Freedom Fighters in Finland Fend Off a Formidable Foe

It is, I believe, solely because of the strength and resolve of people like my aunt Elli and by the grace of God that Finland was able to maintain its independence when Russia tried to take over. The men, they were all on the front lines battling the formidable enemy in a fierce fight, and the women were the workers that kept the country running while the men were away. The people of today have no idea how hard the work was, how their fingers were worn to the bone, calluses upon the palms of their hands and blisters upon their feet.

Now I suppose a history lesson might be in order here.  During wartime many Finnish women joined a volunteer auxiliary paramilitary organization known as the “Lotta Svärd” organization, which started in 1918, and reached up to 242,000 members in 1944. Think about it! That’s a quarter of a million women who were directly involved in the war effort! I didn’t know that before today.

The name for the organization was derived from a fictional poem  written by the famous poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg about a Finnish soldier, private Svärd, who took his wife, Lotta, along when he went to fight in a Finnish war. He gets killed in the battlefield, but his wife remains there taking care of the wounded soldiers. 

The organization for Finnish women who wanted to volunteer in the war effort was started in honor of Lotta. To join the organization a woman had to have impeccable morals and required several references. As you might well imagine, impeccable morals were important when working in such close proximity to soldiers.

You may remember that this morning we are in Kempele, Finland to visit my godmother for breakfast on the day following my surprise birthday party. My mother’s 92 year old sister, Aunt Elli, is here to visit with us as well. She is telling us about the war in Finland in 1944.

As Aunt Elli tells us her story I find myself drifting back in time. I can see her in my mind’s eye, a tall, slender, beautiful young woman. She is wise and mature, far beyond her years, determined to help her countrymen, determined to save her nation, to do her part, to protect her country from its aggressors. 

I hear Aunt Elli ask if we know what a “Lotta” is, and she goes on to explain that’s what a young woman was called who joined the Lotta Svärd organization.

Aunt Elli continues her story, telling us why she had decided to become a “Lotta”.  She relates of the terrifying moments when errant Russian bombers had flown above their home, dropping their payload in the adjacent fields, huge thundering booms and flashes of light and heavy smoke inundating all her senses simultaneously.

“My father was the engineer who took care of the hydroelectric power plant on the river just 1/2 a km away from our home. There was about a dozen homes in the vicinity, all of which had power from the plant for lighting indoors and we even had lights in the yard. Electricity in homes at this time in Finland was a novelty, but since we lived so close to the power plant we had this luxury in our home. The practice during the war had been to use blackout curtains to obscure the homes from potential air attacks, but we had all grown tired of using them, and on this particular peaceful Saturday night in February of 1944 we allowed our lights to shine unobscured through the windows, and even had lights on in our yard.

The sauna was already getting heated for our traditional Saturday evening bathing ritual, and mother in her usual fashion was still working on something in the barn. From the dark night sky we heard unfamiliar heavy rumblings, and we wondered, what was that thunderous noise filling our ears. Father went outside to find the source, and soon returned, cutting off the yard lights as he came back in. ‘No point in keeping these lights on as a target, since we don’t know what planes those are that are approaching,’ he muttered under his breath, talking more to himself than anyone else. I could see deep creases of worry furrowed upon his brow, and my own heart skipped a beat. 

No sooner than the yard light was cut there was a rapid succession of deafening explosions and blinding flashes of light piercing the night sky. It felt as though the entire earth had just been ripped into two. Our little house shook from the very core of its foundation, heaving and creaking, threatening to succumb to the massive force of the explosions, but she held solid….our place of refuge, safe and sound.

I scooped up my youngest sister into my arms, and together we all ran outside in a great sense of panic. All the fields about us were glowing bright with giant blue hued flames. The flames were surging far above the high voltage power lines, flicking blue and yellow and red, and plumes of choking black smoke billowed upwards into the night sky that was eerily brightened by the leaping flames. It seemed certain that all our neighbor’s surely were burning to death at this very moment.

