The trip that could not be spoken of
A woman back from Germany is being interrogated at the quarantine camp in Hanko in September 1946. Office worker Kaisu Lehtimäki is asked why she left Lapland with the Germans in the autumn of 1944. The interrogation protocol reveals that Lehtimäki had a romance with a German soldier. The person being interrogated was not even engaged to a German, but when her female friend ... had spoken about her intention to leave, then she ahd decided to go with her, as she was afraid of a future in Finland...
The extract is from an interrogation protocol of the State Police.
“There are plenty of lies there”, says Kaisu Lehtimäki, who is now 89 years old.
Lehtimäki did not go to follow a German man. She had been advised to lie in the interrogation because in the political climate at the time it was a lesser evil to be a silly romantic girl than to tell the truth.
“I was fleeing the Russians.”
When the German army withdrew from Finnish Lapland in the autumn of 1944, they were joined by about 1,000 Finnish women. Some stayed behind in Norway, but hundreds of women went to Germany. Four of them appear in Auf Wiedersehn Finnland, a new documentary by film director Virpi Suutari. One of them is Kaisu Lehtimäki. Suutari met a large number of women, but only a few of them would agree to speak publicly about their experiences, and it took a good deal of persuasion to get them to talk.
For many Finns, the strongest impression of the women who followed the Germans is connected with the film Pojat (“The Boys”), based on a novel of the same name by Paavo Rintala. In the unforgettable final scene, the boy Jake, played by a young Vesa-Matti loiri, runs after a train when his mother leaves him in order to go with a German soldier.
In fact, Suutari found out only about a few cases in which a woman would have left her family when she left. Usually those who left had nothing to lose. They were unfettered in one way or another, rootless, or psychologically orphaned, but there were also young women, and those with a desire for adventure, Suutari says. The group included untrained drifter women, but also independent nurses and interpreters, who had worked for the Germans at the time when the Finns and the Germans were comrades in arms. They were afraid of how they might have been treated once the Germans left. Other women were also enticed to come to Germany as labour.
Each woman has a story to tell. Of the four women in Suutari’s film, two went because of a romance, and one was escaping a cruel mother. And then there was Kaisu.
During the war, Kaisu was a linguistically gifted office worker in her twenties. She was the daughter of a teacher with a good job in Rovaniemi.
She never got to know a single German soldier herself, but everyone in Lapland ran into them. At one point the number of German soldiers in the north of Finland exceeded 200,000.
“If you greeted them on the street, they would start to follow you. They said “good evening” in accented Finnish. I felt that it was best not to answer”, Kaisu says.
Kaisu’s friend, who worked as an interpreter, dated a German, and urged Kaisu to go as well. Then there was a belief that Finland would lose Lapland, that the country would be cut in half, and the Soviet Union would take Lapland as its own. Even the provincial governor said in a radio speech, that people were being evacuated from Lapland, possibly for the last time.
When she went to her brother’s wedding in Helsinki, Kaisu had heard how the people in the city were complaining that evacuees from Lapland would soon be coming in and taking jobs away.
“That was enough for me. I decided that I’m not going to Southern Finland.”
She also did not want to go to Sweden, which she felt was a country of cowards.
When Kaisu was far in the north, in Kaamanen, she heard that the withdrawing Germans had burned her home in Rovaniemi. The Russians were rumoured to be in Ivalo already. She jumped on a lorry with the other women, travelled to Norway, and from there by ship and train to Germany.
When she left, she had plenty of conflicting feelings. She even contemplated suicide. While on the way she had second thoughts, but the Germans would not let her go back any more.
“When I crossed the Norwegian border I wasn’t afraid of anybody or anything.”
Naturally, the trip came as something of a shock to the naive, innocent young women. This can be heard in the letter that Kaisu sent her mother from her trip in Norway: It is just so sad that many of the Finnish girls who are here have travelled only to have a good time. I want to cry whenever I talk to someone like that. But I can’t be much of a stump speaker, because many of them are so down and out that it is no use.”
