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The Hiiumaa Island Christmas Bell by Estonia RPCV Douglas Wells
The Hiiumaa Island Christmas Bell by Estonia RPCV Douglas Wells
From the Office of Estonian President Lennart Meri
December 24, 1994
On Christmas Eve morning the President decreed that his salary for this month should be given to Emmaste Church on Hiiumaa so that their church bell, which was found in a miraculous fashion, could be restored to the bell tower.
The President has turned to the United States Peace Corps and asked that his personal thanks be given to Volunteer Douglas Wells from Omaha Nebraska, who found the bell with a metal detector.
The President added: "As a result of the occupation of Estonia, the Emmaste congregation took down their bell and hid it in the bosom of the earth, that it would survive until the restoration of the Estonian Republic. Months and years turned into decades. The hidden one's exact location faded from memory, but the memory of the bell waiting for its time to come burned bright. The national memory of the Estonians was only made stronger by the iron grip of the occupiers."
"Let the wondrous return of the Emmaste Bell to its tower be a present-day Christmas present to all Estonian people. Let the peals of the bell bring peace, loyalty, and love throughout Estonia, bringing news of the Christmas miracle that has been born among us."
The Hiiumaa Island Christmas Bell
© 1999, Douglas Wells
It was a Spring day on Hiiumaa island and the first tourists were just starting to arrive. I was at my usual post in the tourist info center and looking forward to the third tourist season since my arrival as a Peace Corps volunteer, charged with facilitating economic development on this small, beautiful and somehow, mysterious island. Actually, it was really the third tourist season for Hiiumaa- period, as Estonia had just regained independence after 50 years of occupation and the islands were no longer closed border areas in the Soviet Union.
I had run across my share of interesting characters during my time on the island. Hiiumaa’s closed conditions had, over the years, produced a unique and fascinating local culture. However, nothing could have prepared me for the next guest who burst through the door to the info center. He looked to be about 70, bald on the top of his head with great shocks of white hair bursting up on both sides like smoke coming out of his ears. His piercing blue eyes quickly took in the room and then focused straight on me. He was a pretty big guy and after he approached the counter, he had to look down slightly to speak to me. He gripped the edge of the table and spoke in an excited voice.
“Are you Douglas Wells?” he said in Estonian and raised one bushy white eyebrow. “Yes,” I replied in my halting Estonian “how can I help you?” He glanced quickly from side to side, lowered his voice and bent down slightly.“ Do you still have that metal detector?” Now this was a strange question for a tourist to ask and I didn't answer right away. I did have a metal detector, which I had ordered from home so I could explore the sites of some of the World War II battles that had taken place in 1941. The front of the war actually swept over Hiiumaa Island twice, once in 1941 when the Nazis took over on their way to Moscow, and again when the Soviets pushed them back in 1944. Mobilizations, deportations and people fleeing the returning Soviet army reduced the population of the island by almost half.
Most people reacted with quiet amusement or words of caution when they heard about my poking around old battlefields in the forest, but I had some real problems with the local national guard, who feared that I was going to pillage ancient religious sites or find some guns or something and not tell them. They actually went so far as to demand that I keep the metal detector in their armory, so there it sat. When I wanted to use it, I had to go to the armory and tell the duty officer why I wanted it and exactly where I was going with it. Then they would open the weapons cabinet, push aside a few Kalashnikov machine guns and, with great ceremony, hand over my fearsome metal detector. Needless to say, this cut back on my forays to the forest and I just wanted the whole thing to blow over. After all, Hiiumaa was a small place and I didn't want rumors going around that the local PC Volunteer was a pillager of ancient local culture.
When I finally answered the old man’s question, I answered slowly and in a guarded tone. “Yes, I still have it. Why do you ask?” At this point his arm shot out and he grabbed my wrist. In a low, husky voice he said urgently, “You’ve got to help me! We must find the clock!” “What clock?” I said and pulled back a little bit, but the man held on and pushed his face closer to mine. “The church clock!” he hissed. “The church clock that they buried fifty years ago. You have to help me, we’re running out of time!” Now I was getting a little nervous. This guy was really worked up about something and it couldn't be about some old clock. Why would anybody want an old rusty clock that had been buried in the ground for 50 years? It wouldn’t work anyway and what was the rush? “Where is it and what is it made of? ” I asked skeptically. The old man looked at me strangely and let go of my wrist. “Bronze, of course,” he said “solid bronze, and it is somewhere in the forest near Emmaste village. Please come, my car is outside!” “Is this a trap?” I thought to myself, but the old man was so earnest, and he had those intense blue eyes that bored right through you. This was obviously a man with a mission. So, against my better judgment, I agreed to go with what appeared to be a relatively unstable old man, to an unknown location in the forest, where the National Guard cronies might be waiting to “protect” the local culture from unsavory characters like me.
