The Estonian Relief Committee (ERC) was established in 1941 to aid Estonians being impacted by World War II. Troops, tanks and warplanes from communist Russia overran Estonia in 1939-40 under the guise that the Estonian people wanted to join the Soviet Union. Deportations of Estonian men, women and children to Siberia occurred soon after. The borders to Estonia were closed, contact was difficult and yet it was clear that financial help for Estonians was desperately needed. The ERC was officially granted 501(c)3 designation as a non-profit charitable entity on October 31, 1942 “…to relieve and mitigate the suffering of Estonian citizens.”
The idea for the Estonian Relief Committee is credited to the Estonian Consul to the U.S. Johannes Eduard Markus. The ERC became the first Estonian relief organization of its kind and served as a model for Estonian relief committees that sprang up in other countries throughout the world.
During the years of 1948-1952, the ERC helped the flood of Estonian refugees find homes in the free world, offered them financial aid, and insured they were treated justly. Together with the NY Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the ERC enabled over 12,000 Estonians that were able to escape Russian occupation to immigrate to the USA between 1948-1952. The ERC matched immigrants with sponsors, who provided jobs and living quarters for a set period of time. The ERC helped Estonians that crossed the ocean in small sailing vessels called “Viking boats” (an especially dangerous voyage) as well as those that spent time as “DP’s” in displaced persons camps in Germany.
In the 1950’s the ERC donated funds to Estonian children’s summer camps in Germany, provided seed money for the construction of an Estonian War Veterans Home in Germany.
In the 1960’s, the ERC expanded its support to include Estonian youth groups and cultural activities in North America by helping to underwrite the Lakewood Estonian Girl and Boy Scout Jamborees of 1964 and 1967 (Koguja). In Germany, they donated to the Episcopal Grandparents Plan (Vaderabi) for Estonian children in Oldenburg.
In the 1970s and 80s the ERC used donations to send aid packages to needy Estonians via Sweden.
After Estonia regained its independence in the early 1990’s, the ERC expanded its charitable activities to include Estonian children’s hospitals, nursing homes, soup kitchens, indigent families with many children, the handicapped, and orphans caused by the sinking of the Tallinn-Helsinki ferry “Estonia”. The ERC also continues to support the Estonian Association of Injured Soldiers. In the US, the ERC supports Estonian youth and cultural organizations such as the children’s camps in Lakewood and Long Island, the Estonian Boy and Girl Scouts, Estonian Lutheran confirmation camp, folk-dancing groups and choruses.
Countless Estonians have served on the ERC board and as members since the organization’s inception in 1941. Past Presidents include: Salme Kaiv, Aleksandra Berg, Erich Harkna, Rudolf Kiviranna, Alfred Anderson, Paul Saar, Voldemar Vaher and Endel Reinpold. One of the longest-running members of the ERC is Virve Vaher, who began working in 1989 and continues on to the present.