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The Righteous Estonian Poet

Saved his student

Uku Masing was an Estonian poet and philosopher who hid a Jewish friend from the Gestapo for four years, putting his own life in grave danger.

Uku was born in 1909 to a humble peasant family in Lipa, a village in northwestern Estonia. A highly gifted child, Uku had an astonishing facility with languages. He spoke four by the time he finished high school, and by the end of his life was conversant in forty! He attended college at the University of Tartu, the most prestigious university in Estonia, where he studied theology. While a student, Uku began publishing poetry, essays, and translations. He became part of the Arbujad (“Soothsayers”), a group of young poets who were revitalizing Estonian poetry. 

After graduating from college, Uku began teaching theology and Semitic languages at the University of Tartu, his alma mater. His brilliance, dynamic teaching style, and offbeat eccentricity made him popular among students and colleagues alike. As a translator, there was nobody like him; he could translate from twenty languages. Uku had a lifelong interest in Jewish religion and culture, and translated directly from Hebrew to Estonian, which was very unusual. In 1939, Uku was invited to lecture at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but unfortunately the outbreak of war made it impossible for him to attend.

In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Estonia. A prominent Judeophile, Uku came to the attention of the German occupiers as a subversive figure. Under pressure to conform to the new regime in charge of the university, Uku instead quit his job to focus on preserving Jewish religious and cultural artifacts. Thanks to his tireless efforts, many one-of-a-kind items were saved from Nazi looters. As the Nazis began targeting and deporting Estonian Jews, Uku reached out to his old student Isidor Levin to see if the young Jewish folklorist needed help. The offer was a lifeline to Isidor, who was on the list for deportation to a concentration camp like most of Estonia’s other Jews. Uku and Eha brought Isidor into their home. They protected him, kept him safe, and provided for his daily needs, never knowing how long the difficult situation would continue. The German occupation of Estonia lasted three long years. During this entire time, the Masings did everything they could for Isador, including providing him with fake identity documents in case he were arrested. Uku and Isidor spent the long hours together discussing folklore, religion, poetry, and philosophy.

Both Uku and Eha were questioned by the Gestapo, and under penalty of death they swore they weren’t helping any Jews. In fact, they saved Isidor Levin’s life. He later became a prominent folklorist and academic who was honored by Estonian president Lennart Meri before dying at age 98. Uku Masing is now regarded as one of the greatest Estonian poets. After the war, he led an investigation of Nazi war crimes in the Klooga concentration camp. In 1969, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored Uku Masing as Righteous Among the Nations. Uku died in Tartu, Estonia in 1985.

For saving his friend’s life and caring for him, and for his beautiful poetry, we honor Uku Masing as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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