I turned to see my mother standing beside me, her one hand upon my shoulder and her other caressing my sister’s face as though to wipe away the child’s shocked expression. My mother’s face was heavy with fear in the eerie light, yet thankful to see her family had survived. She excitedly related of how the bombing had frightened the cows, so that they had jumped high in the air in great panic, and how the entire barn had lit up inside as though it had great lamps placed therein.

When the firebombs had burned down, and all was dark and quiet again, we tried to sleep, but sleep would not come. When the Sunday morning sun arose we set out to assess the damages. At first it appeared the damage was minimal. Our phone line had been severed. A small attic window at the neighboring Tikkala household had blown out. When we headed out on the main road we saw that a five meter section of the road has been blasted into oblivion. We stood there staring in disbelief, wondering at the sheer force that destroyed the road, marveling at how we had been spared and survived this vicious attack from our enemies.  The men and their horses had an enormous task ahead of them filling that gaping hole in the road.

That whole Sunday was spent assessing the damage, gazing at the craters caused by the bombs, and digging up metal fragments for keepsakes. We had been hit by ten bombs, three were firebombs and seven were explosive bombs. In the spring when the snow melted we found a one meter long bomb that had not detonated, and an explosives team came to dismantle it, taking the bomb with them when they departed. Had the bombs fallen 100-150 meters in either direction the power plant would have been destroyed and perhaps many of us would have died from direct hits. It seemed then that the war would never end.

When I first became a ‘Lotta’ I worked in the Revonlahti church tower keeping an eye out for Russian planes. The church towers were used as air-raid warning posts. Later I was stationed at the front lines.”

As Elli tells her story, in my mind’s eye I can feel the pride and sense of accomplishment as she dons her “Lotta” volunteer uniform for the first time, the fabric crisp and stiff, her fingers slowly running across the fabric, brushing away barely perceptible wrinkles. She is a perfectionist.

Her first task is to serve as a sentry, to scan the horizon and the skies for any signs of enemy activity from atop the local church tower. As she climbs up the tower there is a bounce to her step, an eagerness to serve pressing her on upwards. Despite her eagerness, she is breathless when she reaches the top. She presses the cold, hard binoculars to her face, moving her gaze from side to side as not to miss an inch, her arms wearying from the unexpected heaviness of the binoculars in her hands. 

The wind is cold high atop the church tower, and she pulls her collar up higher for extra warmth while moving her feet in rapid succession to keep her toes from freezing. Minutes work their way into hours ever so gradually, her mind often drifting away back to her home, back to her childhood, back to her four younger siblings in their little two room home with mother and father. She reaches into a little pocket inside her jacket that she had painstakingly sewn into place, and carefully pulls out a picture that she has tucked inside. It is a picture of her and her four siblings in happier days, when there was no war. Tears trickle down her face, first warm and then cold against her cheeks, increasing her resolve to fight for her country in whatever way she can. 

The words of Runeberg’s poem fill her mind, and she finds herself reciting out loud the story about private Svärd who took his wife to the battlefield with him, the words rolling off her tongue with ease. She had decided that she wanted to serve her country in this epic battle the very moment that she first heard this poem. She smiles in spite of the cold and weariness of her work. She smiles because now she knows she can make a difference. She can serve her countrymen. She can help win the war against the all powerful enemy. 

Yet when that thought crosses her mind, her heart sinks into a deep abyss, for how can this small country prevail against such a formidable power? How can they fend off the fighter jets and protect over 800 miles of border? What is the point of any of this? Perhaps Finland should just surrender to the enemy and stop the bloodshed. “No, we must remain a free nation, we must not succumb to tyranny!” she cries out as she falls to her knees in prayer, the distant sound of approaching fighter jets resonating in her ears.

Fighter jets? That is a familiar sound that plunges her thoughts back to that awful day when thunderous planes had firebombed their fields. Quickly she reaches up and rings the church bell to warn the townspeople to prepare for bombardment, then moves back to her post with keen eyes fixed upon the approaching jets. Perhaps this very church tower is their target, for surely they know the tower is being used to survey the skies. For a brief moment her mind tells her to abandon the tower, but she remains steadfast for her countrymen and does not waver. 

For some inexplicable reason the jets have changed course and are moving farther away, fading away into the horizon. “Don’t ever come back,” she yells after the disappearing jets, her cheeks flushed, her bright eyes flashing, and her youthful beauty intensified by her passion.  

