Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A Finnish Family at war (Revised June 2011)

I have very few personal photographs on display at home. However I am rather fond of one showing a group of carefree schoolgirls in the Finnish province of Karjala (Karelia in English)  in the 1930s, one of whom is my grandmother (she is standing to the immediate left in the front row). By the end of the decade she was married with her first child and her country was at war with Russia. Although I met with my grandmother on a number of occasions, both in England and abroad, I never knew what she was really liked. I had only my mother’s distinctly partisan opinion of her and it was not very flattering to say the least. Nonetheless I treasure another portrait that I have of my grandmother, her thick dark hair cropped into a bob like a flapper from the Jazz Age.

My grandfather too remained something of an enigma for me until after he had died. The last time I was in Finland I was told that he was deemed the storyteller of the family and it was then I discovered a tale I had never heard before, but which apparently had passed into family legend. What was even more remarkable was that the story concerned myself. When I was born my grandfather was determined to  make his way from Finland to England to greet his very first grandchild. He took a boat to England and then a train to London from the port. Somehow he made his way to the Whittington Hospital in North London  where I had been born. Incredibly he did not speak a word of English and relied upon a simple hand written message, provided by a school teacher friend who was fluent in English, to ask strangers for directions to his final destination.

Whilst he was still alive, but after my grandmother’s death, I asked him to send me copies of  family pictures. A number arrived. One is of an apprehensive little boy looking for all the world like a Finnish Little Lord Fauntleroy. He is my grandfather Veikko. Another photograph was dated 1875 and showed my great grandparents clutching their new born daughter, my great-grandmother Helena-Sophia after whom I was named. (It always amazes me that the Partridge’s maternal great-grandfather was born in 1840, siring a second family at a relatively old age). There seems to be nothing amiss with this early photograph of my great-grandmother and her own parents. It is true that her parents look  a little stiff and awkward, hardly surprising given the sheer concentration required to maintain their poses for so long. Helen-Sophia is but a blur as she wriggles free from her mother’s grasp. It was not until I went to Finland and was perusing through another relative’s collection of pictures that I realised that my 1875 photograph had been doctored. The original showed Helena-Sophia’s elder sister, then a small girl of around five years old. It seems at some stage in the 1940s another relative had had the young girl airbrushed from the photograph through spite.I never forgave that same relative for telling my mother, as she lay dying that she should confess her sins or she would burn in Hell. My mother was not especially religious but faced with imminent death could cause even the most stout hearted to falter. Besides, we were Lutheran and as such the confessional did not play an important role in our Church. Indeed one of my direct ancestors was a Protestant priest from around the time that the Tudor  church of St Mary's, which I had loved as a child and which had featured in a short story "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe, inspired by his own time spent as a schoolboy in the parish, was built.

It was a vicar from the same church who led the service at my mother's funeral. This vicar was far more urbane than the vicar of Poe's story, the latter based on his own fearsome headmaster. After I had spoken with him over the phone the vicar described to the congregation my mother's great love for the church. In reality she had simply admired the 16th century building from the park as she went jogging near by. Like me, she was not drawn to the far larger church across the road which had been built in the 19th century  to accommodate the much larger congregation. Consequently, my beloved little church was rarely open for me to steal a peek inside at the interior. Thankfully it is to have a new life as an arts' centre, which will enable it's singular charm to be enjoyed by far more people.

Sometimes I find family pictures troubling. I know I always found it disconcerting that my picture alone was missing from the walls of the house I grew up in. Even images of  family pets took precedence over me.  By contrast my grandparents carefully hoarded all the photographs they had received of me over the years. Going through them brought back so many memories. For years I was convinced I had worn a bright pink organza dress as a toddler. There in my grandparents’ photo album was the proof. Unfortunately I have managed to lose most of my own pictures from my youth but they remain pin sharp in my memory. 

At Marble Hill House the guidebook relates how one man wrote in his will that he wanted the portraits of his parents destroyed if no other members of the family wanted them as he “did not like to have family pictures exposed in a broker’s shop.” There is something equally sad about seeing old photograph albums for sale at antique fairs  the names of those pictured often lost to history. That is not a fear I need have for my own as other relatives have shown themselves to be keen to add them to the family archive for future generations to enjoy. I also have a copy of my family tree drawn up by a kinswoman. On it I see that my date of birth is incorrect making me younger than I really am. I wonder if future generations will be intrigued to discover as much about me as I once was to glean information about our common ancestors.
One of the reasons I took time off to study Finnish was to enable me to forge a greater connection to my family. After studying the language for several terms I chanced upon a photograph of my grandfather in uniform. He had written something on the back. I translated it (with more than a little help from my teacher) and realised he had been stationed in Viipuri in 1935 in the equivalent of the Finnish army engineer corps. The date was significant. Between 1935 and 1939 Finland mobilised its army for a potential attack from the Soviet Union. At the end of  November 1939 Stalin launched an unprovoked invasion into Finland. One of the key targets for his generals was the city of Viipuri where my grandfather had been stationed in 1935.

On one of my earliest visits to Southside House Wimbledon the guide had described the Finnish Army’s response to Stalin’s aggression as capitulation. The Winter War was no Dunkirk. Despite being overwhelmed by superior numbers and artillery the Finns were able to steadfastly repel the invading Soviet forces for a number of months as opposed to the two weeks Stalin’s generals had optimistically forecasted. Finland was eventually forced to yield territory and make crippling reparations. And so it was that my grandmother was born in Karjala  in Finland  and yet if you look at the map today her birthplace is in Russia.


When I wrote this post I never thought a member of my family would ever read it. The Brimstone Butterfly is a rare species even in its own native habitat. But today, thanks to the internet my aunt got in contact with me again so I gave her a link to this post. She said she was so struck by the remarkable likeness between my grandfather and her son, his only other grandchild, that she was moved to tears.It seems she had never seen these pictures before.

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