Sulev Kaja. An Estonian at heart

by Michel Fincoeur


“After a week’s voyage on a small, Estonian cargo ship of venerable age, across a proud North Sea, and a breezy Baltic, having as a view nothing more than a clear bright sky and  distant coastline lost in mist, it was on a sunny July morning that I disembarked on the quayside in Tallinn, together with about thirty Estonians, clearly overjoyed to see again the beloved shore of their homeland” That is how the travel notes of a young Belgian reporter began. Elsewhere, he wrote: “It was in the evening of our sixth day that we had our first glimpse of Estonian land, in this case the blurred and indistinct profile of the island of Muhu, and the first, Estonian light-ship which, in response to our ship’s acknowledgement, emitted to the sky, a friendly jet of steam, signifying a welcome, just like a that of a grandfather, very happy to welcome back his children after a long absence”.

The traveller’s name was Jacques BARUCH.  Born into an intellectual, bourgeois family in Brussels on 23rd January 1919, his father was a doctor, his uncles, cousins and godfather journalists or painters, he had both Belgian and Dutch roots and had been christened in England where his mother also had family. From 1935, at the age of sixteen, he developed a passionate interest in the Finno-Ugric nations, particularly Estonia and Finland. It was at this time, during the Brussels World Fair, that he founded the short-lived World Union of which he was not only the Secretary-general, but was also in charge of the Finnish section. Because of this initiative, many began to regard him as an expert in all things Finnish. He soon became linked to the Belgian Theosophical Society, where he presented a paper on the origins of the Finno-Ugrian peoples. As soon as he finished his classical studies, which held little interest for him, he took up journalism and published his first article on Estonia, in time to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the small republic’s independence. Qualified in Esperanto, he used this language to enter into extensive correspondence with the two Nordic countries. He also struck up a friendship with the small Estonian community in Brussels, and in particular with the legation’s secretary, Olga Karma-Gutman.

In October 1938, Jacques Baruch embarked on the first year of his studies at the Belgian Journalists’ Institute. Not overkeen on classwork, in January 1939, he decided to establish a Central Office for the Baltic countries.  This was to serve not only as a publicity agency for Baltic and Finnish industrialists, but also as a travel agency and an information centre. So as clearly to identify himself with his newly chosen homeland, on his twentieth birthday, he adopted the Estonian pseudonym of Sulev J. KAJA;  (Sulev was a hero of the Kalevipoeg;  J stood for Jacques;  and Kaja means echo in Estonian).  On 24th February 1939, he was invited to participate in two broadcasts on Estonia’s celebration of its twenty first birthday. From that time onwards, he was recognised as the Belgian specialist on Estonian and Finnish matters and, in June 1939, confirmed the adoption of his pseudonym. At the end of the academic year, Sulev Kaja decided to pay a visit to Estonia. To pay for his trip he became a freelance reporter for La Gazette in Brussels.

That is how, on a rainy afternoon in July 1939,  Sulev Kaja left Antwerp for Tallinn. He was accompanied on the voyage by Irene Holberg, daughter of the Estonian minister Johan Holberg, who had just spent three months in Brussels. On board, he also became friendly with the painter Karin Lutz, who introduced him to a number of artists and writers, including the poet Marie Under. Once in Tallinn, he stayed with Johan Holberg whose wife, Margarete, he had met in Brussels. He got to know the city and its surroundings, as well the islands, in the company of Luule Adamka and Otto Karma-Gutman, Olga’s brother. With Hilde Dresen, he translated stories, and never ceased to be amazed by the fact that: “here,  (….) people speak Estonian, French, German, Russian and Esperanto! It’s a real Tower of Babel!”. Sulev KAJA joined Margarete Holberg and her daughters Irene and Rita when they went to their Laura summer residence, in the far South-East of the country, close to the border with Latvia and the USSR. Provided with official letters of introduction, he travelled the length and breadth of the country. On his way to Narva, he was received at Oru manor house, the property of President Konstantin Päts and, on leaving, was given a lift in his official car. He described to his mother the faces of the inhabitants of the neighbouring town who were astonished to see an ungainly youth stepping out of the president’s car. After a visit to Narva, and its two, spectacular castles, he went on to Narva-Jõesuu, the “Riviera of the Baltic”.

