Ed Kera's homeland was overrun by the Soviet Union in 1940 as part of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler's secret pact to divide Eastern Europe.
Kera was a college sophomore in Estonia, finding time to flirt with girls between classes. Then his father was whisked away by the communists, imprisoned and executed for being an entreprenuer who owned a painting company.
"Understand that America is the greatest country in the world," said Kera, who now lives in Shiloh. "It's heaven on earth to live in America. And I should know. I've lived in hell."
Kera was a wanted man like his father. He hid from the Soviets in the ventilation ductwork of a movie theater until word circulated that the communists would send his mother and sister to Siberia if he didn't surrender. Kera gave himself up and was sent to the gulag.
In all, 90,000 Estonians disappeared during the Soviet occupation. Those who were left behind were forced to learn Russian while being spoon-fed communist propaganda.
"They told us we were capitalist pigs," Kera said. "So they put us in concentration camps where they fed us little, didn't give us enough clothes for the cold weather and put us to work. ... Hard labor."
Kera was 20 years old and didn't plan to go easily. One of his professors slipped him a pistol and 16 bullets that he hid in his pants. When guards searched the men, Kera said he dropped the tiny gun on the ground and, while he pretended to tie his shoes, covered it with dirt.
"We planned to kill the guards when we had a chance and escape," Kera said. "But there were too many. There was no way it would work."
After four years of captivity in three different concentration camps, Kera finally escaped. The sprawling camps relied on their remote location to keep the prisoners from fleeing. The last camp where Kera was interned, in the Ural Mountains, had more than 3,500 prisoners, but it didn't even have a fence.
"I had to try to escape," Kera said. "If the Soviets didn't kill me, I probably was going to starve to death."
One night, Kera just walked away from the camp. He headed west toward Poland. He survived by sleeping in the woods or in a field, by eating from garbage cans or by catching the occasional dog or cat.
"Dogs taste much better than cats," Kera said matter of factly. "Cat is too stringy. But you eat what you can find because you are trying to survive."
Eventually, Kera worked his way to eastern Poland, where he happened upon a Nazi tank column. He waved his arms and shouted in German that he wasn't a Russian. Trying to gain favor with the enemy of his enemy, Kera warned the Germans that a Soviet anti-tank battery was lying in wait just beyond the horizon.
"I told them it was two fingers to the right of that tree over there," Kera said holding up his hand at his arm's length and closing one eye to find the range. "They fired one shot but it was too low. So they raised their cannon two clicks and fired again. In anti-tank batteries, they always have to have their ammunition out and at the ready, so there was a tremendous explosion and they blew the whole thing to hell. There were Russians flying through the air."
Seemingly impressed by their new friend, the Nazi captain in charge of the tank column gave Kera directions to the rear of the German line, where he assured the tired and hungry escapee that he would be taken care of.
When he got where he was told to go, the Germans took Kera into custody and threw him into their own concentration camp -- right along with Soviet prisoners of war.
Fate intervened in the form of two Estonian guards. They found Kera and set him free.
After being investigated and cleared, Kera was taken to a German fuel refinery near the border of France. The Germans were desperately trying to find alternative sources of gasoline because the Allies were cutting them off from their supplies.
"In Estonia, the shale has 18 percent oil in it," Kera said. "There, it only had 1 percent oil, so it was much harder to get."
It didn't matter, though. Kera said people who worked in the German lab didn't know what they were doing. They were mostly children and other relatives of high-ranking Nazis who wanted to keep family members off the front lines.
"Life under the Nazis was lousy, too," Kera said. "But there is nothing more cruel than the communist system."
When the Nazis finally fell, Kera worked his way to the American-held zone of occupation.
"They were throwing Germans out of their houses while they tried to decide what to do with us," Kera said. "There was still the threat that we would be deported to Russian-held territory. But the Americans gave us food and told us we didn't have to worry anymore."
Estonian diplomats pleaded with President Harry Truman to allow the refugees to emigrate to America. They cited a passage in the Yalta treaty in which Allied leaders mapped out plans for the post-war world that stated that people who lived in communist-held lands before 1933 could not be forced to return there.
Kera was able to come to America in 1949; in 1975, he found a job in a printing shop in Rochester, N.Y. He had a permanent home for the first time in three decades.
Two of Kera's children served in the armed forces that finally set him free. His daughter, Tiiu Kera, retired as a one-star general in the Air Force while his son, Col. Edmund Kera, is stationed at Scott Air Force Base.
"America is the best country in the world," Kera said. "The U.S. Army treated me like a human being, and that is the first time that had happened since before the war. I will never forget that."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or 239-2626.