The wildest and most promiscuous of them would change partners, recall wonderful nights, and recommend Hans or Fritz to each other, depending on who was good in bed. During the trip, Kaisu wrote love letters to German soldiers on behalf of the girls, because they didn’t know German.
Kaisu says that she understands the women who fell in love with the Germans, who always knew how to say something nice. “They might praise your ear, or your beautiful voice, if the face was nothing to shout about.”
They were taken on a ship in the Arctic Ocean from Kvalsund to Central Norway, and from there by train to Oslo. There they waited for five weeks for orders from Hitler on what should be done with the girls. During that time they wandered around Oslo aimlessly. Kaisu even ate lobster at the Grand hotel. The Germans paid the Finnish women a per diem, because they were foreign labour.
“They had money, but no food”, Kaisu says.
There are still stories that the Germans would have thrown Finnish girls off the ship into the sea. Researchers have found on evidence of this, Suutari says. He sees the stories as postwar demonisation of the enemy.
Kaisu says that the Germans treated them well. She suffered a throat infection while on the ship, which was cared for properly. When there was aa bombardment, the girls were sent to an island for safety.
The orders from Hitler were that the Finnish girls were to be treated as comrades in arms, and were to be brought to Germany.
“Many girls were amazed at how bad things were in Germany”, Kaisu says. There were no houses intact, and there were shortages of everything - even toilet paper, she recalls.
That autumn was, indeed, a bad time to arrive in Germany. Defeat was imminent. The Red Army and the allied forces were getting closer, German cities and civilian targets were bombarded. Ordinary people were ordered to work.
In Hamburg the Finnish women would mend soldiers’ socks at the barracks, clean house, work in kitchens, serve as waitresses at the officers’ clubs, and work as nurses. There were also German women drafted into work, who would complain that the Finns sewed too fast and took the best men. To pass their time, they would turn the top of a suitcase into an Ouija board.
Kaisu did not trust the German air raid shelters. Instead, she went to the forest with the other Finnish girls. From there they would crouch under a tree and watch the formations of bombers fly overhead.
They knew nothing of the situation in Finland. They thought that Finland had been occupied.
At the barracks, the German women insisted that the Finns should also give the Heil Hitler salute. Kaisu said that she would not raise her hand. She went to speak with the highest political leader of the camp and asked him if the salute was mandatory.
The party boss said that even he does not say “Heil Hitler” to his wife every morning, but a salute would be a polite gesture.
“I said that I’m not that polite.”
The Finns also had to listen to speeches by Hitler on the radio. There were rumours that Hitler had lost his mind, and that he was chewing on the carpet of his office”, Kaisu says.
Director Virpi Suutari notes that the Germans did not spread the ideology of National Socialism in Finland. The girls have varied information about this. Many of the women whom Suutari met spoke of a woman by the name of Margit, who was also referred to as the “Führer”, who supervised the girls during their travel through Norway, and at the destination in Germany.
Margit was a divorced Helsinki woman, the favourite of a German colonel, who had completely assimilated the Nazi ideology.
When the war was over, Kaisu lived with a Nazi family for some time, but even they did not share their thoughts with the sharp-tongued girl who had a strong faith in God.
They were aware that Jews were being persecuted. The events of Kristallnacht, the confiscation of Jewish property, and the work camps were common knowledge. However, they had not heard about the gas chambers.
Kaisu recalls how once when they were going to the movies in the city, they saw a woman wearing a yellow star indicating that she was a Jew. The woman was frightened, and crouched against a wall because the girls had German coats on.
None of the girls returned home ignorant of the horrors of the war. When the war was over in May 1945, people in the American sector were forced into cinemas to watch films that had been shot at German concentration camps. Otherwise they would not be given a food ration card or food. At the doors, guards made sure that they did not leave in the middle or turn their heads. People were crying, Kaisu recalls.
Finnish nurses saw and told what horrors were found at the concentration camps.
During a year and a half Kaisu worked in Hamburg, and in Bremen and Bremerhaven, for the Germans, and later for the American occupiers.