As we drove toward the south side of the island, the man seemed to relax a little. He pushed back in his seat, took a deep breath and began to talk. I sat spellbound as he told a story that could have come from a bestseller adventure novel. It all started in the summer of 1943. The tide of the war had turned and the Germans were being pushed back from Russia. Raw materials were getting scarce, and both sides had taken to scrounging for metal in the countryside. Countless antiques and other objects of value went into the melting pot and particularly sought-after objects were solid bronze church clocks. Already, a few churches in Hiiumaa had been relieved of their “clocks” and now the small village of Emmaste was worried that their church might be next. Their clock was the pride of the village. It was made in Tartu of solid bronze and weighed about 400 pounds. It had been in the tower since 1925. Although I couldn’t imagine a clock made of solid bronze, the story captivated me and I let him continue.
One warm summer night in June, five men in the village gathered secretly to work out a way to save this important part of the heritage of Emmaste’s church. The young men had thus far managed to escape the ravages of war. After much deliberation, they agreed on a plan. Late the next night they went to the church and, avoiding the occasional German patrol, carefully took down the pride of Emmaste. They carried the clock to the forest where they buried it, the plan being to return it to the tower when the war had quieted down.
Well, as you probably know, things didn’t quiet down. The war took its course and scattered the group of five young men that were in on the secret. One was taken prisoner and sent to Siberia, where he died in a prison camp, two escaped to Sweden ahead of the advancing Soviet army and the other two found their way to Canada, after slipping away from Hiiumaa in a fishing boat. When the Soviets re-established their control over the island, it was immediately clear that this was not a religion-friendly regime, so the buried treasure stayed put for over 40 years until Estonia began taking steps to re-establish its independence. In 1987, one of the group of five decided it was time to take stock of the situation and see if something could be done about restoring the lost treasure of Emmaste Church to its proper place. Only two members of the group remained alive, one in Canada and the one in Sweden, who had decided the time had come to put things right. Both were quite old so they sent my friend, the old man, from Sweden to find the “church clock”.
Well, on Hiiumaa, the people of the village had pretty much given up the “clock" for lost. The locals had looked around for it without success, and then decided that one of the group had sold it, taken the money and escaped. In fact they blamed the member of the group who was still alive in Sweden and had even “found out” the price that he had received. Well, for a loyal Estonian exile on his deathbed in Sweden, this was really too much! This is what had brought the old man to Hiiumaa. His mission was to clear his friend’s name before this member of the original group went to his grave.
Well, clock or not, I am not a totally heartless person and after I heard this, I agreed to go and look around in the forest. But there were complications: No one from the group had been back to Hiiumaa since the 40’s and time had fogged the memories of those who were still alive. On top of that, roads had been built, land cleared and the coming of the collectives had made many changes to the landscape. It was in this uncertain and confusing situation that we started our search.
We arrived in Emmaste and the old man directed me to a spot near an old farm where he said we would find our sought-after church treasure. So, there our search began. Back and forth, back and forth, I went with the metal detector. The old man followed close behind and with every electronic beep of the detector, he jumped ahead with his shovel and started to dig. But alas, our search was in vain. When it started to get dark, I decided to give up. “Look,” I said, trying to be diplomatic, “Maybe you've got the place wrong or somebody else dug it up and sold it. At any rate, its not here and I want to go home.” The old man had strange look of puzzlement and resignation on his face. “I don't understand it,” he said at last, “its got to be here somewhere.” We stood in silence for a while, and then the old man waved his hand toward the car. We drove back to my apartment without exchanging a word. When he dropped me off, he said goodbye and shook my hand but his mind was clearly elsewhere.
