Estonian Americans

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
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Estonian Americans

Mark A. Granquist


Estonian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from what is today the Republic of Estonia, the northernmost of the three Baltic republics. Estonia is bordered on the north by the Gulf of Finland, on the east by Lake Peipus and Russia, on the south by Latvia, and on the west by the Baltic Sea, which contains some 1,500 islands that are part of the republic. The country measures 17,413 square miles (45,100 square kilometers), or slightly smaller than the central American nation of Costa Rica and slightly larger than the country of Denmark.

In 2011 the Estonian government census estimated the population of Estonia to be about 1,294,000. Approximately 72 percent is urban, with 400,000 living in or around the capital city of Tallinn. Lutherans constitute the largest religious group, with a significant number of other Protestant denominations (principally Baptist) represented, as well as a number of Eastern Orthodox Christians. In terms of ethnicity, 69 percent of the population is Estonian; 25 percent is Russian; and Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Finns each account for 1 to 2 percent. The official language is Estonian, with Russian also widely spoken. In 2004 Estonia became the seventeenth member of the European Union, and the country opted to adopt the euro as its currency in 2011. The World Bank considers Estonia a high-income economy, and the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom ranks it sixteenth in the world. Easily surpassing the economies of its two Baltic neighbors on the strength of its energy and machinery exports and booming financial sector, Estonia is sometimes referred to as the Baltic Tiger.

In the late nineteenth century a small number of Estonians entered the United States, forming small agricultural colonies in the Midwest; however, the two major waves of Estonian immigration occurred in the twentieth century. These two waves emigrated for differing political reasons: the first wave consisted of socialists that left Estonia following a failed Marxist revolution in 1905, while the second wave fled the country after World War II and the subsequent imposition of Soviet rule. By the early twenty-first century, few Estonians had entered the United States and few Estonian Americans had returned to their homeland.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011, there were 29,381 Estonian Americans living in the United States. Estonian Americans easily accommodate mainstream U.S. culture. Most do not live in enclaves as such, but as a group they maintain an active network of cultural organizations, schools, and churches with which to preserve the language and culture of their homeland.


Early History The Estonians are a Baltic-Finnish group related to the Finno-Ugric peoples. Their first significant contact with an outside culture occurred during a series of battles with the Vikings in the ninth century. As their relationship became more peaceful, the Vikings and Estonians became trading partners, mutually influencing each other's culture. During the Middle Ages, Swedes, Danes, and Russians attempted to introduce elements of Christianity to the Estonians but failed to convert the population. In the thirteenth century Germans and Danes finally succeeded in imposing Christianity through military force. By 1346 the Teutonic Order, a German coterie of knights and priests, had purchased northern Estonia from Denmark and subjugated the native population. Centuries later, Germans dominated the Estonian Lutheran Church, monopolizing many aspects of Estonian national life. To many nineteenth-century Estonians, Lutheranism was felt as an oppressive foreign presence.

The Teutonic Order dissolved in 1561 and Sweden seized control. When Russia defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721, Estonia found itself under tsarist rule. Initially many Estonians viewed Russian rule as a means to free themselves from the German and Swedish domination, but under Russian governance they lost many of the traditional liberties that the Germans and Swedes had left in place. In 1819 serfdom ended and other social reforms followed, including permission in 1860 for Estonians to serve as pastors, however, the Russian government went on to enact a series of “Russification” policies in the 1880s, such as the banning of Estonian-language schools. Such actions initiated a grassroots patriotic movement that resulted in the ascendance of a new Estonian nationalism.

Modern Era In January 1905 Estonian revolutionary leaders demanded national autonomy from Moscow. The tsar's imperial forces crushed the Page 98  |  Top of Articlerebellion, and many Estonian leaders fled abroad, and thousands of citizens followed. This proved to be a pivotal moment in Estonian history, resulting in the first serious emigration to the United States from the Estonian homeland. Twelve years after the Estonian rebellion, the Russian revolution brought down the imperial government, after which Estonia won autonomy and later independence. With help from Britain and Finland, Estonians fought for independence from Russia beginning in 1918 and ending in 1920, by which point Russian troops had been driven from Estonia and it became truly independent. Between the world wars the young state endured harassment from the Soviets while managing internal political and economic instability. In 1940 Soviet troops annexed Estonia with covert assistance from the Nazis, and Estonia became part of the Soviet Union. After war broke between Germany and the Soviet Union, Germany took control of Estonia in 1941. When Soviet troops reentered Estonia in 1944, roughly one-tenth of the Estonian populace fled the country, many to the United States. Estonia remained a Soviet republic until April 1990, when Estonia declared renewed independence and elected a national government. The Soviet Union came to an end in 1991, and Estonia was admitted to the United Nations that year.

