Why I donated towards the Mass Flight Memorial – Esmée’s Story

This story was collected as part of a campaign in support of the Mass Flight Memorial. If you have a story to share about your family’s mass flight experience, please write to us at

By Esmée Okamoto

Why did I donate towards the creation of this memorial in Pärnu?

I did it in honour of my Grandmother, Ella Toovis (née Tomson/Pein), who escaped war torn Estonia to the safety of Camp Hochfeld, a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. My Grandmother fled with one young child (Dagmar Neal, née Pein) and bore my mother (Mailis Wakeham, née Pein) whilst in Miltenberg. A few years later they immigrated to Australia, but I think my Mother and Aunt were too young to appreciate the enormity of it all. 

Though they were young and keen to assimilate into their new environment, with no other immediate family travelling with them, I am glad to know they had a strong Estonian community here to support them. I grew up with bonus “Grandparents” and “family” that were Estonian family friends simply brought together by shared struggles (new jobs, friends, schools, a foreign language, etc) and adventures here in Australia. 

I often reflect on how brave my Grandmother was, an incredible journey to make with two young kids in tow and no family in Australia to call on for support… it must have been an emotional and challenging time. 

Ella Tomson with her daughters Mailis & Dagmar (L-R)

My Grandmother went on to marry an Estonian here in Adelaide, Heino Toovis (he even has a street named after him in Adelaide, having built the first house on the block) but very rarely did they talk of their struggles in Germany or Estonia… it was like they wanted to pretend it never happened. Blot it out… out of sight out of mind. 

Though I admit I hid from it in my youth, I am so thankful and proud to be part of the Australian Estonian community now. With thanks to singing with the Australian Estonian Choir Kooskõlas (travelling over to perform at Laulupidu) and embracing social media I have been able to meet, stay in touch with and better get to know an extended family I previously never knew existed. 

My friends in the Choir, Kasitöö (handicraft), Rahvatants (folk dancing) and local Estonian community (both here and interstate) act as my “family” here and continue to inspire me to be involved to do more to keep our unique community thriving. 

For these reasons and more I am keen to honour those that fled during the Mass Escape in 1944. They helped shape who I am today. 

This story was collected as part of a campaign in support of the Mass Flight Memorial – a global Estonian diaspora project. AESL are seeking donations until 31 July 2024 to make this monument a reality. Please consider making your donation today. If you, or someone you know, have a story to share about the mass flight experience, please write to us at