I wanted to just write him off as a crazy old man, but as I lay in bed that night, my mind kept picturing the old man going back to Sweden and telling his sick, unjustly accused friend that the search had been fruitless. I kept seeing the old man’s piercing blue eyes as he gripped my wrist and said, “You have to help me!” I finally dropped off to sleep and as the next few weeks passed, I forgot about the old man and our strange encounter. Maybe he was crazy, maybe the clock really had been sold or maybe it was just plain lost. At any rate, I was glad to be through with the affair, and the rest of the summer and fall passed uneventfully. With the coming of bad weather, the metal detector sat undisturbed next to the machine guns in the armory. All was well with the world.
Then came December. I was sitting in the info center, watching the rain and sleet fall outside. Not particularly Christmas-like weather, but the radio kept assuring us we would have a white Christmas. The tourists had long since left, so I was a little surprised to hear the outside door open and someone stamping their feet on the map. A head poked around the corner and a hand pulled off a wool cap to reveal the unmistakable bushy eyebrows and shocks of white hair. The old man was back and with a vengeance. He fairly bounded into the room and squinted at me with the trademark blue eyes. “Still here, eh?” he said, “I’ve got new information! The other living member of the group visited Sweden and he told me we were looking in the wrong place.” I scratched the back of my head as a sinking feeling came over me. This guy wanted to go back into the forest in the cold rain and sleet. Maybe I could politely beg off without hurting his feelings. “Could you come back?” I asked hopefully, “The weather’s kind of bad and I don't think the clock is going anywhere. Besides, the local National Guard folks have been kind up uppity about me using the metal detector.” But the old man would have none of it. “You HAVE to help,” he said with those blue eyes boring into me again, “a man’s on his deathbed with his honor at stake!” What could I say to that? With a sigh of resignation I took my coat, which the old man had already retrieved from the coat rack, and headed out the door into the cold, December rain. As I locked the door to the info center I thought to myself what a sucker I was and that I was probably going to catch pneumonia over some stupid clock!
We rode in silence as the windshield wipers beat out a steady rhythm. Though it was only about one o’clock in the afternoon, the light was already starting to go. I figured that, at the most, I would have to run around in the forest for maybe two or three hours and then be back in my warm apartment, practicing Christmas songs on my guitar. Maybe then, the old man would give up and go back to Sweden. Everyone would write the whole thing off to the confusion of war and live happily ever after. The old man interrupted my thoughts. “First we get the metal detector out of the armory and then we go to another old farmstead about one kilometer south of where we first were. According to the new information that’s where it should be, the group member from Canada was absolutely sure”. “Sure?” I thought to myself, “After fifty years this guy remembers just where to go, without even coming here?” I hunched down in the seat for the ride to the armory, and then on to the farm.
When we finally pulled onto a gravel road and then stopped, the rain let up a bit. I could see a grove of trees just 20 feet away, an old abandoned car wash, and what looked to be a grain-drying facility. Hardly in the middle of the forest and it seemed pretty unlikely that anyone would try and hide something valuable in this particular spot. Apparently, my partner didn't share my skepticism. The old man jumped out of the car, grabbed a shovel from the trunk and motioned for me to follow him. I stuck my head out of the car door and squinted up at the sky, hoping to see a break in the clouds. Nothing doing- only gray and rain. I sighed and grudgingly got out of the car, shouldered the metal detector and followed the old man towards the car wash.
With the old man accompanying me, and no sound but the tone of the detector and the rain dripping off the leaves, I walked back and forth through the brush. I tried to walk in an organized search pattern, sweeping the detector around trees and through the ditch by the roadside, but the old man kept saying, “Try over here! Try over there!” After about two hours of this I had reached the limits of my patience. “This is ridiculous!” I thought as the light slowly faded and the wetness seeped through my clothes. The old man watched me silently, and I think he read my thoughts. He pointed at small cluster of trees barely 15 feet from where the car wash had been built. “Please, just try that one last place,” he said. I crawled out of the ditch and mumbled out loud to myself, “If this is really some sort of church icon and if God wants us to find it, we will. It is in His hands, not mine. I’m going to go home and forget about the whole thing!” Not thirty seconds later the metal detector gave a loud chirp follow by a piercing, steady tone. It was so loud and so constant that I first thought that the detector had shorted out in the rain. I pulled the detector away and fiddled with the dials a little, but every time I put it over this one spot it repeated its insisting tone. No mistake about it, there was something really large buried between the small trees.