After the collapse of Soviet rule in Estonia, the country entered a period of strong economic growth based on free market principles and trade with other European countries, particularly after Estonia joined the European Union in 2004. It enjoyed a robust economy and relative political calm, though relations with neighboring Russia remain unstable after negotiations over their shared border collapsed in 2005. The global financial crisis beginning in 2008 had a negative impact on the country's decade of financial growth, but emergency budget measures passed by parliament managed to reverse such damages and put Estonia back among the top-performing economies in Europe by 2010.


In the 1600s, when Estonia was under Swedish control, a small group of Estonians helped the Swedes establish a North American colony called New Sweden on the Delaware River. Other than that, Estonian immigration to the United States was quite limited until the late nineteenth century. The first Estonian immigrants to the United States were fortune hunters and sailors who jumped Russian sailing vessels in the 1880s and 1890s. Immigration records identified them as Russians rather than Estonians, a practice that continued until 1922. In 1894 one group settled near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, where the first Estonian Lutheran Church was founded in 1897. Others settled in New York and San Francisco, expanding their religious congregation as they went. The Estonian Lutheran Church became the first organization to support early Estonian immigrants, with Reverend Hans Rebane, who arrived in the United States in 1896, publishing the first Estonian-language newspaper, Eesti Amerika Postimees (Estonian American Courier), in 1897.

The failed Marxist revolution in Estonia in 1905 resulted in the migration of Estonian socialists to the United States. Seeking jobs in labor and industry, a large majority of early Estonian immigrants settled in cities on the east and west coasts of the United States. A majority settled in New York City, while others moved to San Francisco and Oregon. Many Estonian men worked in the construction trades, and some rose to become independent contractors. Many women worked as domestics or in small retail or industrial operations. In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of Estonians worked as building attendants and superintendents in apartments and office buildings, especially in New York City. Other Estonians started small businesses, some of which were highly successful. However, communism created early conflicts within the Estonian American community. Many of the refugees from the failed 1905 revolution had become sympathizers, and they established a strong communist-oriented urban workers' movement within the community. Workers' societies formed in Estonian settlements, and in 1908 a central committee began to coordinate their activities. These organizations were often the only collective Estonian bodies in the community, and consequently they wielded influence. However, leaders of these organizations proved to be more radical than their American counterparts, as well as the majority of Estonian American workers. Between 1917 and 1920 the Estonian workers' movement split over the issue of whether to support the Soviet military takeover of the newly independent Republic of Estonia. Many of the movement's leaders adopted a communist platform that supported inclusion of Estonia within the Soviet Union, whereas the membership opposed the move. The split shattered the Estonian American workers' movement. The American Communist Party absorbed the Estonian communists soon after, dissipating their sense of ethnic identity. Prior to the split, the workers' movement had transformed many Estonian American institutions, causing turmoil within the community and friction with outside groups.

After 1945 a new wave of political refugees bolstered the economic status of the community. A strong emphasis on education and professionalism brought socioeconomic mobility to the Estonian American community, and most entered the middle class. The service of Estonian Americans during World War II, the Soviet annexation of Estonia, and the flood of refugees out of the country created a groundswell of American support, not only toward Estonia but toward its three Baltic neighbors, as well. (Estonian Americans are closely affiliated with immigrants from the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland. These groups share a common history in Europe and arrived in the United States at roughly

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CENGAGE LEARNING, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED U.S. Census Bureau, 2009–2011 American Community Survey

the same time.) Education, engineering, medicine, science, and the arts became professions of choice for Estonian immigrants, who were largely well-educated. In 1962 a study of young Estonian American professionals found that 43 percent worked in engineering and technology, 18 percent in the sciences, 16 percent in the humanities, 16 percent in the social sciences, and 7 percent in medicine. Others created small- to medium-sized businesses.

