Thursday, August 17, 2006

My aunt's tale

(as told by my mother. I really need to get directly to the source...)

In the summer of 1944, it was clear Finland was losing the war. Karelia, a significant portion of Eastern Finland, equalling approximately 10% of the country's land area, would be lost, again, for good. The people, around 10% of the population, had to be evacuated. The Red Army was very close.

My father was five. My aunt was eleven, twelve. They were sent alone on the refugee trains, while their mother and the eldest brother would walk across the country with the surviving cattle and a few belongings. (I have heard that people had to slaughter most of their livestock - Finland was a self-sufficiency farming nation until after the war. I don't know whether my father's family had to slaughter their animals, or how many cows they had. I really must get to the source - my father has no memories of Karelia.) Their father was fighting in the war.

As the two children arrived, the Elisenvaara station with the evacuee trains had just suffered massive bombardment by the Red Army. They narrowly escaped it, but there were dead and wounded lying everywhere. Many of the wounded were packed into the train the two children boarded. People were shellshocked and frightened.

My aunt and father managed to get a seat on the packed train. The journey took a day or more, with the train stopping for hours, then starting again. My aunt needed to pee, but she didn't dare to go to the toilet, in case her seat would be taken, in case something would happen to the little brother. Eventually she couldn't hold it any longer. She lifted the hem of her skirt and peed, allowing it to seep into the upholstered seat - the humiliation. She couldn't sleep, either, in case something might happen - more bombings, someone stealing their things, something happening to her little brother.

Eventually, little brother woke up, also wanting to pee. My aunt could do nothing about it, she had to get up and take her brother to the toilet. Outside the toilets, a group of Finnish soldiers - omia, "our own" - were standing around smoking. Upon seeing the two children, one of the soldiers said, "Nythän me saadaankin naista!", "Now we can get ourselves a bit of ass!", and pawed my aunt, the child of eleven, twelve, under her wet underpants.

Eventually, the train arrived at Keuruu, in Central Finland. The children were taken to a local school converted into an evacuee centre, along with tens, possibly hundreds of other evacuees. My aunt hadn't slept for two days. She made herself a hiding place in the small triangle behind two adjacent doors and slept for twenty-four hours. When she awoke, a woman gave her a pair of underpants and told her to wash herself, as by now she smelled. She went to the lake, washed and changed. Later, their mother arrived with the older brother. The home built by their father in Karelia would be lost forever, but he returned from the war and the family was eventually rehoused in Central Finland.

I don't often think of myself as one. But I am a refugee's daughter.

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