Varjo Jurisoo wasn’t one for words, especially not in the midst of his wife’s large Midwestern Catholic family.
“He would just sit quietly in the corner and not talk,” said his nephew, Daniel Hunt. “In my first 35 years, I heard him say two words.”
Who could have guessed that the Estonian-born Jurisoo had been drafted into two foreign armies while still a teenager, guarded a notorious Nazi war criminal, and later fled alone to the United States where he picked oranges on what is now Disneyland property in order to pay for his overseas journey by ship?
“He definitely didn’t talk much about his past,” said his son, David Jurisoo, 54, of San Diego.
It was only later in life that Jurisoo began opening up about his made-for-the-movies trek from his home on an Estonian fox fur farm to the front lines of WWII to a prisoner-of-war camp to the American Midwest.
“He went through more in his first 25 years of life than I ever will in my whole life,” said his son David Jurisoo.
Varjo Jurisoo, 91, of Coon Rapids, died Oct. 8 after a long battle with cancer.
It would be the last fight for the RV-loving, former theater actor who was forced to volley bullets across the Narva River alongside the German army during WWII as his older brother, Uno Jurisoo, unbeknown to him, was firing back on behalf of the Russians. Both had been conscripted.
Jurisoo, who was also known as “Joe,” had first been drafted by the Russians at the age of 16, but dodged that only to be drafted by the Germans at age 19 in 1943. He was injured by gunfire during the war, but recovered and returned to battle. He would never see his father again. Political tensions and safety concerns kept him from visiting his mother or brother until he returned to Estonia in 1991, which is when they learned that the brothers had fought on opposing sides.
“He never complained about it,” David Jurisoo noted. “It’s not like he thought, ‘My life’s unfair.’ ”
Jurisoo and other Estonian soldiers fighting for Germany eventually surrendered to U.S. troops and spent a year in a Belgian prisoner-of-war camp. Soon after his release, he was hired as a guard at the Palace of Justice, where he helped guard Rudolf Hess and other war criminals during the Nuremberg trials.
Unable to return home for fear of persecution, Jurisoo immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, landing in Anaheim, Calif. He picked oranges and was given supervisory duties because of his fluency with the languages spoken by the refugee workers. But it wasn’t long before he was drafted yet a third time — by the U.S. Army for the Korean War, for which he served in Europe.
When Jurisoo returned to the United States, he bounced around Chicago, North Dakota and Minneapolis, where he acted in local theater productions, before returning to Chicago. It was there at age 35 that he met his wife, Margaret Hunt, in 1959.
They married in 1960 and raised two sons in Brookfield, Ill., while Jurisoo worked as a trucking firm auditor. “After he got married, he had a pretty normal life,” said David Jurisoo. “No drama after that.”
The family moved to Coon Rapids in the 1970s for a job transfer. . In his later years, Jurisoo returned to a hobby he had picked up in the prisoner camp: wood carving. He carved intricate figurines and gave them out as gifts.
He and his wife became active travelers, driving across the country in their RV during the winter, favoring their sons’ homes in California and Alabama, along with New Mexico.
Jurisoo was active in the Good Sam RV Club and ran its website for several years.He and Margaret were quite involved with the group’s Minnesota committee, and befriended many other travelers.
“It always strikes me as remarkable that a guy who had to go through so much at such a young age was not only so normal, but so engaged with the people around him,” said Hunt. “I think he was like, ‘Well, that’s kind of how life goes.’ ”