When Estonia gained its independence in 1991, there were an estimated 27,000 Estonians living in the United States. Many Estonian Americans saw Estonian independence as an opportunity to return to their home country, and about 2,000 Estonians left the United States throughout the 1990s.


The Estonian language is a branch of the Baltic-Finnish group of the Finno-Ugric family and is closely related to Finnish. Most ethnic Estonians speak Estonian, but ethnic Russians and others in Estonia continue to speak Russian with support of the Estonian government, which sponsors Russian-language schools and activities. Historically, a number of dialects have been spoken in Estonia, but the dialect spoken in the region around Tallinn, the capital, has come to dominate literary expression and thus influence the development of modern Estonian. Another form of Estonian, spoken by Estonian war refugees in Sweden, has unsurprisingly absorbed Swedish influences. The written language uses the Roman alphabet and consists of fourteen consonants and nine vowels (a, ä, e, i, o, ö, õ, u, and ü). The consonants c, f, q, w, x, y, and z are generally used only in names and words of foreign origin. The language has a musical quality and employs a number of diphthongs and other vowel combinations.

The Estonian American community has made strong attempts to maintain the language, but, as is often the case with such efforts, success has been mixed at best. A number of schools, publications, congregations, and learned societies within the community still use Estonian as a means of discourse. This is somewhat problematic within the larger community, as many non-Estonian spouses find Estonian difficult. Still, Estonian is taught at three midwestern universities (Indiana University, Kent State University, and Ohio State University), and a few U.S. public libraries have Estonian-language collections, including the Boston Public Library, New York Public Library, and Cleveland Public Library.


Estonia is predominantly Christian, with most Christians following the Lutheran tradition; Baptist and Orthodox faiths are also represented. In Estonian American communities, Lutheranism dominates as well. Headquartered in Stockholm, the Estonian

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At the Estonian House, in New York, an Estonian American helps to stuff a blood sausage during a party.

At the Estonian House, in New York, an Estonian American helps to stuff a blood sausage during a party. EVAN SUNG / REDUX

Evangelical Lutheran Church is the largest organized religious group among Estonian Americans, with 12 congregations and 3,500 members. Estonian American Baptists came to the United States before World War I to escape persecution in Estonia and have maintained a number of congregations. Estonian Pentecostal congregations also exist in the United States.

After 1945 the influx of Estonian war refugees produced a number new Lutheran congregations, all linked to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC). Established in 1954, the EELC maintains Lutheran congregations in most major Estonian settlements in North America. The other religious presence to appear after 1945 was Estonian Orthodox Christianity, resulting in several regional parishes. Orthodoxy took root in Estonia during the nineteenth century, winning Estonian converts who were discontented with German-dominated Lutheranism. The first Estonian Orthodox parish was formed in New York City in 1949. Estonian Orthodox parishes are active in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City.

Since 1945 religion has played a unifying role in maintaining a sense of group identity among Estonian Americans. Some Estonian Americans today, however, are ambivalent or even hostile toward religious belief because of its linkage with oppression in their homeland's history.


Estonian immigrants in the United States have generally assimilated well into the mainstream of American society, especially after 1945. Before World War II, Estonians in the United States did not push hard to become American citizens; in 1930 only 42 percent of immigrants had citizenship, placing them behind Finnish and other Baltic immigrants. By the late twentieth century, however, Estonian Americans had rapidly climbed the social and economic ladder, specializing in areas requiring technical expertise. A number of factors contributed to a high degree of assimilation among Estonian Americans: the size of the community, its rapid educational and social success, and the wide geographical dispersion of the immigrants.

Estonia quickly became an economic powerhouse after its independence in 1991, placing Estonian Americans in a positive light. The tensions inherent in acculturation were more visible in the lives of refugees who fled Estonia after World War II. Many created successful lives in the United States, but on the other hand, as with many political refugees from the Soviet system, they passionately supported the overthrow of communism in Estonia. Some maintained hope that they would someday return to their native land. This refugee status created internal tensions for some Estonian Americans as they balanced loyalty to their heritage with newfound patriotism toward the United States and a desire to assimilate into American society. Today, much of the Estonian American community is composed of these first- and second-generation immigrants. Their small numbers and similarities with their middle-class urban neighbors enable these Estonians to generate positive attention in the United States. Estonian immigrants, generally literate, skilled, and industrious, are considered an American success story.