I am listening to Elli again as she relates about how she wanted to do more for her country. A young woman “Lotta” has returned home from her post of service at the front lines to be married, and Elli eagerly agrees to go fill her place. Elli travels far into the Russian territory to the front lines where her duty is to cook for the fighting men. Day in and day out she works with her fingers aching and knuckles raw, yet despite the harsh conditions she maintains a spirit of optimism, her humor cutting through the oppressive bleakness of war and destruction at the front lines.

Over the many months of service Aunt Elli’s eyes see, and ears hear of many things that most of us never have, or ever will. Yet it doesn’t harden her heart, nor break her resolve. She remains dedicated to the cause, taking on many duties. The ugliness of war is raging upon her homeland, and she remains fiercely loyal, determined to protect the freedom of her countrymen. What a brave woman, who gives her all in the days of her youth!

The day comes that the Finnish army is retreating from Karelia. The Russian army is in hot pursuit and Elli makes a hasty exit from the war theatre with several other young female volunteer “Lottas”. She packs her meager belongings, tucking in a small bottle of water from Lake Onega (Äänisenjärvi) for a keepsake. In due course, the soldier who is driving the young girls is so exhausted that they must stop to sleep. They pitch a tent in the darkness, the sound of distant jets instilling fear into their hearts. One of the young women decides that she will sleep under the mattress rather than on top, for somehow she thinks that the mattress will afford her protection from Russian gunfire and bombs.

In my mind’s eye I can see the girls, snuggled under their blankets. Perhaps they don’t even know fear anymore for having been so close to war these past months. Elli gets the giggles at the thought of the mattress serving as a bomb shelter, her hysterical laughter ringing out through the darkness of the night. Soon all the girls join in with the laughter until tears of frustration and fear and sorrow and anxiety become intermingled with the laughter in a confusing explosion of emotions. Sometimes if you don’t laugh you would cry. 

Elli’s laughter draws me back into the moment, as I observe my children eagerly listening to Elli’s stories. My heart swells with pride that this is my aunt, this strong woman, and these are my children so eagerly listening to an elderly 92 year old woman’s passionate stories.

How thankful I have to be that my children and I have never had to experience the horrors of the battlefield and of wars raging in our own backyard. How fortunate we are indeed to have been raised in times and places of peace, where the only battles we have faced are the ones we have conjured in our own minds. 

Oh that we could remain keenly aware of the price that was paid for our freedom, the blood that flowed and the tears that were shed to keep this beautiful country of Finland independent. For surely if this country had lost its independence in those years of war my own life story would be much different. Surely I would have been raised under the oppression of Russian leaders, as my parents would not have had a path to freedom. They would not have been able to leave from Finland if it had been under the rule of an oppressive regime, to move to Australia where I was born, and subsequently Canada where I was raised.

Elli proudly displays a photo from her wedding. She married a wounded soldier who she met after coming home from war, but he passed away already many years ago.  My mother, who is 10 years younger than Elli, wore Elli’s wedding dress to her confirmation exercise. Clothes were scarce in those days. I can just see the girls excitedly trying the dress on my mother and deciding it would work perfectly for her confirmation.

I might tell you that when we lived in Finland from 1999-2001 we visited Aunt Elli often. Each time we went there she was delighted to have us, and as you may imagine she would load her table up with food to feed us. Fresh baked Finnish flat bread, the best in the world made by her very own hands. Incredible stew made from deer meat. Ice cream and cloudberries. Pulla. Pinwheel prune tarts. Sweet or savory, she could do it all.

Of course our kids loved going there. Now, most kids probably wouldn’t care too much to go visit at an elderly woman’s house, but our kids developed a special bond with Elli. And, admittedly, they loved her cooking! Can you imagine having an adult tell you to take more ice cream, and eat more pulla? When we moved back to America the kids would often pen little letters to her. I remember one quite well, penned by Johann…..”Aunt Elli, you are the best cook in the world. I miss your cooking.” Surely she got much practice cooking in the battlefield, and no doubt took great pride when the soldiers enjoyed a hearty meal, for that same pride was evident every time we visited. I wonder how many soldiers thought that my aunt Elli was the best cook in the world? How many soldiers were comforted by her service?

