Life in Finland in the 1930s and 1940s

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What was it like to be a child and teenager during World War 2 in Finland?

Telma Martin (nee Bäckström),

interviewed by Daniel Greef – History Research Assignment 1997

1.    What was your place of birth? Oulu, Finland.
How many were in your family?
In my family there were my mother, my father, then two brothers, me, and then it went sister, brother, sister.
What were your parents’occupations?

My mother never worked; she did a lot of volunteer work during the war. My father was Oulu's city treasurer.

2.    What were some important events in your own life, between 1935 and 1950?
In July 1939, my parents sold the house we lived in, and the family took a trip all around Finland. One thing I remember well is, in the south of Finland; we went to a town called Viipuri and saw the whole Finnish army marching through the main street, preparing for war. One of my sisters was born in 1941.

When the war started my father went to the front lines; he was a captain in the army. Everyone had the choice to give up all their jewelry, including things like wedding rings, to help the war effort; a lot did. All the jewelry was melted down and used to buy weapons and other things for the soldiers and army. The people who gave in their wedding rings were given an aluminium ring as a sort of replacement. People gave any cars and trucks they had for the army to use. Everyone helped in some way or another.

3.    What was school like; was it the same as today’s?
No, it wasn't like today’s schools. You always had to go to school six days a week before the war started- Sunday was the only day in the week we had off. There were lots of subjects we studied. They were Finnish literature, geography, Finnish and world history, chemistry and biology, mathematics, scripture and church history, the Finnish language, Swedish, German, French, Latin, English. We had to learn five languages. There was also art, singing and music, science (just in general) and various sports. Some of the sports were skiing and skating in winter, and a Finnish version of baseball. All schools had large gymnasiums for indoor sports. We did six or seven subjects a day. School started at eight a.m. and went through until four p.m. Between eleven and one we got a break, where everyone went home for their main meal of the day.

When the war started we only went to school three days a week. In case of bombing raids, less people would get hurt. I went to school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. We didn't get much homework because we went to school so much.

4.                  When you were a teenager what were the clothes like?
The clothes - during the war everything was rationed and hard to get. When my aunt didn't want a dress she had she save it for me and my mother made it smaller so it would fit me. We didn't throw anything away. If our shoes -were falling apart we got them repaired. There was no nylon, plastic or synthetic material, only wool, cotton and silk. Stockings were made of silk. There were only woollen gloves. Also, there were only leather shoes.

What type of music did you listen to?
In the war time we listened to very, very patriotic songs. Young children listened to funny songs about animals and things like that. All the songs had nice tunes to them.

Did you go to the cinemas much, and what were they like?
We went a bit. There was no pornography or violence in any of the movies. There was no kissing either, only holding hands. Movies were about love stories.

5.    What do you think the general reaction was when you heard World War 2 had started, and finished?  
When it started everyone was ready and prepared, because they had been hearing rumors about one going to start. Everyone was also ready to give all that they had just to help Finland.
After the War – well, there was jubilation, but more than anything, thanking God with a heavy heart because of all the land and resources Finland had lost. Finland had to pay a huge reparation to Russia, and they paid it and any other debts they owed.
Volunteers were coming from all over the world to help Finland, including America, Sweden and Denmark.

6.    How old were you when World War 2 started?
Well, I was ten years old, born on the fourteenth of June, 1929.

7.    What were some changes in the world between 1935 and 1950?
Well, the war changed an awful lot.

8.    What responsibilities fell on you when the war started?

I had to look after my two younger sisters and brother. My grandmother’s house had a direct hit by a bomb; she was in the bomb shelters when it hit luckily, but she lost her memory. She was eighty years old. I had to look after her as well. I had to cook, clean and do the washing. My mother was looking after soldiers as they passed through the town. She cooked food for them.  