The old man saw me stop and he came running over. “What is it?” he asked breathlessly. “I don’t know,” I said while studying the detector’s display, “but it’s big and pretty shallow and....damn, it IS some kind of bronze or other light metal!” The old man swept the leaves and ground clutter away and dug the shovel into the ground. Thunk! The shovel hit something solid before it went even six inches down. With this, the old man dropped to his knees in the muddy soil, digging with his bare hands and throwing dirt from between his legs like a crazed, gray-haired fox terrier. As I stood watching in amazement, what first appeared out of the ground was a ring about three feet across, certainly nothing that looked like a clock. “Ah, that ain’t a clock,” I said in disgust and started to turn away. Like lightning, the old man reached up and grabbed my collar. “We’ve found it! We found it! Get back here and help me dig!” So, mostly out of fear, I joined in the digging. As we dug down in the center of the exposed ring and hit metal again, it finally dawned on me what we had found. What clock? This was not a clock, it was a huge church bell! It was only then I remembered that in Estonian, the word for “bell” and “clock” are the same. There, in the protective embrace of the earth, was the long-lost Emmaste Church Bell in all its glory. For 50 years, it had been resting upside down only a few inches under the soil, just a matter of feet from where major construction had taken place. How had it been missed?!
After we uncovered about half of the bell, the old man sat back. He looked up at me and said with quiet determination, “We need help, and we need to tell the old pastor of the church. He was here when the bell was buried and he has to be told.” His wet, messed up hair drooped down over his blue eyes as we silently looked at each other and then at the bell. The only sound was the light rain hitting the leaves and dripping onto the concrete pad of the car wash. After some moments, we gathered up our things and went to the car.
The pastor lived a couple of miles up the road in an old farmhouse. He had come to Hiiumaa after serving early in the war as a German officer. He had seen so much death and destruction (he himself was injured in the leg), that he joined the seminary after his discharge and retreated to this little island to do God's work.
A little dog barked excitedly as we pulled up, and an enormous yellow cat gazed at us through the window. The pastor’s wife already had the door open by the time we reached the porch and we went straight inside without more than a few words of greeting. Where’s Guido,” the old man said excitedly “I have great news, wonderful news!” The pastor’s wife gave us a puzzled look “He’s in watching TV but what…” She didn’t get a chance to finish as the old man shot by her with me close behind. The pastor was sitting in the living room, he was holding a cane upright between his knees and resting his chin on his hands as he watched TV. He was a very small man, bald and with thick glasses. He looked to be at least 80 years old. When we burst into the room he gave a start and squinted up at us. Without a word of explanation, the old man ran over and grabbed the pastor by the shoulder and started shaking him so hard that the poor man’s glasses almost fell off. “Guido! We found the bell!” he shouted into the pastor’s ear. The pastor shrank back in his chair with a look of confusion on his face. “Why are you yelling? What do you want?” he said in a quavering voice. The old man sat on the floor in front of him, looked the pastor straight in the eyes and repeated slowly “Guido, we found the church bell!. The lost Emmaste Church bell!”
A few more short seconds was all it took. A look of comprehension swept over the pastor’s face and with its progress, the years seem to melt away from his body. Almost magically, the pastor slowly transformed. He straightened up, squared his shoulders and a fire came to his eyes. “The Bell!” he said and suddenly leaped from his chair. Dropping his cane he headed straight for the front door and would have made it outside, had his wife not grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him back. She was larger than he was and it was quite humorous to see the pastor trying to pull open the door while his wife held him back. “Not without your coat and boots,” she said firmly "You'll catch your death of cold!" The pastor looked like a child trying to get out into the season’s first snow as his wife pulled on his boots and placed a cap on his head. “Let me go!” he said and finally broke free. “His wife followed us out, holding the pastor’s cane, but the pastor never even slowed down. He jumped into the car and literally bounced up and down with anticipation in the back seat. I looked back to see the pastor’s wife framed in the light of the open doorway, tears in her eyes and her hands folded in a silent prayer of thanks.
