Herman Sergo, a ship´s captain and a writer, wrote about the world he knew every inch of: the life of old salts from the seas and the people of the seaside villages of Hiiumaa, the second biggest island of Estonia. His father was a seaman, and following the village men´s example of that seafarers´ island, Sergo went to sea as a mere schoolboy on his father´s clipper. His seamen’s stories tie together the legends of the sea, almost unbelievable adventures, love for the sea and old times. And somewhere inside his books is also hidden the unhappy fate of the sailors of his generation, sailing the closed sea of Soviet Estonia, although his life was probably the most adventurous and complicated of Estonian writers.

Herman Sergo was born in 1911 in a seaside village on Hiiumaa. First a ship´s boy, then a sailor, mate and long-distance sailing captain, he was a young skipper at sea in 1940, when the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States, and was forced to head for Tallinn with his ship. He wrote about it decades later in an autobiographical story Viis aastat võõra nime all (Five Years Incognito, 1992), published after his death: he was among the last to leave Tallinn for Kronstadt on the icebreaker Tasuja in August 1941, to know the hunger of the Siege of Leningrad, the severe winter of 1941/42 and the long death journey over Lake Ladoga, then to snowy Siberia. The survivors managed to make it to Tajikistan, where he lost his passport and got one from a fellow traveller. The enterprising spirit kept him alive in the shadows of the war, and he happened to serve even in the Finnish Winter War, all the time incognito. He got his right name back, after many partly funny, partly terrifying adventures, in 1947. Captain Sergo then taught in the maritime school and began writing. His gift of story-telling, in boundlessly rich and original language, his way of looking to the land from the sea, not vice versa, and the hobgoblins and high seas of his seamen’s stories led him soon to become a professional writer.

Sergo´s book Põgenike laev (The Ship of Refugees, 1966) was the first inside the Iron Curtain in Estonia to tell about the escape of the seaside village inhabitants to Sweden in 1944, when the Germans retreated. Sergo´s family was with them. In Rukkirahu (Steamer Called Rukkirahu, 1990) he told the story of his last pre-war ship and seamen. Most of them were executed on the island of Osmussaar in 1941.

Sergo was of Estonian origin, but has recorded with interest the history of the island´s free-born Swedes, a small ethnic group of people who stood up for their rights in the 18th century and were deported to Ukraine by Empress Catherine the Great in 1781 to colonize the territories near the Black Sea, on the riverside of the Dniepr. The historical sequel Näkimadalad I–III (Neckmansgrund, 1984–1985), based on historical research and archive sources, appeared in the renaissance period of the historical novel in Estonia. One of the protagonists is the Baltic German landlord of Dagö-Großenhof in Hiiumaa, `the crazy count´ Otto Reinhold Ludwig von Ungern-Sternberg, whose tragic family story is also the topic of Randröövel (The Beach Robber, 1988). He lured the ships with a false lighthouse to the dangerous reef called Neckmansgrund near the big seaway and then claimed compensation to have the ships rescued. In 1804 Ungern-Sternberg was found guilty of piracy and killing one of his Coastal Swedish captains, and sent to Siberia. Neckmansgrund was made into a film in 1989.

The old seaman died in 1989. Some of his novels had stayed in manuscript because of censorship, and were published posthumously. Sergo was one of those writers who brought the vivid life of the Estonian islands and islanders to the literary world, and his historical novels are thrilling and memorable.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee

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