewish community was established in 1992.
The Tallinn Jewish School was re-opened in 1990, being the first school for a national minority to be established in the restored Republic of Estonia. The new synagogue in Tallinn was opened on 16 May 2007.
Estonia's cooperation with IHRA was established in 2002, when Estonia applied to participate in IHRA liaison projects. In the course of the teacher training seminars, organized in cooperation with IHRA and the Living History Forum and held in August 2004 and 2005, Estonian history teachers received invaluable knowledge about how to comprehend and teach the history of Holocaust. In 2005, a formal liaison relationship with IHRA was established.
Estonia's partner countries in the IHRA liaison project were Sweden, Israel, Latvia, and the United Kingdom. Our partner organizations – the Living History Forum of Sweden, Latvia's Ministry of Education, Yad Vashem of Israel, the Imperial War Museum of the U.K., and the Latvian History Teachers' Associations – supported us substantially during this period. More importantly, within the framework of the project, teaching materials were produced according to the IHRA guidelines.
Estonia became a full member of IHRA in December 2007, at IHRA’s Plenary Meeting in Prague, and has been an active member of the organization since then. Estonia has appointed representatives to all the working groups. The Estonian delegation to IHRA consists of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education and Research, the Ministry of Culture, and the Council of the Jewish Community of Estonia. In the Academic Working Group, Estonia is represented by distinguished researchers of the World War II period in Estonia.
Needless to say, an essential precondition for fruitful international cooperation is a broad-spectrum of cooperation at home, and that the members of our delegation have initiated and kept up discussions in Estonia in all matters relevant to this topic.
The Holocaust is part of the Estonian school curriculum, dealt with in connection with the events of World War II. The subject is taught in grades five and nine, and in more detail at the secondary school level as part of the Estonian and modern history course. In the new national curriculum, there are three mandatory courses at the secondary level for teaching the history of the 20th century, two of which are chronological and one that is ‘problem-centered’ and focused on the history of the world and Estonia in the 20th century. This gives new opportunities to learn about the Holocaust.
In order to increase general awareness and understanding of the Holocaust, the Ministry of Education and Research has organized international seminars in Estonia. The first seminar that dealt specifically with the Holocaust and tolerance, "How to teach about tolerance", took place in 2004. At the second seminar, which was held in 2005, teachers delivered their ideas on the structure and content of new teaching materials in the framework of the cooperation project of the Estonian History Teachers’ Association and Living History Forum of Sweden. It was co-financed by the Estonian Government and the IHRA.
In 2008, a follow-up seminar on teaching materials took place in Tartu. Teachers, the authors of the materials, and representatives of Yad Vashem and the Swedish Living History Forum participated. In 2010, a follow-up seminar for teachers who had previously participated in training courses at Yad Vashem was organized.
In January 2012 and January 2013, conferences for teachers were held in connection with Holocaust Remembrance Day, organized by the Ministry of Education and Research and the Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association. Presentations given at the conferences were converted into digital study materials.
Since 1998, about eight percent of our history and civics teachers have participated in relevant training courses at Yad Vashem or in the United States. Many more have passed training courses in Estonia organized by the Estonian History and Civics Teachers' Association, Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association, Estonian Institute for Human Rights, Jaan Tõnisson Institute, and others.
In 2002, the Government of Estonia declared 27 January to be the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. On this day of national dedication, an official remembrance ceremony usually takes place at the site of the World War II Nazi concentration camp at Klooga.
A speech to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust is traditionally presented by a member of the government, with various high state officials, the diplomatic corps, and representatives of the Estonian Jewish community present. The Day of Remembrance serves to declare Estonia's clear condemnation of all atrocities that took place on the territory of Estonia, during World War II and afterwards. It also serves to re-declare our commitment to maintaining and further developing an educational system in which an understanding of the history of the Holocaust is an integral part of our young people's view of the world. The Ministry of Education and Research provides materials, as well as advice, to schools concerning the activities that could be organized on that day.
The first memorial to commemorate the Jews exterminated in Estonia in 1941-1944 was unveiled in 1994 in Klooga, on the territory of a former Nazi concentration camp.
The Estonian Ministry of Culture, with the participation of the Estonian Jewish Community and the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, has created a joint committee for the implementation of the project "Holocaust Markers in Estonia".
By now all of the major and physically accessible sites have been marked within the framework of this project. In 2005 Holocaust remembrance markers were established at Klooga in Harju County and at Ereda, Kiviõli, Kuremäe and Vaivara in East Viru County; in 2009 at the former sites of camps in Soska, Kohtla-Nõmme and Aseri and at the Pärnu cemetery, in memory of the children killed at the Pärnu synagogue in 1941. At the moment, work is in progress to establish two memorial sites and to renovate two existing ones.
In the fall of 2013, the Estonian History Museum will open an outdoor exhibit on the territory of the Klooga concentration camp. It will suit the local natural environment and the arrangement of the entire memorial site will be improved.
After regaining independence, Estonia has tried to thoroughly investigate and document all crimes against humanity that have been committed in Estonia. In 1998, the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity was established in order to investigate all crimes of this nature committed on the territory of the Republic of Estonia during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. The Commission, also known as the Max Jacobson Commission after the name of its leader, completed its activities in 2008.
The Commission was not a court of justice, but first and foremost a body established for the detection, description, and evaluation of the events that took place in Estonia 60 years ago. In its definition of crimes against humanity, the Commission decided to proceed from Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court of Rome. As President Lennart Meri, by whose initiative the Commission was created, summed it up: "It is our goal, our endeavor, to prevent the repetition of such crimes in the future... the work of this Commission reflects our common conviction that we cannot build a free and democratic future without facing up to the past."
The Commission’s investigations focused upon crimes against humanity committed during three distinct historical periods:
1. The occupation of Estonia by Soviet forces in 1940-1941.
2. The occupation of Estonia by the forces of Nazi Germany in 1941-1944.
3. The second Soviet occupation of Estonia beginning in 1944.
Simultaneously with the Commission, the Estonian Foundation for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity was founded, which organized research and prepared thematic reports for the Commission. Estonian historians researched different crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Holocaust-related topics constituted a substantial part in the Foundation's work during the period 1999-2006.
The report dealing with the first phase of the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940-1941 and the Nazi occupation of 1941-1944 was completed and in 2006 was published in English as a book. This volume of approximately 1,350 pages, entitled „ESTONIA 1940-1945: Reports of the Estonian Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity", includes eight Holocaust-related research papers that were carried out by the Foundation. Parts of the book are available through the Internet (www.historycommission.ee). The report about the second Soviet occupation was published in 2008.
In addition to the report, the historians of the Foundation participated with Holocaust-related research papers at various international seminars and conferences. The Commission and the Foundation concluded its activities in 2008. However, Estonia will continue to conduct research into the crimes committed by the Nazi and Communist regimes in Estonia and to draw appropriate conclusions about what happened.