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They Took My Father

They Took My Father: Finnish Americans in Stalin’s Russia

Mayme Sevander
Laurie Hertzel
Foreword by Tom Morgan
Copyright Date: 1992
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    They Took My Father
    Book Description:

    A riveting memoir of one family’s struggle under a totalitarian regime.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9587-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Map of Soviet Karelia
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Tom Morgan

    On a damp, chilly morning in 1986, a train carrying thirty-three Duluthians pulled into Petrozavodsk station in what was then the Soviet Union. Our group had been planning this trip for months, and we were amazed and excited finally to be here. Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power only a short time, and the Cold War was not yet over. It was still unusual for Americans to travel to the Soviet Union, especially to cities like this one that were small and off the beaten track.

    We had made this long trip in order to forge sister city ties between...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. You Must Remember
    (pp. 1-10)

    My story is one of many.

    What happened to me happened to many people, over and over, six thousand times or more, in Pai and Matrosa and Petrozavodsk and Kondopoga and all the other towns and settlements and lumber camps scattered across the Soviet republic of Karelia. You must remember that.

    Remember it when I tell you how my father was dragged away from his home in the dark and cold of a bitter November night in 1937. Remember it when I tell you how my brother was thrown into a labor camp, as I was, and how my mother...

  7. Big Red, Little Red
    (pp. 11-24)

    I was born in 1923 in the sleepy river town of Brule, Wisconsin, but my earliest memories are of Superior. Superior is a small, flat town in northwestern Wisconsin—not a beautiful city, but a place surrounded by beauty, by nature at its most rugged and wild: the tall Norway pines of the forest, the rocky shore of Lake Superior. Gulls screeched in July and the wind howled in November. It is a town of hard winters and brief, muggy summers. I remember fighting that winter wind as it swept, unchecked, down those flat city streets, a wind so strong...

  8. The Little Communist
    (pp. 25-34)

    I couldn’t believe my luck.

    It had been a long, rough journey to New York by car over bumpy two-lane roads, but out of all the things we had brought along, out of all the dishes and photographs and clocks and precious mementos, only one thing had been damaged. We discovered it when my mother unrolled a blanket that contained Leo’s things. Out fell Leo’s violin. It was broken into two pieces, its neck cracked.

    I was secretly delighted, though of course I didn’t tell my mother that. After three tortured years of violin lessons, I was finally able to...

  9. Pioneers Again
    (pp. 35-42)

    I stood on the deck, sea spray in my face, the pitch and roll of the waves under my feet, and I was perfectly happy. We had left New York late on the afternoon of April 4, 1934, sailing away from a beautiful sunset. Hundreds of people had come down to the dock to see us off, and we waved our red handkerchiefs at them until they were just dots in the distance. The pinks and yellows and oranges spread out behind us across the western sky and reflected on the calm ocean. It seemed like a good omen and...

  10. Filled With Hope
    (pp. 43-54)

    Leningrad, when we arrived, was gray and dusty and crowded. The wind was cold and blew grit into our eyes. Trolley buses, packed with passengers, rattled past us down the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, their cables spitting sparks above our heads. I couldn’t read the street signs—the alphabet looked backwards to me—or understand the conversations I overheard in the train station. It all seemed exotic and foreign, but it was wearying as well. I was anxious to get to our new home.

    After two days in a Leningrad hotel, where Mother rested and Father attended to business, we...

  11. Wanting to Belong
    (pp. 55-68)

    I awoke to the sun sparkling off the frosted windows and a new carpet of thick white snow outside. I threw back the covers, thoughts of skating filling my head. The wooden floor was cold, and I scampered out to the other side of the curtain to warm myself at the stove. My mother was gathering up the teacups that were scattered around from the night before, reminders that my father’s friends had been there again and had stayed until quite late. More and more often, his American Communist friends came by at night to talk urgently in whispered Finnish...

  12. They Took My Father
    (pp. 69-78)

    The sun was not yet up, but I could hear Paul sneaking out of bed.

    “Paul, where are you going?” I asked in a whisper. Aino still slept quietly beside me.

    “Fishing,” he said, tiptoeing across the wooden floor. Mother had washed it the night before in honor of my homecoming, scrubbed it bone-white with sand from the riverside, and a few stray grains skittered across his path. “Do you want to come along with me?”

    I threw back the blankets and pulled my dress on over my head. “I’ll watch,” I said. I wasn’t really interested in sitting on...

  13. The Dark Days
    (pp. 79-104)

    This was the beginning of the dark days, the dark days that dragged on for years.