9.    What was the food like during World War 2?
Well, as I said before, everything was rationed. There was no real coffee; it was made out of some kind of crushed seed. Tea had to be made out of dried raspberry leaves. There were no cakes, buns or white bread. No butter. Adults got no milk, only a little bit of cream; children got half a litre of milk. There were no lollies; none were made because sugar was given out on its own. We also picked a lot of our own berries, like raspberries. We made as much food and clothes as we could so there was less to buy.

10.    What was the reaction when Russia took parts of Finland, and what parts did Russia take?
There was sadness and crying. Everyone from the parts Russia took had to be re-settled in the rest of Finland. They had to leave practically everything they had. The people of Finland were really devastated. They took the southeast part and where Finland had access to the Arctic sea.

11.   During the war were you worried about Germany or Russia invading Oulu?
We were scared of Russia, not just invading Oulu, but invading all of Finland. They had a much larger population than us, and more tanks and other weaponry. But Russian soldiers were terrible at fighting in the Finnish forests.

12.   What do you think the general attitude towards adults from your age group was during World War 2?
Respect. Girls always curtsied and boys always bowed. There were always handshakes, no kissing. Respect, respect for the elders. You never dared call anyone by his or her first name. There were no swear words, dreadful people used swear words. Everything was sort of beautiful.

13.   Was anyone else in your family involved in fighting in the war, other than your father?
Yes, my two eldest brothers fought. The younger one, Velse, (served 1943-45) had to search the sky with binoculars to find any enemy planes. And the other one, my eldest brother Einari, (served 1943-44), was taken out of school. Anyone in their final year had to leave school and join the army. They were given three months training and then put in the front lines against Russia. My eldest brother was shot. He was in the front lines, fighting against the Russians; he was shot with a bullet in his stomach that went through his pancreas, intestines and bowel. As soon as he was wounded he was picked up by a friend of his and carried for ten kilometres through the forest. They had no food; they only drank water from streams. They got to a road.

Blood and faeces were both coming out of the wound and dripping on both of them. They found a horse and cart, which they both got on to, then eventually they found a car with some soldiers that took him to the closest field hospital. He was operated on immediately. His intestines, pancreas and bowel were all sewn up and within a few days he could walk, with help. Because of the amount of injured people coming into the hospital my brother had to go to another hospital. They sent him by train to a hospital in the southwest of Finland. The train was bumping the whole trip down and his wounds opened up. When he got to the hospital, no one could stop the bleeding. As soon as my parents heard they got on the first train to where he was.

They arrived too late; he had already died.

14.   What did you do in your free time during the war?
We went to dances. All you did was, a boy would ask you to dance; you link arms and walk around until the music stops. We visited our relatives a lot. In winter, we did a lot of skiing, and skating on open-air rinks.

On Sunday, we got into our best clothes and went to church and Sunday School. In the afternoon, we would as a family go on long walks. It was wonderful.

15.   What did you do for Christmas?  
You always had a real Christmas tree, with real candles and bright decorations. There were special foods. Santa Claus came personally to give out presents to everyone. On Christmas Eve everyone visits the cemetery and puts a candle on there closest relative’s grave. This was to remember them, not worship the dead.

16.   How big was your house and was it near the city?
We lived in a flat, because we were going to build another house after we got back from our trip around Finland but the value of money went down so much we couldn't. It was a two or three bedroom flat with a kitchen, dining room, lounge room and bathroom. It was in the city, so we could be close to my aunt because all the men went off to fight.
In summer my sisters and I and my brother went to our friends’ farm in the country because of bombings.

17.   What was your age at the end of the war?

I was sixteen years old then.

18.         What inventions or discoveries occurred while you were growing up?
After the war, one of my friends went to America for one year. When she came back she brought back nylon stockings and clothes that didn't need ironing. Everything needed ironing before and during the war. Plastic and penicillin were invented and discovered after the war. Penicillin was huge. Television was in America only but it was unbelievable.

19.          When did you migrate, from Finland? I left in 1948.
Where did you go?
. I studied there to become a nurse.
Was it hard coping at first? And was it hard to adjust?

No, I already knew English. And, no – it wasn’t hard to adjust. I had learnt a lot about England in Geography.

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