People talk about war too much, maybe because violence seems so profound, maybe because for people like me who have never been in one, it's hard to connect with those who have, people who have known true horror, those who have run through the woods with weapons, hunting one another like they were wild game. Alfred Käärmann was intimately acquainted with such terror. He died Feb. 4 at the age of 87.
Käärmann's story is similar to that of many metsavennad, the Estonian republican "forest brother" guerrilla groups that fought the Soviets in this country deep into the 1950s. He was drafted into service by the German Reich in February 1944, fought on the eastern front, and went into the woods in Võrumaa in October 1944. The next year, he lost his arm after a fight with Red Army troops. Despite this, he spent seven more years in hiding until his capture in 1952. He did time in Soviet labor camps until 1967, and was only allowed to return to Estonia in 1981.
In his later years, Käärmann was a member of the Congress of Estonia that led the movement to restore the Estonian state. He was also an author and wrote several books about his experiences. Most importantly, unlike many forest brothers, he lived to tell his tale, to even make it into the New York Times as their Saturday Profile in 2003. Because of his high profile, Käärmann is sort of the forest brother to me, the one who represents all the others. I feel connected to him because of those interviews and books, though I never had the pleasure to meet him in person.
Estonia is a country with strong folk traditions, and I personally feel that the drama that went down in the woods more than 60 years ago is being woven into these traditions. There is something deeply Estonian about going it alone, preferring to live off your wits in a hole in the ground for seven years, even if you've only got one arm, rather than be captured and sent to a prison camp. Resilience is the word. Käärmann was resilient. Some might call such a person a hero. But heroes are still just people, and people die. When they die, they become history.