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Records of YMCA international work in Estonia

Identifier: Y.USA.9-2-24


Includes correspondence, minutes, reports, financial documents, development plans, pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles, periodicals and other records YMCA international work in Estonia. The names most frequently appearing in this collection are Herbert S. Gott, William Orr, George F. Robinson, H. Tonisson and Arthur Kasak. Early correspondence and documents involve the development of the YMCA in Tallinn (Reval) and the initial work that was done there. This work centered around refugee relief work, hygiene promotion in children, the organization and administration of a school system for youth and night classes for refugees and returned soldiers, the operation of social and athletic clubs and the joint operation, with the Red Cross, of a large summer camp. Much of the later material involves the Estonian YMCA's move to become autonomous. This occurred in the 1930s when due to the Great Depression, the United States YMCA could not help the Estonian YMCA. The collection also mentions post-World War II assistance details. A single folder of correspondence discusses the postwar attempt to aid Estonia by the United States YMCA.

This collection discusses the manner in which the Estonian YMCA attempted to focus its attention on all of the areas in Estonian lives, becoming an all-encompassing guide for the Estonian citizen. The primary areas of focus for the Estonian YMCA are shown as, cities, rural life, industrial work, work with various religious organizations and work with various nationalities; primarily Estonian, Russian and German ones. There is discussion of the magnitude of the initial skepticism and distrust of the local community that is followed in a short time by overwhelming communal and governmental support. This support is demonstrated by the large number of Estonian citizens involved in secretarial leadership and also from the success of the programs, especially in boys' work: physical education, bible classes, industrial work, camping and Hi-Y clubs.

The primary areas in Estonia where this material is focused are the cities of Tallinn (Reval), Tartu (Dorpat), and Narva. This information is especially focused on the organization of schools and school programs in these areas, including a YMCA summer school program on the shores of the Baltic. The collection is primarily focused on the time period of Herbert S. Gott's service. His succession is covered however, and discussion of H. Tonisson being not only his successor, but also a native Estonian, is prevalent as well.


  • Creation: 1920-1946
  • Creation: Majority of material found within ( 1920-1936)


Language of Materials

English, Estonian

Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


In 1919 Herbert S. Gott, returning from northern Russia, went to Tallinn (Reval) Estonia in order to see what opportunity existed for the YMCA. In 1920 George F. Robinson opened the Tartu (Dorpat) Association and planned to serve both the community and students in the university. It was mainly through Gott as Senior Secretary that the Association in Estonia was developed. The Y quickly became rooted among the Estonians, won their support and was carried on chiefly by them.

At the time of arrival of the YMCA in Reval, practically all capital had been lost in the revolution. Industry had been reduced to a standstill. Estonia had broken from Russia to become an independent republic in February, 1918. Along with the financial difficulties that the country was facing, the YMCA also initially faced distrust; the YMCA was so strange to the populace of Estonia that they at first regarded it with suspicion. Language problems were also significant, with three different nationalities in the city of Reval using three different languages, Estonian, Russian and German.

During the YMCA's first two years in Estonia, Russian refugee relief work was a major focus, including organizing and administering a school system to meet the needs of 1,500 Russian children. The YMCA assisted with the promotion of play and hygiene for Estonian children, including operating a large summer camp in cooperation with the Red Cross. The YMCA also organized night courses and other educational work in order to help re-adjust officers, soldiers and refugees returning from war. In addition, the YMCA in Estonia operated social and athletic clubs and courses in physical education, cooperated with educational authorities through lectures on American school systems and carried on a large work of service for young men in need of work or advice.

Many men came forward to be trained as volunteers and then later as secretaries. Throughout the years in Estonia, more indigenous secretarial leadership came forward and was trained than could be used. The educational department grew into a well-organized evening school. Lectures were greatly attended. An auto school was successfully founded and the YMCA entered into cooperation with the government in a country-wide moving picture program of educational pictures for schools. Boys' work grew beyond the possibility of housing it in the YMCA building. In 1923 already, there were three pioneer clubs and three troops of scouts.The Hi-Y program was also exceedingly popular and widespread.

The YMCA in Estonia attempted to cover all the areas of life for an Estonian citizen. It focused programs around the cities and rural communities, students, industrial work, work with religious organizations, and with different nationalities. The organization had the support of the Estonian government and big industries backed it as well. In 1925 the organization became a national movement, a National Council was formed and Herbert S. Gott was chosen as National Advisory Secretary. By 1928 there were Associations in Tallinn (Reval), the capital; Tartu (Dorpat), the university center; and Narva, the main industrial city. Plans were also being outlined for an industrial secretary. By 1930 Gott was the only North American secretary remaining.

During the Depression, the International Committee was only able to send slight financial aid, contributing to a reduction of the budget of the Estonian YMCAs. Gott also withdrew from Estonia in 1933, due to problems with his health and issues within the North American YMCA brought on by the Depression. He was succeeded by an Estonian, Herbert Tonisson, who was later elected national general secretary. A diversified program continued on and in 1933, twenty associations and eight sub-associations were reported. Two other associations were in the process of organization and four cities were waiting for associations.

In 1936, due to a government order placing youth organizations under the Youth Department of the Ministry of Education, the Estonian YMCA and YWCA were the only Christian bodies in which youth under twenty were able to participate. In 1938 The National Council elected Arthur Kasak the full-time General Secretary. Kasak relieved Tonisson, who along with being National General Secretary was still also General Secretary of the Tallinn YMCA.

In 1940 World War II and the occupation of Estonia by Russian troops led to the dissolution of all the YMCAs in Estonia.

The following is a list of individuals who served as YMCA secretaries in Estonia along with their dates of service:

Alexander, Chester Stephen (1923-1926) Nestle, Mark Howard (1927-1930)
Frederiksen, Oliver Jul (1925-1928) Robinson, George F. (1920-1923)
Gott, Herbert Sidney (1919-1933) Ross, Maurice (1920-1925)
Kempa, Arthur Adolphus (1925-1927)
Historical information is largely adapted and quoted from World Service: A History of the Foreign Work and World Service of the Young Men's Christian Associations of the United States and Canada,(New York: Association Press, 1957) by Kenneth Scott Latourette, and from the collection.


1 Cubic Feet (3 boxes)


Correspondence, minutes, reports, financial documents, development plans, pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles and other records of YMCA international work in Estonia, especially on refugee relief work, hygiene promotion in children, the organization and administration of a school system for youth and night classes for refugees and returned soldiers, the operation of social and athletic clubs and the joint operation, with the Red Cross, of a large summer camp. Much of the later material involves the Estonian YMCA's move to become autonomous.

Physical Location

See Detailed Description section for box listing.


Biographical information on many of the secretaries involved YMCA work in Estonia (see list of individuals in the historical note) may be available in the YMCA Biographical Files, separately cataloged in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives.

Processing Information:

Processed as part of Fast Processing Project II, February 2009, as collection FP016. Material has been minimally processed. Folder descriptions may be general and material has not been grouped into series.

Catalog Record ID number: 6337246

An Inventory of Its Records
Finding aid prepared by Lara Friedman-Shedlov and Melanie Doherty.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area