Gert Helbemäe (born as Einborn, 10. XI / 28. X 1913 - 15. VII 1974) is known mainly for historical novels and short stories, but also for plays for stage and radio.
He was born at Kalamaja in Tallinn, the son of a businessman. From 1921 to 1933 he attended the Tallinn French Lyceum. He started working as a journalist, and was a reporter on several publications. For the newspaper Uudisleht he wrote concert and theatre reviews and stories about the history of Tallinn. In the nineteen-thirties he was active as executive editor of several more papers (Eesti Pildileht, Roheline Post, Film ja Elu). After doing his military service, in 1934 he switched to the editorial office of Estonian Broadcasting for music and literature programmes; he worked on the Raadioleht and wrote radio plays. During the Second World War he was a director in the Radio Theatre, putting on radio plays. In 1944 he fled to Lübeck in Germany, where he worked in the library of the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). In 1947 he moved to London, where he worked for a short time for the BBC, producing music programmes. There, in 1947 he issued the newspaper Eesti Hääl, and from 1960 he was its editor. He was the founder and leader of the Estonian PEN Club in exile, and was on the board of the Estonian Writers’ Cooperative. He died in London, and is buried in Gunnersbury cemetery in Kensington.
Helbemäe wrote mostly historical prose, novels of psychological characterization, children’s and young people’s literature, plays, radio plays, song lyrics and literary criticism. He first became known for his song lyrics and radio plays. From 1937 to 1942 he produced about thirty radio plays, some of them based on the life of some famous artist or composer. Some of his puppet-plays - Mänguasjade mäss ('The Revolt of the Toys'), Varastatud unenägu ('The Stolen Dream'), Miki-Hiir Eestis ('Mickey Mouse in Estonia') - were performed between 1937 and 1939 at the Estonian Drama Theatre. During the war era he created the play for young people Võlutud pajupill ('The Enchanted Willow Whistle', 1941) and the drama Augusta Carolina (1942). The history of medieval Tallinn was the main theme of the young people’s stories Vana Toomas ('The Old Thomas', 1944) and Raekooli õpilane ('The Town Hall Schoolboy', 1948). In exile he also wrote short plays and a narrative about chipmunks, Minni ja Miku: Kaks vöötoravat ('A Chipmunk on my Shoulder', 1968).
His first short-story collection, Vaikija ('The Silent One', 1947) contains historical tales and legends; for example the story Katsumus ('The Ordeal'), brings the figure of the chronicler Balthasar Russow into literature; the grotesque story Õigus eluks ('Justice for Life') is based on the picture “The Dance of Death” painted by Bernt Notke on the wall of Niguliste church at the end of the 15th century. Helbemäe also wrote the kind of compulsory work for an exiled writer: the novel of escape Elamata elu ('Life Unlived', 1952), which depicts life in a refugee camp in Germany from the point of view of a former big businessman. The novel Kägu odraokkaga ('Cuckoo with a Barley Awn', 1953) examines the theme of a person’s moral decline, the fiasco of the ambitions of a talentless but career-minded singer. The background of the novel is Tallinn during the first republic, the problems of the Baltic Germans and the author’s view of the social events of 1940-1941.
The rather grotesque psychological novel Õekesed ('The Little Sisters', 1955) examines human relations through the wannabe-German upbringing of four sisters living in Nõmme, Tallinn, and the stale daily lives shared by the spinsters and their niece, a half-orphaned five-year-old girl.
The historical novel Sellest mustast mungast I-II ('About that Black Monk', 1957-1958) is a colourful look back to the first half of the 16th century, when the monastic life in the Dominican Monastery in Tallinn was affected by plague, the Reformation, monastic politics and the church authorities’ intrigues with the town government.
The psychological novel Ohvrilaev ('The Ship to Delos', 1960) describes a summer love story, where the primary theme is the tension of the internal struggles of a middle-aged Estonian man and a young Jewish woman who has fled to Estonia – the tragic opposition of their feelings and understandings.
The life of Estonian exiles in London is depicted in the novels Ainult ajutiseks ('Only Temporary'. 1964) and Pagejad ('Escapees', 1971). For the first time in Estonian literature the theme of homosexuality was dealt with extensively.
A creative person’s enforced withdrawal from ordinary life is portrayed in the biographical drama Üleliigne inimene ('A Superfluous Person', 1972), which focuses on the life of the poet Juhan Liiv in the years 1885-1894. The book Järelpõimik ('Gleanings', 1979), includes the historical drama Reetmine vere vastu ('Betrayal of Blood') and short stories on historical themes.
A. O. (Translated by C. M.)
Books in Estonian
Elamata elu. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1952, 272 lk.
Kägu odraokkaga. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1953, 304 lk.
Õeksed. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1955, 320 lk. [Järgnev trükk: Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1994, 183 lk.]
Sellest mustast mungast: üks kroonika elust, surmast ja ajast ning inimestest selle sees. I. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1957, 291 lk. [Järgnevad trükid: 'Sellest mustast mungast' I-II, Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1998, 375 lk; 'Sellest mustast mungast' I-II, Tallinn: Eesti Päevaleht, 2008, 415 lk.]
Sellest mustast mungast: üks kroonika elust, surmast ja ajast ning inimestest selle sees. II. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1958, 326 lk. [Järgnevad trükid: 'Sellest mustast mungast' I-II, Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1998, 375 lk; 'Sellest mustast mungast' I-II, Tallinn: Eesti Päevaleht, 2008, 415 lk.]
Ohvrilaev. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv 1960, 265 lk. [Järgnev trükk: Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1992, 165 lk.]
Ainult ajutiseks. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1964, 256 lk.
Pagejad. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv 1971, 255 lk.
Lumikellukeste sünd. Tallinn: Loodus, 1940, 28 lk. [Lastejutt.]
Vana Toomas. Tallinn: Eesti Kirjastus, 1944, 62 lk. ['Järgnev trükk: Vana Toomase legend', Tallinn: Grenader, 2012, 64 lk.]
Vaikija. Jutte ja legende Vana-Tallinnast. Vadstena: Orto, 1947, 256 lk.
Raekooli õpilane. Stockholm: Eesti Raamat, 1948, 103 lk.
Minni ja Miku: kaks vöötoravat. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1968, 71 lk. [Lastejutt.]
Järelpõimik. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1979, 200 lk. [Novellid ja näidendid.]
Öö nõiapoes. Toimetanud Rein Põder, järelsõna: Maire Liivamets Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 2002, 317 lk. [Sari 'Eesti novellivara'.]
Üleliigne inimene. Näidend Juhan Liivist kolmes vaatuses. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1972, 80 lk.
Järelpõimik. Järelsõna: Arvo Mägi. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1979, 200 lk. [Novellid ja näidendid.]