Cuisine Estonian cooking blends culinary influences from Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia with native traditions. The raw ingredients come from the forests, farms, and coastal waters of Estonia: berries, pork, cabbage, sour cream, and seafood such as salmon, herring, eel, and sprat. From Scandinavia and Finland come the traditional foods of the smorgasbord; from Germany come sauerkraut and various cold potato salads. Russian influences also abound. Dark rye bread is among the most popular staples in the Estonian diet, and it is widely available in American grocery stores and bakeries. Rossol is a cold salad mixture of potatoes, Page 101  |  Top of Articlevegetables, diced meat, and herring, with a sour cream and vinegar dressing. Mulgikapsad is a pork-and-sauerkraut dish that takes its name from an Estonian province. Other salads common to the Baltic region include a preserved mixed fruit salad and a sour cream and cucumber salad. Blood sausage, or verivorst, is also a favorite among Estonians and Estonian Americans, who often gather together around Christmas time to make this hearty mixture of cooked pig or cow blood with potatoes, onions, and spices wrapped in a sausage casing. Imported Estonian beers and liquors are often sold at community events. Today's Estonian Americans have fused native cuisine with traditional recipes, and the younger generation often prefers American fast food to its native cuisine, to the dismay of their parents.

Clothing As with many other European groups, Estonians have colorful regional costumes that immigrants sometimes brought with them to the United States, but these are worn only on special occasions, such as ethnic celebrations or festivals. Some Estonian Americans tend to favor the colors of the Estonian flag—blue, black, and white—when choosing a wardrobe.

Traditional costumes for women include a tunic shirt, a full colorful skirt, and an embroidered apron. The headdresses worn by women vary according to region and village. In southern Estonia, the traditional headdress for a married woman is a long embroidered linen kerchief worn around the head and down the back. In northern Estonia, small, intricately designed coifs (hats) adorn women's folk costumes. Heavy necklaces are also common. Men's costumes generally consist of wide-legged pants gathered at the knee and loose-fitting shirts. The principal headdress for men is a high, stiff felt hat or fur cap with earflaps, the latter of which is worn during the winter months. Both men's and women's traditional costumes include a decorative broach used to fasten shirts and blouses. During the winter, traditional Estonian costumes included high felt boots called valenka.

Holidays Along with the traditional Christian and American holidays, there are certain festival days that are of special significance to the Estonian American community. February 24 is celebrated as Estonia's Independence Day, marking the formal declaration of Estonian independence in 1918. A two-day holiday in June combines two separate celebrations, St. John's Eve (Jaanipäev, Midsummer) on June 23 and Victory Day on June 24. Reaching far back into history, Midsummer is a common festival in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. Victory Day commemorates the defeat of the Soviet Armies in the Estonian War of Independence (1918–1920). In their celebration of Christmas, Estonians extend the holiday a day or two after December 25; the first few days after Christmas are devoted to visiting friends and family, while the major celebration of Christmas is usually held on Christmas Eve. Mother's Day is also very important to Estonians and Estonian Americans.

A feature of resurgent Estonian nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was national song festivals, celebrated for a period of days during the summer. Estonians in Europe and North America continue to celebrate these festivals, organizing mass gatherings to honor Estonia and to maintain national identity. In North America, Estonians from Canada and the United States gathered in such celebrations from 1957 to 1968, twice in New York and twice in Canada.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Common Estonian greetings and other expressions (with pronunciation) include the following: Tere hommikut (tere hommikoot)—Good morning; Tere õhtut (tere erhtut)—Good evening; Jumalaga (yoomahlahgah)—Goodbye; Kuidas käsi käib? (kooydahs kasi kayb)—How are you?; Tänan hästi (tanahn haysti)—Fine, thanks; Palun (pahloon)—Please; Tänan (tanahn)—Thanks; Vabandage (vahbahndahge)—Excuse me; Jah (yah)—Yes; Ei (ey)—No; and Nägemieseni (nag-esmiseni)—See you later.