Well, not only is Aunt Elli an incredible cook and baker, but she also has an unbelievable repertoire of poems that she has memorized over the years. We have her recite her favorite poem. 

Our visit is short and sweet. We don’t want to wear out Aunt Elli, and we have a bit of a drive ahead of us. It’s time for us to head off to Tornio, which is on the border of Sweden. Looks like it’s a popular place today!

We will be camping out here for a couple days. Unfortunately my vacation is soon over. I have to leave to go back home to work, so I can only be here in Tornio for two days.  The kids will be staying here with Ashlee and Ville for four days. In fact they will be staying in Finland for the rest of the summer. Lucky ducks!

We are trying to set up our camp. I am actually incredibly crabby at this moment, because there is, no joke, a TON of mosquitoes. Have you ever tried to set up a tent when you’re being eaten alive? This is definitely a fake smile on my face!

There, do you need proof? The outside of the tent is covered in mosquitoes trying to get in to eat me up!

I think the reason why there are so many of those little annoying critters is because our camp spot is right next to this wood lot. In fact, not 10 feet from our tents there is a ditch with some rust colored water sitting in it……great mosquito breeding ground! 

Looks like most of the other campers are smart and they sleep in motor homes and trailers. 

Salmon soup…..I say it’s a food of the gods….if you’ve never tried it you have been missing out…..

Bjorn missed the narrow little bench somehow and landed on the ground….lol!

Well, nothing quite like a few storm clouds to put a damper on the festivities. Well….that cloud almost looks like wings or something.

After the rain this little boy decides to get down and dirty in the mud. 

And the Finns have things figured out. Rain doesn’t hurt anyone. Just put on your galoshes when it rains!

I bumped into some hilarious friends of ours. This couple lived in a town near Reisjärvi when we lived there. He is a newspaper reporter, and we met him when he was writing an article about the “American family” (that would be us) that moved to Reisjärvi – you know that was big news in the community! After we met, our friend would come pick us up to do random things, such as play baseball in the middle of the night, go swimming in some rapids, go downhill skiing through a waterlogged pond, go jump into a lake through a hole in the ice, go to a waterpark and rub soap on yourself before you go on the slipperiest slide…. I mean, how could you ask for more hilarious friends? Every time he invited us somewhere it was to a crazier expedition than the last time. As it happens their daughter came to spend a few months at our home, met an American guy who she later married… lucky us. We get to see our friends pretty often when they make their way over to see their grandkids. I feel really short next to them so I have to stand on my tippy toes.

So by now you are probably wondering where on earth we are right now. Yes, by Tornio near the Swedish border, really far north, almost at the arctic circle. This area is hosting a large event this year where about 75,000 to 80,000 people gather at a spiritual retreat for a long weekend of services, mingling with family and friends, and meeting new people. Each year the event is held in a different part of Finland, which makes for an enormous logistical and organizational feat.

The event gate is truly a magnificent work of art this summer. The post that is painted green depicts a green field. When the sun is setting, it shines through the openings on the other post and turns parts of the green post into a beautiful golden color, as perhaps might happen to a field of wheat in the setting sun. 

When I look upon the gate I am reminded of the sacrifice and hard work that the men and women made to keep Finland a free country, where there is freedom of association and religion and speech and movement…..a place where this type of gathering is possible year after year. It is truly a miracle and amazing blessing that so many years ago Finland was able to fend off the encroaching enemy that threatened their very freedom and prosperity…..and today we stand here….a free people….a safe country….perhaps the safest in the world….today we are not fighting for freedom but rather are exercising our freedoms that our forefathers fought for so valiantly. 

At night we crawl into our comfy and cozy tents. I am sharing with Annika. Perhaps many of my readers would not share my passion for sleeping in a tent, but to me there is nothing so amazing as sliding my feet into the bottom of my sleeping bag, pulling the zipper up tight to my neck and laying perfectly still, listening to the sounds of the night. By the way our tent did not get wet inside when it rained earlier. And yes, in the land of the midnight sun you don’t need a flashlight inside your tent.

