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Estonians and their Experience of Relocation to Seabrook Farms by Dmitri Orlov

Seabrook Farms is considered by many to have been an example of diversity in employment, represented as it was by workers who traced their heritage to the Caribbean, Japan, and Europe. Among the largest ethnic groups at Seabrook were refugees from Estonia. Like all of the other groups employed by the company, the Estonians went through a period of pain and hardship before arriving at Seabrook Farms. They started their lives anew by working hard at Seabrook Farms, while aiming also to preserve their cultural identities.

Toward the end of World War II, with the Red Army advancing on the Baltic States in 1944, Estonians began to flee their homeland fearing the repercussions of Soviet rule. Most Estonians left quickly, taking with them few belongings and painfully parting with their country, work, and relatives. Some escaped by ships together with the retreating German army. Their travel was marked by difficulties and danger. Many died following the bombing of the transport ships by Soviet warplanes, or when their boats ran into submerged mines. Surviving Estonians ended up at the transit camps in Germany. These people realized that they could not return to their homeland due to the Soviet occupation, and questions about their collaboration with the Nazis. Instead, they sought to go to countries where they could begin new lives. After the United States passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, Estonians and other refugees from Europe were allowed to come to America. However, the Act required refugees to have sponsors willing to hire and assume responsibility for their welfare. Seizing the opportunity to gain an additional labor force, C.F. Seabrook sponsored more than 600 Estonians who then came to Seabrook Farms to work.

When the Estonians arrived, they were provided with housing at the Hoover Village barracks complex. Albert Vilms, an Estonian laborer at Seabrook Farms, wrote in his diary that "Our new home was Hoover Village, with four rows of barracks. We were assigned the three-room barrack number 1033. In the middle of the first, larger room was a round iron stove, which burned coal, or wood. There was an electric range and a sink with cold water tap. Communal showers and laundry facilities were located in separate barrack buildings." Many Estonians, despite arriving from refugee camps, would describe Hoover Village as worse than the living quarters they had just vacated. Estonians could not get used to the idea that "in wealthy America, such housing could exist."

At Seabrook Farms, Estonians demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and recreate a strong cultural identity in their new environment. They formed their own clubs, ethnic organizations, and churches, which allowed Estonians to maintain their culture while living in a diverse environment. An example of this phenomenon is the Cub Scout troop that was part of the Boy Scouts organization, which combined the American Boy Scout structure with unique elements of Estonian heritage.

The Estonian community at Seabrook lived through the horrors of war, died by thousands during an escape from their homeland, and endured years of wandering through the refugee camps. In spite of these difficulties, they adapted well to the multicultural environment at Seabrook, working with and befriending other nationalities. As a result, they contributed to the multicultural makeup of Seabrook Farms while at the same time preserving their own ethnic identity.

Estonians arrive from refugee camps in Germany to work at Seabrook Farms, 1949.
Credit: "Vladmar Heitur, From Germany to Seabrook," c. 1949-1955, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.
Members of the new workforce from Estonia arrive at Seabrook Farms, 1949. Seabrook sponsored more than 600 Estonians under the Displaced Persons Act.
Credit: "Vladmar Heitur, The first week at Seabrook for some of its Estonian residents," 1949, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.
The wooden Barracks of Hoover Village, where many of the Estonian refugees were housed. Many Estonians were dissatisfied with the living conditions there.
Credit: "Vladmar Heitur, Wooden barracks in Hoover Village," 1949, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.
Children from the Cub Scout organization. The Cub Scouts at Seabrook combined the American structure of the organization with the unique Estonian heritage.
Credit: "Vladmar Heitur, Cub Scouts," 1949, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.