Health Care Issues and Practices Estonian Americans have embraced medicine as it is practiced in the United States. Many have entered the medical profession. A 1975 survey by the Väliseestlase kalender (“Almanac for the Estonian Abroad”) listed over one hundred Estonian American doctors or dentists, 25 percent of whom were women. The 2000 U.S. Census also indicated that there were over 1,400 Estonian Americans in the health care and social assistance fields, nearly 80 percent of which were women. The 2010 Census did not track ancestry, and although the Census Bureau's American Community Survey reported data for many ancestry groups, data for certain small groups, including Estonian Americans, were not released.


Before 1920 the Estonian American community consisted for the most part of young single men and women who came either to look for work or to escape the religious and political repression of tsarist Russia. Because the majority lived in cities on the east or west coasts, a stable immigrant community of families and other social institutions was slow to develop. However, the 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of a strong immigrant community, augmented after 1945 by the arrival of war refugees. Significant educational and economic advancement, a high rate of marriage outside the community, and gradual geographic dispersal moved the Estonians well into mainstream American life. At the same time, contemporary Estonian Americans have been able to retain a degree of ethnic consciousness that helps to hold the community together.

Festivals and events such as the West Coast Estonian Days festival, held annually in San Francisco, offer Estonian Americans a chance to congregate and share their traditional foods, songs, dances, and all other aspects of their culture with the larger American community. Another major Estonian cultural event, the Page 102  |  Top of ArticleESTO festival, has been held in different sites around the world every four years since 1972 and played an important role in garnering international support for a free and independent Estonia. An ESTO festival was held in New York City in 1992. The 2018 ESTO festival is scheduled to be held in Toronto, Ontario.

Sidebar: HideShow

After I got my citizenship, I sponsored two Estonian immigrant families. And a few years ago, I married a man from one of those families. So I have a new life. I feel that I have been blessed, really. This country has given me many things: a home, friendship, a chance to live again.

Leida Sorro in 1951, cited in American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It, edited by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980).

Gender Roles Whereas Estonian American men paralleled mainstream American gender roles in terms of acquiring education and working outside the home, Estonian American women transcended traditional gender roles in their pursuit of education and careers, beginning with the first migration. In 1932 an anonymous Estonian American writer commenting in his journal Meie Tee (quoted in The Estonians in America, 1627–1975: A Chronology and Factbook) remarked about his community: “Estonian women here have always worked, even though the husband might have a well-paying job.” For example, a 1968 survey of young Estonian American women showed that, whereas 14 percent had ended their educations at the high school level, 61 percent had graduated from college. The 2000 U.S. Census also supported such findings, noting that 56 percent of Estonian American women held at least an associate's degree and 19 percent had attained a master's degree or higher. The above-average rate of women's educational levels and careers outside the home partly explains the swift rise in socioeconomic status of the Estonian American community. Estonian American women have also formed numerous local, national, and international women's organizations centered on educational and social concerns, which have banded with other Baltic-American women's groups to achieve common goals.

Education Education has played an important role in shaping the Estonian American community and in moving these immigrants into mainstream American life. Because Estonia in the nineteenth century had higher levels of literacy than many other parts of the Russian empire, many early immigrants were literate. Likewise, a significant number of the political refugees who fled Estonia after the abortive 1905 revolution were educated, and the socialist ferment within the community produced journals, newspapers, and reading rooms. Furthermore, a number of refugees who arrived in the United States after 1945 were members of Estonia's educational and political elite, and they increased the community's emphasis on education still more. The 2000 U.S. Census indicated that 95 percent of Estonian Americans were high school graduates or higher, and 51.5 percent held a bachelor's degree or higher. Also among the postwar immigrants were a number of Estonian intellectuals and academics who took positions in the American educational system. Estonian Americans have tended to specialize in science and technology, moving into fields such as engineering and architecture. The 2000 Census also showed growth in sales and management positions, and in teaching, particularly among Estonian American women. The Census Bureau did not release more recent statistics on smaller groups such as Estonian Americans.

The Estonian American community established a number of institutions to promote advancement in scholarship and education. These include Estonian academic fraternities and sororities, as well as an Estonian Students Association in the United States, which promotes knowledge of Estonian language and culture and Estonian study abroad. Learned societies, such as the Estonian Educational Society, sponsor publications and conferences. A number of other specialized educational groups have a broader membership that extends throughout North America and Europe.