Guess what? I didn’t find out until my last meal before I leave back to the U.S. They are serving a cream based reindeer soup…’s to die for!

And a cream based rice porridge! My favorite. 

The kids get busy and start selling ice cream. Once you sell all the ice cream in the cooler you get a free ice cream for yourself. 

Now, I should not have to tell you this, but Finnish ice cream is theeeeee best! Take this for instance. This ice cream bar is covered in white chocolate, and has these crunchy flakes of salted licorice on the shell. It is sooooo delicious!

Wow, there really is over 70,000 people here!

We run into one of our kids’ favorite people. This young man spent a summer at our house. The kids have the fondest of memories of playing games with him and jumping on the trampoline….and all the things that kids do. He is in medical school now. What a great guy!

Ville decides to take the kids out to volunteer with garbage pick up. As you can imagine there’s a lot of trash with 70,000 people, although not as much as you might think, because Finns are pretty averse to creating extra trash. I mean, for the most parts Finns are pretty environmentally conscious.

Like I mentioned earlier my kids are staying here in Tornio with Ashlee and Ville for two more days, and then they will head back to Kuusamo for the rest of the summer. I am leaving in the morning back home. I had a lucky break when I was looking for tickets back to Phoenix. I discovered that there is a small airport in a town called Lulea just a short distance away in Sweden. Norwegian airlines flies from there to Stockholm, and that ends up being the least expensive and most convenient way to get home. I really scored on that one! My lovely friend, Hanna, is going to wake up early and bring me to the airport. 

When I wake up it is raining. Not just a little. I mean, like a lot. Goodbye my dear munchkins! Enjoy your summer in Finland! I know Ashlee will take good care of you! It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to say goodbye.

I have to pull out an umbrella as I rush down the row of parked motor homes and campers. I will be waiting for Hanna to pick me up down by the main road. She is camped somewhere about 2 km away. I had explained to her where I would meet her, and I hope she can find me.

When I reach the roadway it starts to pour like crazy and my suitcase is getting wet. I duck under the awning of the last motorhome in the row. I hear Hanna’s car tires sloshing through the rain before I see the headlights piercing through the misty air. I leap out towards the street, but it is too late, she did not see me. I wave my arms frantically hoping that she will catch sight of me in her rearview mirrors. “Over here,” I want to yell, but I don’t want to wake up all the people sleeping in the many rows of campers. Before the car fades out of view I see the brake lights illuminate, and she turns around. Indeed she had seen my arms frantically waving.

With each mile the knot in my stomach grows larger and tighter. Why am I leaving my children behind? Why can’t I stay here? Who leaves their kids on the other side of the world for weeks on end? What kind of parent would do this voluntarily? Goodbye my sweetest loves……

Reality sinks in when we cross the border into Sweden. I am truly leaving to go back home to work after five glorious weeks of vacation…..

When Hanna and I arrive in Lulea we head downtown to find some breakfast, but not a single restaurant is open this Saturday morning.  Finally we realize that we have to go to a hotel, because hotels usually serve breakfast. Sure enough, we get the best Swedish continental breakfast ever at the Clarion Hotel. It is expensive, needless to say.

Now, I did not stuff my pockets with food from the buffet. Okay, well maybe I took a banana or a bagel. Anyway, I have to catch a flight in Stockholm with a very short layover so I won’t have time to pick up food there, and my overseas flight on Norwegian Airlines charges $45 for food. I need something to eat on the long overseas flight. I have some snack bars and two apples in a plastic bag, but that puts me well past my carry on limit. I decide to be smart and stuff the food into my jacket pockets along with a few other items. I have always thought that this would be an ingenious way to sneak extra weight on the plane……right? I wave goodbye to Hanna. I think she is laughing at me.

My flight is delayed by several hours, which means invariably I will miss my connection in Stockholm to Los Angeles, which means I will lose my ticket from L.A. to Phoenix on Southwest Airlines, which means I will have to call in to work that I can’t come in…..teach me for booking my flight home so last minute that I only have a few hours before my first shift starts.