Benefiting from a windfall, he left for Helsinki on 28th August.  In the Finnish capital they refused to change his Estonian crowns.  In fact, international tension was reaching its peak and Finland feared that the Baltic countries would be dragged into the war. Almost penniless, he visited Tampere and Turku, where news of the German invasion of Poland took him by surprise. Sulev Kaja returned to Tallinn on 5th September. He compared the two capitals: “In Helsinki, everyone was calm, whereas in Tallinn, the atmosphere is feverish and everyone waits impatiently for the latest despatches”. On about the fifteenth of September, just when he was contemplating a possible return to Belgium, Jean Cathala, director of the Alliance Francaise, asked him if he knew how to swim. On receiving a negative response, he added:  “In that case, dear sir, it’s time you learned!”. Preferring the safety of terra firma to the risk of being torpedoed, Sulev Kaja continued to study the Estonian language, and took lessons in playing the Estonian zither, kannel. He thought about settling permanently in Estonia.  Without any resources, he made ends meet by teaching French and publishing articles on Belgium in the Tartu Postimees and in the Helsingin Sanomat.  Young KAJA was in Tallinn when a Polish submarine sought sanctuary in the port.  During the night, and ignoring warnings, the submarine escaped, under gunfire, to the open seas.  Though his mother sought to persuade him to return to Belgium, he replied to her at the end of September, saying that:  “Finland and Estonia are the only things in the world that interest me”, and he added:  “I feel more at home here in Estonia than anywhere else”.  But his new home was threatened:  the Soviets were putting Estonia under immense pressure and, as a result of the Polish submarine’s escape, demanded the right for naval bases to be handed over to them.  From being a trainee journalist, travelling abroad, he became a special correspondent. In the 3rd October 1939 edition of the Brussels La Gazette, he wrote that:  “the Russo-Estonian treaty seems but the first step in a progressive annexation”.  Totally dismayed, Sulev Kaja discovered that the first elements of the Soviet army had arrived: warships anchored in Tallinn bay.  He was also present when tens of thousands of German Balts hurriedly left Tallinn,  each carrying only a small suitcase as luggage.  Confronted by this tragedy, he wrote in the 17th October edition of La Gazette:  “In the months and years to come, and as a prominent Estonian recently declared, Estonians, above anything else, must put all their energy into defending Estonian culture”.  He added:  “In fact, more than ever, the Estonian people must do everything they can to ensure that a unique and truly national culture is kept alive in their homeland”.

On 14th October, in the morning, he cabled a final despatch before climbing into the last, packed, Baltic Express. Thereafter, an iron curtain fell over the Baltic republics. Back in Brussels, Sulev Kaja kept in touch with his new homeland, and became the Brussels correspondent for Postimees, under the pseudonym of M. Hilde.  Very quickly, he received news from Estonia:  his correspondent Aade Lall wrote telling him that as from 17th October, two days after the invasion, the use of Esperanto had become  forbidden.  On the day of his return, in the evening, Sulev Kaja re-established contact with his Estonian friends who were devastated by the Soviet occupation.  In order to attract the Belgian public’s attention, and to strengthen the bonds which existed within the exiled, Estonian community, the National Association of Estonians in Belgium  (Belgia Eesti Rahvuslik Selts), asked him to address a meeting that they had called.  Five hundred invitations were issued. The organisation of the meeting became the object of an unfortunate controversy,  Belgium seeking to observe the strictest neutrality, with some consular authorities fearing the adverse impact of any reference to the international situation.  Nevertheless, on 15th November Sulev Kaja addressed a large meeting on the subject of “Estonia yesterday and today. Prospects for the future”.  Two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Finland.   Sulev Kaja took up Finland’s cause wholeheartedly.   During the three months of the Winter War, he addressed about thirty meetings on the subject of Estonia and Finland. The Finnish Consulate General, being careful not to offend protocol in neutral Belgium, entrusted him with rousing public opinion in favour of the small republic.  In February 1940, he participated in a debate with one of the leading lights of the Belgian Communist Party, the future writer Julien Ségnaire.