Estonian schools, located in major centers of the Estonian American community, are designed to supplement the education of Estonian youth by teaching Estonian language, geography, history, and culture. The New York Estonian Educational Society, for example, sponsors the New Yorgi Eesti Kool (New York Estonian School), which has been in operation since 1950. These schools are linked through a regional and national network.


Political activity among Estonian Americans has been shaped in part by fluctuations in Estonia's status as an independent country. Because of Estonia's dependent circumstances in the nineteenth century, many Estonian immigrants lacked a clear consciousness of their national identity. The rise of Estonian nationalism, coupled with the communist struggle against the tsarist government, prompted Estonian Americans to become involved in their homeland's affairs. As political refugees streamed into the country after the unsuccessful revolution in 1905, leadership of the immigrant community and many of its institutions passed into communist hands. The Russian revolution and the struggle to free Estonia (1917–1920) divided Estonian Americans between those who supported a free Estonia and those who supported its inclusion within the Soviet Union. The Estonian nationalists prevailed as sense of national pride grew. In the wider sphere of American politics, the immigrant community was not particularly active unless the Republic of Estonia's affairs were directly involved. The number of Page 103  |  Top of Articleimmigrants seeking citizenship in the United States during this period was lower than for other Baltic nationalities.

The Soviet invasion of Estonia in 1940 along with the arrival of war refugees after 1945 dramatically increased the community's political involvement. The major concern became Estonian independence from Soviet control. Many Estonian and Baltic-American groups formed to support this goal, including the Joint Baltic American National Committee (1961) and the Baltic World Council (1972). There were also joint cultural and educational efforts and celebrations, and a Baltic Women's Council (1947). Their initial activities centered on lobbying both the U.S. government and the United Nations to prevent legal recognition of the Soviet conquest of Estonia. Because of their efforts (in concert with those of Latvian and Lithuanian Americans), the U.S. government never recognized the annexation of these three Baltic countries. Consequently, following World War II the three Baltic nations maintained consulates in the United States. Estonian Americans, as well as other Eastern European immigrant groups, were particularly outraged by the 1945 U.S.-Soviet agreement at Yalta, which they viewed as a betrayal of the nations under communist domination.

After 1945 most Estonian Americans supported the Republican Party, faulting the Democrats for the Yalta agreement and viewing the Republicans as more sympathetic to their concerns. In 1970 the Estonian American National Republic Committee was formed, with a network of Estonian American Republican clubs established in geographic centers of the immigrant community. This trend of support for the Republican Party continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since that time, Estonian American political views have greatly diversified.

Estonian Americans served in the U.S. armed forces in every significant military conflict of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, including significant numbers in the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1951 an Estonian American, Kalju Suitsev, received a Silver Star and Purple Heart for bravery in Korea. Many Estonian youth served in Vietnam, including a number who were killed or decorated for bravery. Given the fervent patriotic and anticommunist stance of the Estonian American community during this period, its support for military service was strong. The Estonian Defense Force also participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, continuing the tradition of military cooperation between Estonia and the United States.


Although small in number, the Estonian American community has produced a number of noteworthy people, particularly in the fields of architecture, education, engineering and technology, the applied arts, and music.

Architecture Perhaps the most prominent Estonian American architect was Anton Hanson, who was born in Estonia in 1879 and immigrated to the United States in 1906. Hanson was one of the architects of the Seattle World's Fair, for which he was awarded the grand prize.

Art The sculptor Woldemar Rannus (1880–1944) came to the United States in 1905. Rannus studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and later in Europe. He molded a bas-relief of Albert Beach, designer of the New York City subway, for the subway station near City Hall. Andrew Winter (1893–1958) painted winter scenes and seascapes in a realist style. Born in Estonia, he studied in the United States and eventually settled in Maine.

Commerce and Industry Carl Sundbach (1888–1950), born in Estonia, invented a freezer that greatly reduced the time required to bulk freeze fish. William Zimdin (1881–1951) was an international businessman and millionaire. Zimdin began his career in the United States in 1920 by arranging transactions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Otto Lellep (1884–1975), born in Estonia, was a metallurgical engineer who came to the United States in 1917. Working in the United States and Germany, he developed a cement baking oven and made advancements in the processing of steel, iron ore, and nickel. Lellep went into business manufacturing his ovens in the United States after World War II. John Kusik, born in Estonia in 1898, rose to become director and senior vice president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and served on a number of other corporate boards.

