Geographic Origins

The Republic of Estonia lies on the Baltic Sea in north-eastern Europe. It is bordered by Latvia to the south, Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are known as the Baltic States.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Estonian-born people were not shown separately in Australian census data until 1933, so it is difficult to trace early Estonian South Australians. It is known, however, that a small number of Estonians lived in South Australia before the Second World War. They were probably single young men. It is likely that they came to Australia as sailors on Baltic ships. In 1947 there were 18 Estonian South Australians.

Between 1939 and 1944, 65,000 Estonians fled the Soviet and Nazi occupations of their country. They escaped to Sweden or Germany, where they awaited resettlement in refugee camps. The first Estonian Displaced Persons (DPs) arrived in Australia in November 1947. Estonians continued to arrive until 1952. This wave of immigration brought 5,400 Estonians to Australia. Of these, 917 settled in South Australia.

Estonian DPs were employed under two-year Australian government contracts in unskilled or semiskilled occupations. Men worked as labourers for the Department of Engineering and Water Supply, at the Walter and Morris timber yard in Port Adelaide, in factories, on railways and at the Woomera Rocket Range. Women worked as domestics in South Australian hotels, hospitals and offices. When their contracts expired, Estonian South Australians began looking for work more suited to their qualifications and abilities. Many tradesmen and professionals returned to their former occupations.

In 1961 there were 876 Estonian South Australians.

Estonian South Australians are employed in a range of occupations. They have mainly settled in the metropolitan area.

Community Activities

Pastor Alfred Freund-Zinnbauer, a South Australian Lutheran of Jewish descent, helped to arrange the first gatherings of Estonian South Australians. Post-war Estonian arrivals met at Saint Stephen’s Church Hall, Wakefield Street, Adelaide, in 1948. The genesis of a community life was already evident. A male choir, folk dance group and basketball team were active. The basketball team developed into the sports club Estonia.

In December 1948 Pastor Freund-Zinnbauer organised a Christmas outing to bring together the Estonian people of Adelaide. At this picnic in the Adelaide Hills a committee was formed to plan celebrations for the 31st anniversary of the 1918 declaration of Estonian independence on 24 February.

92 people gathered to celebrate Independence Day on February 24, 1949, at the Arcadia cafe at 63 King William Street, Adelaide. People made speeches, a soprano and a double male quartet sang, folk dancers performed and the crowd sang traditional Estonian songs.

On 8 April, 1949, a group of 34 Estonians met at a church hall in Wellington Square, North Adelaide. They decided unanimously to establish an Estonian association. Mihkel Hennoste, Jaan Kirs, Bernhard Meos, Jerome Palm and Elfriede Sarg were elected to a committee charged with carrying out this ambition.

The first general meeting of the South Australian Estonian Association of Adelaide was held on August 3, 1949. A constitution was set down and entrance and membership fees decided.

The association initially met in a hall at the German Association in Flinders Street. It held musical evenings and social gatherings, and provided a haven for settlers who spoke little English and were coming to terms with an alienating new environment. Many found South Australia completely different from, and at odds with, the beloved country they had left behind.

In the summer of 1949 and 1950 an Estonian School was established at Woodside Migrant Hostel. Some of the Estonian Displaced Persons in the camp had been school teachers and had text books with them. At this time the school had 12 children, ranging in age from six to 11 years. At the end of 1950 16 children were receiving tuition in a private home in Adelaide on Saturday mornings. Estonian Scout and Guide groups were also established at this time. The Estonian School later held classes in the cellar of YMCA House in Grenfell Street, in rooms at the German Association, and at Saint Stephen’s Lutheran Church Hall.

A number of other Estonian clubs were founded or came to prominence in the 1950s. In 1950 the Estonian basketball team began playing in the South Australian Basketball Association’s A grade. In the same year an Estonian theatrical society was established. Its first production was performed at Stow Hall, Flinders Street, Adelaide, on 27 December, 1950. The play was a classical Estonian comedy by E. Vilde. No one in the community owned a published copy of the script. It had been painstakingly written from memory by Mr V Kuik while he was in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. Other Estonian groups formed at this time include a mixed choir (1952); returned servicemen’s and students’ associations (1953); an academic association (1954); a ladies choir and a ladies auxiliary (1957).

In 1953 Estonian South Australians established a corporate body, Our Home Co-operative Society Limited, to build or purchase a community hall. In April 1957 the society bought an old house in Kent Town. This proved to be too small for the various activities of the community. At an auction in December of the same year the society bought larger premises, the former British Tube Mills Hall in Jeffcott Street, North Adelaide.

Additional groups sprang up over the years under the auspices of the Estonian Association. A pensioners’ group was established in 1964, and a chess club in 1970. In 1971 Virgats, messenger, began regular publication as the association’s monthly newsletter. Two years later an Estonian Golf Club was established. In 1981 Estonian South Australians began to regularly broadcast radio programs on 5EBI-FM.

Today the Adelaide Estonian Society has approximately 250 members. Its male choir, folk dance groups, language school, ladies auxiliary, pensioners club and radio committee continue to promote Estonian culture and language. Sports are now played socially rather than competitively.

Vikerkaar, rainbow, the society’s folk dance, musical and vocal ensemble, has approximately 40 members in adult and children’s groups. The Estonian male choir consists of 30 choristers and gives regular performances. The Adelaide Estonian Women’s Society is affiliated with the society.

The major highlight of the year for Estonian South Australians is Independence Day on 24 February. It has an added significance now that Soviet rule in Estonia has come to an end. The day is celebrated with a concert at Estonian Hall. People read greetings from other Estonian organisations, make speeches, and the choir and dance groups perform. The Jooksu Polka, one of the most popular Estonian dances, is performed. It is a quick-tempoed step that can be learnt in a few minutes. Independence Day usually ends with a barbecue.

