‘We Want 200,000 of the Smartest’

Saw a few oral-testimony videos created by the Estonian Museum of Occupations (that is, occupations of the country, of which there were several), in which Estonians now living in the USA recalled their experiences after the war.

Estonians who left to avoid the postwar Soviet occupation were originally housed in displaced-persons camps, with 4,000 living in a camp near Geislingen, Germany.

After a few years in the camp, during which the Estonians created a native town with a rich cultural and commercial life, the UN Refugee organization started a program to permanently resettle the Estonians (and others). One male interviewee, who was born in 1936, recalled that representatives of several nations came to explain to the displaced persons what sort of refugees they wanted and why. The Belgians, he said, announced they wanted small people to work in coal mines with passages too narrow for Belgians to work in. The English said they needed nurses and caretakers for children. The Australians said they needed farmers.

And the Americans? They said “We just want 200,000 of the smartest.” The Estonian man’s father, who had run a shop and was a stamp collector, immediately raised his hands. After this came a series of intensive interviews to ascertain their cognitive ability and make sure that none of them had been either Communists or Nazis. The interviewers stressed that America didn’t want any of that ideological nonsense. “That’s not what America’s about,” they said. Then they were given a thorough medical evaluation and workup.

A woman who was involved in the same program said her family was resettled to Seabrook, New Jersey, to work in a plant that packaged frozen vegetables, one of the first of its kind in the world. They worked alongside Japanese, who had been forced to start new lives after internment during WWII.

As she said: “We Estonians were always at the top of the class, along with the Japanese.” The Estonians were put into normal American classes and had to learn English quickly. Most did within a few years. As soon as their English was good enough, the talented ones were taken off the production line and given managerial responsibilities, since it was a waste having smart people shove broccoli into cardboard packages. (Canada took a lot of Estonians, too, and Estonian-Canadians are now some of the richest and best-educated people in that country.)

Belgium announces it wants human moles. America announces it wants smart people. I can’t help thinking there’s a moral in this story about how to do immigration right.

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