Education Herrman Eduard von Holst (1841–1904) studied in Estonia and received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He became the first chair of the history department at the University of Chicago and wrote a number of important works on American and European history. He also held academic positions in Germany and France. Theodore Alexis Wiel was born in Estonia in 1893 but attended college in the United States. After being decorated for service in France in World War I, Wiel earned a doctorate in international relations and taught at American International College, where he also served as dean. Ragnar Nursek (1907–1959) studied in Estonia and Britain before coming to the United States, where he taught economics at Columbia University. Nursek authored a number of works on international economics and also served on the League of Nations prior to World War II. Ants Oras (1900–1982) was an English professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia who came to the United States via England after World War II and then taught at the University of Florida. Arthur Vööbus (1909–1990) obtained his doctorate in Estonia in 1943 and came to the United States after the war. A biblical scholar and expert on early Syrian Christianity, Vööbus taught at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

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Estonian-born Tiit Helimets dances with Sarah Van Patten for the San Francisco Ballet.

Estonian-born Tiit Helimets dances with Sarah Van Patten for the San Francisco Ballet. DOUG GIFFORD / GETTY IMAGES

Film Film director Bill Rebane (1937–) immigrated to the United States with his family in 1952. He is known for a number of horror films, including Monster a-Go-Go (1965) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1975).

Government William Leiserson (1883–1957), born in Estonia, received his PhD from Columbia University in 1911. A specialist in labor affairs, he was employed by the U.S. Department of Labor and appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to the Labor Arbitration Commission in 1939.

Journalism Edmund Valtman (1914–2005) came to the United States in 1949. A political cartoonist with the Hartford Times, Valtman received the Pulitzer Prize for his drawings in 1961.

Music Ludvig Juht (1894–1957), an Estonian-born musician, specialized in the contrabass. Juht had an international career in Estonia, Finland, and Germany until Serge Koussevitzky brought him to the United States in 1934 to serve as principle contrabass with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Juht taught at both the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University and worked as a composer. Evi Liivak (1924–1996) was born in Estonia and studied the violin. In 1951 she joined her American husband in the United States and has enjoyed an international career.

Neeme Järvi (1937–) is an Estonian-born conductor who immigrated to the United States in 1980. He was the musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, among others. His sons Paavo (1962–) and Kristjan (1972–) are both prominent conductors, and his daughter Maarika (1964–) is a flautist with a number of symphony orchestras around the world.

Performance Ballet dancer Tiit Helimets (1975–) was born in Estonia, where he performed with the Estonian National Ballet beginning in 1996. He became the principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet in 2005.

Science and Technology Elmar Leppik, a biologist educated in Estonia and Europe, came to the United States in 1950. He taught at a number of American universities and then worked as a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Maryland. Igor Taum, born in Estonia in 1922, came to the United States in 1945 and served as a research physician at Rockefeller University in New York City, where he specialized in the study of viruses. Richard Härm (1909–1996) was educated in Estonia and Germany prior to coming to the United States after World War II. He taught mathematics at Princeton University. Rein Kilkson (1927–2011) was born in Page 105  |  Top of ArticleEstonia and received his doctorate at Yale University in 1949. A physicist, he did research in the areas of biophysics and virology and taught at the University of Arizona. Lauri Vaska (1925–), a chemist, discovered a new chemical compound, which was eventually named the “Vaska compound.” Vaska taught at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, New York. Harald Oliver, Jyri Kork (1927–2001), and Rein Ise participated as scientists in the U.S. space program on the Apollo moon project and the Skylab space station.

Stage and Screen Miliza Korjus (1909–1980) was born in Estonia to Estonian and Polish parents. A soprano, Korjus performed the leading role in the film The Great Waltz (1938), a biography of the waltz king Johann Strauss. Korjus later settled in California to continue her singing career. Ivan (John) Triesault (1893–1980), born in Estonia, was a film actor who made over twenty-five films, from Mission to Moscow (1942) to Von Ryan's Express (1965). He specialized in playing character roles, including German military officers.