Estonian South Australians celebrated the first anniversary of Estonia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union with an exhibition in the Migration Museum’s ‘The Forum’, its community access gallery, from 6 June until 30 August, 1992. ‘Retaining Estonia’s Cultural Heritage’ included displays of Estonian jewellery, carvings, costume, embroidery and literature. The exhibition also included items such as hand-woven and embroidered rugs and family photographs which were among the few possessions of Estonian DPs as they awaited resettlement in refugee camps in Germany.

13 to 14 June is a solemn anniversary for all Baltic peoples. On these days in 1941 Soviet authorities deported 60,000 Baltic men, women and children from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They were taken to gulags, forced-labour camps, in Siberia and other Arctic regions of the Soviet Union. Further deportations took place between 1944 and 1954.
In remembrance of these horrific events Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian South Australians gather annually for a commemorative church service at Saint Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Wakefield Street, Adelaide. To acknowledge the impact of the deportations, including the flight of the lucky from their homelands, the Baltic Council of South Australia unveiled the foundation memorial plaque in the Migration Museum’s ‘Reasons to Remember’ gallery on 13 June, 1992.

23 and 24 June are also significant for Estonian South Australians. 23 June, 1917, was the date of a decisive victory over German nobles who had occupied much of the country’s land since the sixteenth century. The defeat of these nobles was a decisive forerunner to the proclamation of Estonian independence. It has become symbolic of Estonia’s struggles and triumphs against oppression. Estonian South Australians mark this day with a concert and social gathering.

In the northern hemisphere 24 June is Midsummer’s Day, the longest day of the year. Since pre-Christian times Estonians have celebrated Midsummer’s Day as the triumph of light, warmth and life. In pagan times Estonians built bonfires and made merry on this day. 24 June has also acquired a Christian significance, as the Feast Day of Saint John. On 24 June Estonian South Australians gather in Estonian Hall during an Adelaide winter to remind themselves of midsummer in Estonia. Kaera Jaan, John of Oats, is a popular dance at this festival. Kaera Jaan is usually danced by children in groups of four, two boys and two girls. A mock bonfire in the centre of the hall, made from cellophane and an electric light in a barrel, maintain a tradition that goes back centuries.

The Estonian Society also celebrates Easter, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Christmas is a particularly joyous occasion. The society holds an evening meal, usually finished off with community carol singing. The main festive food is verivorst, a boiled and baked pudding-sausage made from pork, herbs and barley. Verivorst is served with baked potatoes, sauerkraut, roast pork and cranberry sauce. Traditionally followed by dessert called Roosa Manna (Pink Semolina) it is a porridge type dish served with cold milk, the pink colouring comes from plum juice one of the ingredients.

Every two or three years the Estonian community of either Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney hosts the Australian Estonian Festival. The festival is held after Christmas. Estonians from all over Australia converge upon the host city and give musical, folkloric, dancing and theatrical performances. They also hold conferences, social gatherings and art and craft exhibitions. The first Australian Estonian Festival was held in Sydney from 1 to 3 January, 1954. Adelaide will hosted the twentieth Estonian Cultural Festival in December 2003. Since Estonia gained independence in 1991, the festival has been visited by many famous Estonian artists providing high levels of entertainment in song, dance, instrumental and theatrical fields.

The majority of Estonian South Australians belong to the Lutheran faith. The first Lutheran service for Baltic South Australians was conducted by Pastor Alfred Freund-Zinnbauer at a migrant camp in Port Adelaide on 10 October, 1948. Services were then held at a hall in the suburb of York, now called Beverley, and at Woodside Migrant Hostel. In September 1949 services were held once a month at Saint Stephen’s Lutheran Church, Wakefield Street, Adelaide.

The first Estonian Lutheran congregation in South Australia was established in Adelaide on 2 October, 1949. Pastor Uno Stockholm visited the congregation from Melbourne from time to time. Services were held in Saint Stephen’s Lutheran Church. The next year Pastor Oskar Juul was appointed resident pastor of Estonian Lutheran South Australians. Pastor Juul served his congregation until he died in a traffic accident in May 1962. For several months the community had no pastor until Pastor Johannes Aarik arrived from Los Angeles in November 1963. He retired in 2000 to return to live in his homeland. The new Pastor of the Adelaide Australian congregation is Adelaide educated Andres Palm. Today there are around 300 people in his congregation, which continues to hold services at Saint Stephen’s Church. Besides conducting monthly services and observing the festivals and seasons of the religious year, Pastor Palm gives special services on the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of independence and on the anniversary of the first Baltic deportations. He opens festivals with prayers and gives radio broadcasts during the Estonian program on 5EBI-FM at Easter, Christmas and on the last day of the year.

Organisations and Media

  • Adelaide Estonian Society Inc. publishes Virgats, a monthly newsletter
  • Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in Adelaide
  • Baltic Council of South Australia
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Programs


The 1981 census recorded that there were 737 Estonian-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 606 people, and 868 said that they were of Estonian descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 524 Estonian-born South Australians. 774 people said that their mothers were born in Estonia, and 865 that their fathers were.

From the 1996 national census figures it can be calculated that there were 443 Estonian-born South Australians, representing 15.6% of Australia’s Estonian born population.

The 2001 census recorded 342 Estonian-born South Australians, while 903 people said that they were of Estonian descent.

The 2006 census recorded 286 Estonian-born South Australians, while 921 people said that they were of Estonian descent.

The 2011 census recorded 203 Estonian-born South Australians, while 836 people said that they were of Estonian descent.

The 2016 census recorded 178 Estonian-born South Australians, while 371 people said that they were of Estonian descent.

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