She remembers the morning when the British arrived at the German barracks, where there were about 20 Finnish girls left, and three Germans. A gun was pointed at Kaisu.
She said that she had left Finland to get away from the Russians, but the British started to praise their allies. Kaisu was angry. She lashed out at the stupid British who prayed for the Russians in Westminster Abbey, even though the Russians didn’t even believe in God.
Then Kaisu felt a gun barrel against her chest. “Go ahead and shoot, I said.” But he didn’t.
Kaisu did office work for the Americans. She also wrote letters home for soldiers who could not even spell their own language without the help of a dictionary.
She took up smoking, which helped her cope with the food shortages.
Finally, in June 1946, the news came that the Red Cross would start to send the Finns home from the camp in Lubeck. Kaisu had wanted to go home all the time.
The experience of the Finnish girls in Germany depended on their home background, their language skills, their education, their religiosity, and their sense of independence. Kaisu coped well, because she had good self-esteem, Virpi Suutari says.
Most of the hundreds of women who went to Germany returned to Finland, Suutari says. Most romances came to an end. Sometimes a lover would die near the end of the war, or return to his wife, or find another woman. Some of the women “came to their senses”.
One of Kaisu’s friends was abandoned, became hysterical, and decided to get herself a German child no matter what - a souvenir, as one might say nowadays. That’s what young women were like.
Kaisu waited at the camp to get back to Finland the whole summer of 1946. The first to be sent back were the ones with children, or who were pregnant.
Finally the girls met some Finnish sailors in the harbour, who took the girls on board as stowaways. Kaisu also fled the camp under the fence.
The sailors warned the girls that it was not a good idea to talk about hating the Russians in Finland. Kaisu even threw her Lotta women’s auxiliary membership card in the into the sea.
In Turku, the police met the women and took them to Hanko to a quarantine camp.
“I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”
Hautojärvi of the State Police tormented her with new interrogations.
The terrible interrogations haunt Kaisu to this day. Of all the things that she has experienced, it is the most horrifying memory of the whole journey to Germany. When Suutari’s documentary was filmed in the dilapidated barrack building of the Hanko camp, Kaisu ran out in a panic in the midst of shooting. She had seen Hautojärvi behind the window laughing at her.
Kaisu returned to Rovaniemi in 1946. Her family welcomed her back. Not everyone was so lucky.
Some of the women have had to stay quiet about the trip to Germany, often because of the shame that was felt by their relatives, Suutari says. The scorn and wrath of the environment often targeted the children of the Germans. They all seem to have had a person nearby, a teacher of a village school, or an uncle, who was cruel and beat the children, Suutari says.
Kaisu had thought about the shame brought on by her action already when she left. It could be seen in a letter sent to her mother. If someone were to condemn you as well because of those of us who went along, do not remember me in a bad way. I could do nothing else. Kaisu.
Kaisu has friends who have told her not to reveal that they met each other in Germany. As recently as a few years ago, a man passing by said to her “How’s the Germans’ mattress?”
Kaisu did not get married, nor did she have children. She has lived alone in Finnish Lapland her whole life. The families of her siblings are close to her, and so is the Nazi family whom she met in Germany. They later became Jehovah’s Witnesses!
Smoking, which she learned in Germany, has remained a habit with her. It helped her run an office. By pausing for the length of time it takes to smoke a cigarette, one would not be as brusque to the subordinates, Kaisu said.
Kaisu agreed to come to Helsinki in January to see Suutari’s film. In the hotel café she ordered “silver tea” - hot water and milk.
I had to ask if going to Germany had a permanent influence on Kaisu’s life.
The face of the old woman shakes as she says: “The only permanent thought has been that the worst fate of all for me would be for me to die in Southern Finland. If I die here in Helsinki, it would be God’s punishment”, she says. And then she laughs.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 22.3.2010
**I have to add an extra comment because I have been thinking about this woman's story. She had to make a decision of whether to stay in Lapland when it looked like it would become part of Russia, or whether to go to Southern Finland, or whether to go to Nazi Germany. She decided to go to Germany. For her it held the best promise of a future.