Finnish Heritage Museum 301 High Street
Fairport Harbor, Oh, 44077
Map Here
Museum Hours:
Saturday 10am-3pm

"Is History Repeating Itself? By Jovette Hiltunen"

Many of us were told that we must study history so that we don’t make the same mistakes as those who go before us. One could easily argue that some important lessons of history have not been remembered in some of the latest battles and indeed, wars. It’s been a long time since World War II, and it’s been a long time since 70-80,000 Finnish children were sent to other countries to save them from the atrocities of war in their home country. But what lessons were they? How do we know? Well, at the Finnish Heritage Museum, we were able to learn firsthand from an actual Sotolapsi (war child), Timo Liekoski, born June 30, 1942.

Finland was being bombed by the then Soviet Union, the men were serving on the front lines, and the women were volunteering in the Lotta Svärd movement. With only 5000 bomb shelters in Helsinki, there wasn’t room for all of the civilians. General Mannerheim entertained an initial plan from the Swedes to accept the Finnish children. Mannerheim made an agreement with a Swedish charity, and the plan was put into place. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Affairs and others had begun a propaganda campaign that appealed to the mothers of the Finnish children. Sweden could be a safe haven for the little ones, ages infant to 9 year olds, and they would not want for food, clothing, or shelter. The main director of the Finnish Children’s Movement Committee (Lastensiirtokomitea) was Elsie Bruu, librarian from the Finnish Library of Parliament. She was also to plan for the return of the children.

Later we discover that repatriation was not well planned. We also learn that children went to countries as far away as England as Sweden could not accommodate the large numbers of emigrants in their foster homes. The plan was for the evacuation to not be widespread nor long lasting. Soon to be coined the Suomen Sotalapset (Finnish war children) movement, an emigration of Finnish children began and affected children from all over Finland. They came from Karelia, the north, children whose parents had already been killed in the war and had no other family support, as well as the children of invalids. The bombing was concentrated in the cities so many of these children came from the cities. The mothers had the final say whether their children would be evacuated, but as was already noted, a propaganda campaign had already been mounted to persuade these mothers that their children would be well take care of. Sixty percent of the children came from working class families.

Turku sent the first group of children on December 15, 1939, on the ship Arcturus. Interesting to note that this was a good two years before General Mannerheim had made the agreement with Sweden. Children traveled on trains as well and the groups always had adults traveling with them. In the end, 72,000 or more children were evacuated to Sweden, 4,200 to Denmark, 120 to Norway, and less than 100 to Great Britain.

It was a massive effort to organize the paperwork for these trips but the Ministry of Social Services kept a record of every child. The records are kept in the National Archives and contain information from 1937 to 1959. The information recorded was the Kantakortti, travel, passports, birth certificates and other pertinent official documents.

Many of the children who went to Sweden were well cared for and Finnish speaking public elementary schools were arranged for some of the children. Because Finland also fought the Continuation War, many of the children who returned to Finland from the first emigration were sent back to Sweden during the Continuation War. It is estimated that more than 15,000 children did not return to Finland. Upon returning to Finland, many of the children had forgotten their families and the Finnish language. Moreover, some of the families in Sweden who had fostered the Finnish children did not want to send them back. This led to many lawsuits. And so many children had trouble adjusting when they returned. Sweden had not participated in the war and their cities were not the war torn cities of Finland. There was plenty of food and the homes were comfortable. But, perhaps the most disturbing issue was that these children were the “forgotten” Sotalapset. The repatriation was a failure. And, in 1942, any negative mention of the evacuation was banned. This meant that for these children their time away was erased as far as the family discussions were had. Our speaker, Timo, spoke of how he and his older brother ended up separated in their family when he returned as his parents suffered mightily as a result of the war. His father ended up losing a leg, plagued by alcoholism. His mother took his brother and moved to Canada.

In 1989, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, the silence of the Sotalapset and the evacuation was broken. A study by the Uppsala Universitet released some sobering statistics in December of 2017. Not only did the female sotolapset children suffer higher amounts of depression, so did their female children. Two generations of females were affected. The men were more likely to have mental health and substance abuse problems. And the severity of these had to do with how long they were separated from their families.

Although Timo was one of the sotolapsets who went to Sweden, his memories are brief and happy. His return was not as happy. The resilience of the Finnish people is in itself a huge part of history and a part that should never be forgotten as was the story of our other speaker, Gwen Putz, whose family was from Karelia, an area that occupied land in between Finland and Northwestern Russia.

Gwen’s family was forced to be a part of the Karelian Evacuation which forced the Karelians into Finland during World War II. Where her family once lived and owned property is now a part of Russia. Gwen’s great great grandfather lived in Käkisalmi, a town on the Northwestern shore of Lake Ladoga, part of Karelia. Her great great grandfather managed a hardware store, along with his brothers, and served as a village councilor. As one of the founders of Käkisalmen Sanomat (newspaper), he also served as a member of the supervisory board.

Gwen’s great aunt tells about this time in their home:

“I remember when there were weapons hidden under the cover of the piano in our living room and when the Reds came, we were forbidden to play. The Reds didn’t know that the piano cover could be lifted, and they didn’t find any weapons, even though the whole house was ransacked.”

Gwen’s Iso Mummi (great grandmother) moved from Karelia to Helsinki when the Karelians were forced to leave their homes during the Winter War. They were given very little time to pack up and only what belongings they could take with them were loaded on a sled for the journey. Her Iso Mummi pushed the sled with her children and belongings across the Karelian border and into Finland. The Finnish government built homes for Karelian refugees just outside of Helsinki. Although her Iso Mummi regaled us with an exciting story that made it sound like an adventure, the pictures they found with Karelians dressed in white winter clothes pushing sleds across the snow covered landscape did not look like an exciting adventure. Gwen’s Mummi and her brother were part of the sotolapsets and were placed in foster homes in Sweden for several years after evacuating from Karelia. Eventually they were reunited in the suburbs of Helsinki. Finland in peacetime was truly important and special to Gwen’s Mummi. Another story of true resilience of our Finnish history. Or as we call it, SISU!