As luck would have it, when I finally sit down in my airline seat I discover I am in the emergency exit row, which means that I can’t have anything under the seat in front of me. That includes my jacket with the bulging pockets that I had carried so cautiously onto the plane in hopes that no one would notice it was weighed down with so much stuff. The stewardess offers to place it in the overhead bin, but I don’t want her to take my jacket since it is so heavy laden with stuff in the pockets, plus I always get cold on the plane and will need my jacket. I try to put it on backwards, but the stewardess gets impatient with me and tells me I must put it on the right way. While she is glaring at me I stand up, put my jacket on, sit down…….oh horror…..with so much stuff in my pockets I can’t put my arms down at my sides like normal, and the seats…..they are so narrow….and the big dude sitting next to me…..he is an off duty Norwegian Airlines steward. His elbow bumps into the hard apple in my pocket. I am sure he notices that my pockets are bulging. Neither of us can use the arm rest because all the stuff in my pocket is intruding into that space. This is really awkward. I am sure he is wondering what the heck is in my pockets. I laugh heartily to myself about the absurdity of the situation. How can I be so stupid? I should be embarrassed, but I can’t muster that emotion. I am just amused as I sit here with my arms half suspended in the air in front of me.

The off duty steward sitting next to me makes light conversation and I try to sound like I am a totally normal American traveler, but as soon as the seatbelt light is off he gets up and heads to the front of the plane. Now I am getting nervous. Surely he went to go tell the stewardesses that I am behaving suspiciously…..that my pockets are full of stuff… who knows what kind of stuff…..I am fully expecting them to come question me……I find myself thinking that if I was a different ethnicity maybe they would come to see what suspicious things I had bulging in my jacket pockets…..I try to think up excuses for why I have overloaded my pockets….for why I am trying to break their tight carry on weight restrictions…..the only answer I can come up with is why, because I am an annoying, self-centered, rules-don’t-apply-to-me moron….

Nope. When he returns he says nothing. When we land in Stockholm no one comes to haul me off the plane and inspect my pockets. I carry my jacket off the plane as nonchalantly as possible. Fortunately for me my overseas flight is late and I run like a lunatic after a particularly frustrating and bad service experience at the Norwegian Airlines counter. I make my flight just on time…..yes… pockets are bulging, but this time I am not seated in the emergency exit row…..this time I can stuff my jacket under the seat in front of me…..and I don’t have to pay $45 for airplane food…..

My mind wanders off to my kids….how does a parent just up and leave their kids in a random field in northern Finland….sleeping in a tent next to a mosquito infested ditch….I wonder if it’s still raining. Has it rained all day up there? I feel a tightening in my chest, as though little hands have gripped around my heart telling me not to leave. I close my eyes and breathe in slowly, exhaling until my lungs feel completely empty.

“Mom,” I can hear the little voice say, “It’s okay! We will miss you, and you will miss us, but it’s only for a month! Ashlee and Ville will take good care of us! They always have. We will meet you in Iceland before you know it.”

Ahhhh, yes…..Iceland. Indeed I will be at home working for a month, and then when it’s time for the kids to head back home from Finland before school starts they are going to fly to Iceland. David and I are going to fly to Iceland two days earlier and will be at the airport to meet them. We have a weeklong camping excursion planned with the kids before we head back to the desert southwest. The tension eases and I relax a bit. I pull my eye bra over my eyes and push my noise cancelling ear buds deep into my ear canal so I can sleep.

“Mom,” I can hear the little voice say, “When we go to Iceland are we going to the Blue Lagoon? I have always wanted to go there.”

“Yes, dear!” The Blue Lagoon….I have lots of trip planning to do still. I have booked our 4×4 Land Rover rental and the Blue Lagoon tickets, but that’s about it……oh and the guest house stays for the first and last nights…..I have lots of work to do…..

My weary brain shuts off…..later…..I promise myself to make the Iceland trip truly memorable for the kids….but even so the grip on my heart seems to tighten with each passing mile….

No worries….my kids will be okay….Finland is a safe country….my aunt Elli and all the Finnish freedom fighters in ’44 fought off the formidable foe….by the grace of God…..