Actress Mena Suvari (1979–), known for her roles in such films as American Beauty (1999) and American Pie (2000) as well as her role on the HBO series Six Feet Under (2004), of Estonian descent.


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Journal of Baltic Studies

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Fax: (402) 280-4731

Vaba Eesti Sõna (Free Estonian Word)

Estonian American weekly, established in 1949.

Kärt Ulman, Editor
Nordic Press, Inc.
243 East 34th Street
New York, New York 10016
Phone: (212) 686-3356
Fax: (212) 686-3356


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Estonian American National Council

Founded in 1952, this umbrella organization represents all Estonian Americans and major Estonian American organizations. Coordinates the efforts of the member groups; supports political, cultural, and social activities; provides grants for study; and maintains a library and archives at its headquarters in New York City.

Marju Rink-Abel, President
243 East 34th Street
New York, New York 10016
Phone: (212) 685-0776

Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC)

The ecclesiastical structure for all Estonian Lutherans outside of Estonia, headquartered in Sweden. Promotes religious education and outreach in the immigrant communities, conducts religious services, and maintains congregations. The North American branch of the EELC consists of twelve congregations in the United States and eleven in Canada.

Rev. Udo Petersoo, Archbishop for North America
383 Jarvis Street
Toronto, Ontario M5B 2C7
Phone: (416) 925-5465
Fax: (416) 925-5465

Estonian Heritage Society

Umbrella organization for over fifty Estonian cultural organizations. Promotes and seeks to preserve Estonian cultural heritage.

Mart Aru, Chair
Pikk 46
Tallinn 10133
Phone: (372) 6412 522

New York Estonian Educational Society

Founded in 1929, this scholarly organization seeks to encourage Estonian studies, especially in English, and supports translation of Estonian literary works. Owns and operates the New York Estonian House, the largest Estonian cultural organization in New York.

Toomas Sõrra, President
243 East 34th Street
Estonian House, New York
New York 10016
Phone: (212) 684-0336
Fax: (212) 684-6588


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Estonian Archives in the United States

The main archives for documents on the immigrant settlements and their development. Located in the Estonian American community of Lakewood, New Jersey, this institution is particularly valuable to the study of Estonian Americans.

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607 East Seventh Street, Lakewood
New Jersey 08701
Phone: (732) 363-6523

Estonian Society of San Francisco

A cultural, educational, and social foundation for Estonian Americans on the West Coast. It sponsors ethnic scouting, dancing, and scholarship and maintains a library and reading room.

Ingrid Echter, President
255 King Street
Apt. 1609
San Francisco, California 94158
Phone: (917) 696-7888

Immigration History Research Center

Located at the University of Minnesota, this center is a valuable archival resource for many of the immigrant groups from eastern and southern Europe, including the Estonians. In addition to newspapers and serials, the center also has a collection of books and monographs, along with the records of Estonian American groups in Minnesota and Chicago.

Dr. Rudolph Vecoli, Director
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222 21st Avenue S
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455
Phone: (612) 627-4208
Fax: (612) 626-0018

Office of the Estonian Consulate General

Representing the Republic of Estonia in the United States, the consulate is a valuable resource for general information on Estonia and the Estonian American community.

3 Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza
305 East 47th Street
Suite 6B
New York, New York 10017-2001
Phone: (212) 883-0636
Fax: (212) 883-0648


Balys, J., and Uno Teemant. “Estonian Bibliographies: A Selected List.” Lituanus: The Lithuanian Quarterly 19, no. 3, (1973): 54–72.

Miljan, Toivo. Historical Dictionary of Estonia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Parming, Marju, and Tönu Parming. A Bibliography of English-Language Sources on Estonia. New York: Estonian Learned Society in America, 1974.

Pennar, Jaan, Tönu Parming, and P. Peter Rebane, eds. The Estonians in America, 1627–1975: A Chronology and Factbook. Ethnic Chronology Series, no. 17. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1975.

Raun, Toivo. Estonia and Estonians. Studies in Nationalities. 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2001.

Tannberg, Kersti, and Tönu Parming. Aspects of Cultural Life: Sources for the Study of Estonians in America. New York: Estonian Learned Society in America, 1979.

Walko, M. Ann. Rejecting the Second Generation Hypothesis: Maintaining Estonian Ethnicity in Lakewood, New Jersey. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300070