In September 1940, with Belgium itself now occupied, Sulev Kaja again made contact with the Tartu Postimees, telling them that he “did not believe that his services could still be of value to the esteemed paper”.  Ever since the October 1939 occupation, and even more so since the war against Finland.  Sulev Kaja became a rabid anti-communist.  From 1940 to 1944, he published numerous articles on Finland and Estonia. He contributed to the anti-bolshevik exhibition “Voici les Soviets”,  (“Here are the Soviets”),  and wrote several books on Finland, Eastern Karelia and Estonia, one of which was Un An de bolchevisme dans les Pays Baltes,  (One Year of bolshevism in the Baltic countries).  Having failed to establish his Central Office for the Baltic countries, at the beginning of 1944, he set up a publishing agency, the Agence des Grandes Editions de Finlande.  During the war and in the immediate, post-war period, Sulev Kaja had at his disposal a portfolio of at least thirty books which he offered to Belgian and French publishers. Amongst them were several Swedish novels, and novels by the Estonian writer August Gailit.  In 1943, Sulev Kaja wrote to him in Tallinn to agree the conditions under which the rights to his novels Toomas Nipernaadi and Ekke Moor might be transferred.  In fact the publisher  Les Ecrits de Bruxelles “would be (…) ready  to take an option on the French edition of all his work”.  Translation would be undertaken jointly by Olga Karma-Gutman, former secretary of the Estonian legation and former vice-President of the National Association of Estonians, and by Sulev Kaja who would also be responsible for the French adaptation.  The postal service to the East had become very difficult, and Kaja wrote several times requesting a reply to the proposal made by Les Ecrits de Bruxelles. It was only in the autumn of 1945 that August Gailit, having gained refuge in Sweden, was able to contact him.  On 1st May 1946, Sulev Kaja told him that a contract had been signed with les Editions de La Sixaine for publication of Toomas Nipernaadi.  Publication of the novel did not lead to great riches for either the author or his agent, however.  Royalties paid into a Belgian account under Gailit’s name were frozen by the Office des Changes for the duration of a long court case between La Sixaine and Sulev Kaja whilst they sought to reach a compromise agreement on how the income from the book’s sale might be shared. In 1946, August Gailit explained to Sulev Kaja:  “I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to reply to you earlier but I was compelled to flee Estonia with just a small suitcase and I couldn’t take any of my books with me”.  Just as Gailit fled Estonia to avoid being deported to Siberia or being killed by the communists, so Kaja was to become familiar with Belgian prisons on account of his anti-communism.  Arrested in September 1944 for having written for the pro-German press, and primarily for having written an anti-communist pamphlet,  he was freed five months later.  Though benefiting from a decision by the Justice Militaire that he had no case to answer, he was nonetheless banned from exercising his profession as a journalist.  To get round this restriction, he changed his pseudonyms.  He adopted that of Kaja-Koskinen for his publishing activities, that of Marie-Claire Havenne for the magazine Annette,  and that of Olavi-Koskinen for the weekly Tintin.  Hergé, the creator of Tintin and Milou had faced similar problems at the time of the Liberation.  When his weekly was founded, he went out of his way to gather together his fellow companions in misfortune.  Sulev Kaja published several Estonian stories in the weekly.  For Hergé, Sulev Kaja  was not a stranger.  In fact, Sulev Kaja was the cousin of one of Hergé’s close collaborators, the designer and artist Jacques Laudy, who was the inspiration for Edgar P. Jacobs’ captain Blake, and he often met Hergé at the literary and musical soirées organised by the Finnish pianist Hjördis Callas.  A large puzzle in the world of Tintin is the inspiration behind the person of the Estonian pilot who appeared for the first time in Coke en Stock: “Szut, that’s my name  …. Piotr Szut … I’m Estonian …”.  Is it too much to believe that Sulev Kaja, even if he was not the inspiration for the personality of the pilot, was at least the prompt for his nationality?  This suggestion was put to one of the most important experts on Tintin, Benott Peeters, who judged the hypothesis to be entirely plausible, Hergé being in the habit of drawing his characters from his circle of friends. Although this idea will not be taken further, some may note that Sulev Kaja also made the trip to Tallinn “on board a pleasant, Estonian cargo boat, the ‘Pearu’”, whose name is tantalisingly close to that of the “Peary” in “L’Ile mystérieuse.  But in this latter case, there is no doubt that it was the American explorer who was the inspiration for the boat’s name.

Faced by the difficulties which the ban on exercising his profession created, Sulev Kaja retrained in a variety of manual trades and professions:  horticulturalism, cabinet-making and antique dealing.  Rehabilitated in 1950, he was unable to re-establish himself as a journalist and abandoned his Estonian pseudonym.  In 1964, he opened an antiquarian bookshop and became a publisher, specialising in the Far-East.  In 1975, he edited Légendes d’Estonie under his own name. The dedication in the book reads:  “In memory of all those people who helped me to choose these texts and undertake their translation, and who disappeared in the great tempest or who now wander along the world’s pathways.  To Hilda Dresen and Olga Karma”.  In these few lines he paid tribute not only to two of his old friends, but also to all the Estonian people and their martyrdom.  Sulev Kaja died on 19th July 2002.

                                                                                                           Dr Michel B. Fincoeur
 J. Kaja-Koskinen, Souvenirs del’Europe disparue: l’Estonie.  Manuscript, p.3-4  (ASJK – Voyage Estonie 1939 – Souvenirs de voyage Ms.).
 Sulev J. Kaja, Souvenirs de voyage au pays des Finnois (summer 1939). Corrected typescript, p.1  (ASJK – Voyage Estonie 1939 – Souvenirs de voyage Ms.).

Translated by Gwyn Davies