    I stayed in Petrozavodsk—at least there my mother knew I was safe and warm—and Mother, Paul and Aino huddled together in the house in Uhtua and waited for word from Father.

    But no word came.

    Without Father’s income, money was tight. For awhile, Mother continued working at the orphanage, and Paul and Aino met her there every day after school to get a hot meal—often their only meal of the day. But then the orphanage director was arrested and Paul and...

  14. Enemy of the People
    (pp. 105-116)

    I looked up from my mother’s garden where Aino and I were pulling weeds. The white-hot August sun blazed down on our backs as we worked, and though the sky was an intense, cloudless blue, I hoped that rain would come soon. The little tomato and potato plants were precious to us, but they were already drooping. I was afraid that if the heat wave continued, we would have nothing to eat all winter.

    Aino wore a little red-and-white kerchief to keep the sun off her head, but she still looked miserably hot. I worried about her. She was eleven...

  15. A Grave Injustice
    (pp. 117-128)

    All over Soviet Karelia, Finns—both American Finns and Finnish Finns—had been sent into exile. We later heard of many of our friends from Petrozavodsk who had been sent to work at other logging camps or to islands in Lake Onega. No one place was better than another. Everywhere people were sent, they suffered. Families lived wherever they could find shelter—in barracks or abandoned houses, even in old saunas and outbuildings.

    One group was sent to Kalajoki Island in Lake Onega, where they worked as loggers and lived in an old prison barracks. Most of them had never...

  16. Trusted to Serve
    (pp. 129-140)

    Stalin had taken most of the radios. We got our news fromPravda,Communist party newspaper, and from loudspeakers attached the outside of apartment buildings. June 22, 1941, was a Sunday. I had gotten up early, planning to spend the day at the Dynamo, a recreation center on Lake Onega. It was the beginning of summer, and my friends and I planned to rent a boat and go swimming. But the news we heard early that morning changed everything. The words blaring from the loudspeakers were scratchy static, but the message was chillingly clear. The Nazis had invaded the Soviet...

  17. Too Late for Mother
    (pp. 141-156)

    We walked for miles along the deserted road that led to the labor camp. The frozen snow crunched beneath our boots and the midnight sky above us glowed with a cold, full moon. Barren fields lined the road on either side. Neither Kalervo nor I would admit we were afraid. We tried to boost each other’s spirits, but we were both apprehensive about what lay ahead.

    I couldn’t understand why the military would take us—two strong, intelligent people willing to risk our lives for the war effort—and lock us up. How could we be considered cowards when we...

  18. No Tears Left
    (pp. 157-168)

    So many people had died.

    We walked through the grim streets of Petrozavodsk, past the rubble and broken glass of demolished buildings, past the lines of people waiting to buy food, and we looked at faces, hoping to find someone we knew. But so many were gone. Some had died in battle, some during the evacuation, some in labor camps. Some, like my mother, held on until they could die at home.

    Every week, nearly every day, I heard news of another friend who had not survived. Miriam Kupiainen, with whom I had lived when my family moved to Uhtua,...

  19. To Know the Truth
    (pp. 169-176)

    Mournful organ music throbbed outside the window of our room. The loudspeakers were broadcasting Bach.

    For two days, this melancholy music played over all the radios, over all the loudspeakers in town, without explanation. The drab March streets were made even gloomier by the heavy dirges and mournful chords. For two days and nights we listened to this music until we thought we would weep from the somberness of it all. And then on March 7, 1953, we finally were told the news: Josef Stalin was dead.

    I’d been teaching for more than two years, and Milton was still playing...

  20. Faces Form the Past
    (pp. 177-188)

    I was only ten years old when my family moved to the Soviet Union. I was fourteen when my father was arrested, twenty-two when my mother died and just twenty-nine when the Stalin era ended. A lifetime of heartbreak was packed into those nineteen years.

    But I do not want you to come away from this memoir pitying me. I do not want you to think that our lives were terrible. They were not. We endured great tragedies, it’s true, and hardships almost beyond belief, but we also had success and happiness. We learned to be content with little, to...

  21. Afterword
    (pp. 189-190)

    In the fall of 1990, after spending a year teaching and writing in the United States, I returned to the Soviet Union to find the country in shambles. Lines for food and consumer goods were longer than they had been in years, and many people were doing without the most basic necessities. Yet high-ranking party officials were giving themselves pay raises and privileges left and right. After thirty years as a party member, I finally realized that the system was corrupt beyond repair. I wrote a two-page letter of resignation to the Communist party and turned in my party card....

  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-191)