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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Escapee Who Can't Forget Opens Tallinn Museum

APEstonian Prime Minister Juhan Parts and Olga Ritso, 83, cutting a barbed wire at the museum's opening earlier this summer.
TALLINN, Estonia -- Olga Ritso remembers that she rarely slept at home during her early 20s because it was in the darkness that jack-booted Stalinist police burst into Estonian homes to spirit their victims away.

Later, with bombs cascading nearby, she narrowly escaped the regime that deported or killed thousands, including her father.

Prompted by those memories -- which 60 years and a career as an ophthalmologist in Seattle could not dim -- she surprised her homeland of 1.4 million people by donating, with her husband, the full $2 million needed to build a museum chronicling atrocities committed during occupation of Estonia by both the Soviets and the Nazis.

The Museum of Occupations would almost certainly still be a dream if it were not for the donation, one of the largest in Estonia's history.

"I wanted to show the world what this country went through," the soft-spoken Ritso, now 83, said in an interview after opening the glass-enclosed museum in the capital, Tallinn, earlier this summer. "It was such an awful, horrible time."

The museum, one of the world's first to address Soviet and Nazi crimes under one roof, features filmed testimonials and artifacts -- including solid-iron doors that once slammed behind terrified inmates.

Replica locomotives, one stamped with a swastika and the other with a red star, serve as reminders of human cargo shipped to prison camps during the 20th-century occupations -- first by the Soviets in 1940 and 1941, then by the Nazis for three years, and then again by the Soviets.

Soviets exiled 35,000 Estonians, including children, in cattle wagons to Siberia. During the 1941 to 1944 Nazi rule, 1,000 Estonian Jews perished; 20,000 Jews sent from other countries were killed in Estonia, most at four main camps set up by the Nazis. Russians returned in 1944 and stayed until the Soviet Union unraveled nearly 50 years later.

Michael Tarm / AP

Replica locomotives, one with a swastika and the other with a red star, at the $2 million Museum of Occupations in Tallinn.

Ritso's father, the head of an Estonian cultural society, was arrested by secret police while he was traveling through Moscow in 1922, two years after Estonia won independence from Russia. Ritso was just 2 when her father was seized -- and she never saw him again.

When Russia annexed Estonia 18 years later, her uncle was deported to Siberia -- and died en route.

"There wasn't a single family that didn't have a relative or friend taken away," she recalled about Soviet rule. To avoid being deported herself, she hid at friends' houses.

As Nazi rule ended in 1944, with Red Army tanks rolling into Tallinn, Ritso boarded a refugee ship that was strafed by Soviet planes. A sister ship was hit and sank.

The museum touches on how some 100,000 other Estonians made similar, perilous escapes to the West. One exhibit is a wooden skiff used by dozens of Estonians to flee to Sweden.

Ritso arrived in Germany and then went to the United States in 1949, where she settled and became a citizen. She later married Walter Kistler, a Swiss-born space scientist who is now retired.

Debates still break out in Estonia about whether more could have been done to resist the occupations and, most sensitively, about the extent of collaboration under the Soviets and Nazis.

"The past has a way of walking around in the present, behaving as if it were still alive," historian Anatol Lieven wrote about the Baltic states in his 1994 book "The Baltic Revolution."

But emotions are less raw now after Estonians took steps to come to terms with their past. Communist-era textbooks have been rewritten, and a Holocaust Day has been proclaimed. Estonia even prosecuted a dozen former agents for Stalinist deportations -- though just one did jail time.

The particular importance accorded to the new museum is indicated by its location, near Estonia's parliament.

There have been complaints.

Some say the museum is too low-key and doesn't capture the full terror of the times -- and that some artifacts, like old vodka bottles, contribute little.

Crowds, though, poured in after it opened in July. Children -- all born after Estonia regained independence from Moscow in 1991 -- stood mouths agape at films being screened inside, including one of Jewish bodies piled like logs on a pyre.

"This is a place where coming generations will be shown what once was -- but also what will never be again," Prime Minister Juhan Parts said before splicing a strip of barbed wire with Ritso holding one handle of the wire cutters.