As we drove back, I think the pastor noticed me for the first time. I explained who I was and why I was helping to look for the bell. He didn’t really seem to understand what an American was doing out in the forest in such bad weather. He just nodded thoughtfully and we rode the rest of the way in silence. When we slid to a halt on the muddy road near the bell, the pastor was the first one out of the car. He held on to the old man’s arm as they made their way to where the bell lay half-uncovered. At the edge of the hole, the pastor stopped and peered down. He looked for while, then slid his glasses down on his nose and peered over the top of them. Several silent seconds ticked by and then suddenly, the pastor fell to his knees. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he said a prayer of thanks. I just stood there with my mouth open. This looked like pretty serious stuff!
A couple of old ladies rode by on their bicycles and stopped to see what we where doing and what was the former village pastor doing kneeling next to a hole in the ground. They walked up, took one look at the bell, and were off like a shot towards the village. I have never seen anybody, much less a couple of old ladies, pedal a bicycle so fast! Soon others from the village came and even the director of the island’s museum showed up. There was quite a crowd standing around and four of five of us tried to pull the bell out of the hole. It wouldn’t budge and finally somebody brought a front-end loader and the bell was lifted up and carried about a quarter mile to the church. I marveled again how it had escaped detection, so shallow and construction work done all around. Almost as if Someone were protecting it. When we reached the church, the bell was placed on the floor inside and the pastor held a short service to bless it and welcome it back to its home. When it finally got dark, and I asked the old man to give me a ride home, there were still people standing around talking and pointing at the bell and at the old man and me.
Well, a few days later I went back home on Christmas leave. Coincidentally, the flight path out of Tallinn took me right over Hiiumaa and I looked down at the cross-shaped island. “Merry Christmas” I said softly to myself and thought about the beautiful sound the bell would make, ringing in its first Christmas service in 50 years. With the cold crisp nights, the sound of the bell would reach to neighboring villages, beckoning people to come and see the Christmas miracle in Emmaste. I felt a surge of Christmas spirit like I hadn’t felt since I was a kid.
With all the excitement of being back home and the holiday season, I didn’t give much thought to the bell until one day an E-mail came from Estonia. “Douglas, you’re not going to believe this,” it started out. It seems that every major newspaper in Estonia had picked up the story of the Emmaste bell. The President of Estonia had thanked me personally during his Christmas speech to the nation. “Let the Emmaste bell ring out as a symbol of a country whose freedom has been restored. Let us gaze upon it in wonder, like those who witnessed the miraculous birth of the Christ child” he had said. He had his Chief of Staff call the Peace Corps office in Tallinn to say thanks and he even offered a percentage of his salary to restore the bell and put it back in the church tower. The Lutheran Bishop of Estonia also mentioned the bell in his Christmas address. I couldn’t believe it! I knew it was an important event for the village, but this…?
Back in Nebraska, my brother did a feature on the bell during the radio news show he hosted at a local radio station. He put it on the AP wire and the Omaha paper called me and asked to do an article. The story was picked up by several major papers and even made it to the English-language newspaper in Moscow! Needless to say, Christmas 1994 was a very special one for me. Something bothered me though, if the President was giving money to restore the bell, then it wasn’t in the tower for Christmas after all. So sad, because it seemed to me that it all this had happened with just that in mind.
The holidays passed quickly and soon I was on a plane back to Estonia and then, by bus and ferry, I made my way to Hiiumaa Island. I went to the church that Sunday, to talk to the current pastor. He greeted me warmly, and asked me if I had heard about all the fuss. I nodded. “Yeah, but it’s too bad the bell wasn’t up in the tower for Christmas.” The young pastor gave me a strange look. “Of course it was in the tower for Christmas!” he said, “We hosed it off and five guys from the village put it back up.” I thought for a moment. Five guys had taken the bell down, five friends who had never been able to return and finish their work. Now only two were still alive. How would the member of the group in Sweden react, the one who had been accused of selling the bell? I'll bet he had a great Christmas, maybe his last one. So sad the others couldn’t take part in the celebration. “But what about the President’s money?” I finally asked, “He was supposed to give a portion of his salary to help restore the bell.” The pastor looked at me for a moment and then laughed. “He did say that. And when we heard that such an important like the president wanted to pay for putting the bell in the tower, when went right up and took it down again!" We both laughed and went inside the church. I walked over to where a thick rope was hanging down through a hole in the ceiling. I reached out to touch it and then turned to look at the pastor. He read my thoughts and, with a smile, nodded his head. I turned back, grabbed the rope with both hands and pulled as hard as I could.
© 1999, Douglas Wells