Looking back on a dark winter

Issue 4/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the autobiographical novel Talvisodan aika (‘The time of the Winter War’), the childhood memoirs of Eeva Kilpi. During the winter of 1939–40 she was an 11-year old-schoolgirl in Karelia when it was ceded to the Soviet Union and the population evacuated

Time is the most valuable thing
we can give each other

War’s coming.

One day my father comes out with the familiar words in a totally unfamiliar way, while we’re sitting round the kitchen table eating, or just starting to eat.

He says to mother, as if we simply aren’t there, as if we don’t need to bother, or as if listening means not understanding. Or perhaps they’ve simply no other chance to speak to each other, as father’s always got to be off hunting, or on his way to the station, and mother’s always cooking.

Yes, it’s definitely coming now.

Was it my father who said it or my mother? Who spoke first, who replied? That I can’t remember, but I do remember the words and the tone and how they struck me, even though I’d heard talk of war coming almost all my eleven years, and even though I didn’t know what war really meant. Something dreadful at any rate, the most dreadful and horrible possible.

I knew no other spell against it but prayer. You had to pray whenever you remembered; you had to pray under the blanket, in your own words, after the evening prayer was over; you had to get down on your knees whenever you could – by the Raivattala village pond or in the marsh on your way to school: pray in the open air without anyone seeing, in the shelter of the forest, so nothing could interfere with the prayer and stop it flying to heaven and reaching God’s ears. After you’d done that you could forget your fear again for a little while and carry on fishing or playing at being an explorer in danger or reading and drawing or walking all the way home even though your tummy hurt.

But this time I can’t leave it till evening, or sometime more convenient: I’ve got to be able to pray right away. I’m sure no one’ll notice if I slip out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, which is just next to the kitchen, and pull the door shut after me. Right in front of the door are my parents’ beds, with their lace bedcovers, crocheted by my mother; her bed’s closest to me. I kneel down beside it, my heart bursting with worry, my fingers clasped.

Dear Father in Heaven, Almighty God, don’t let war happen.

That’s how I’ve been praying for years. How can I find some fresh words that’ll touch God’s heart, how shall I argue my case with him?

Hear my prayer, gracious Lord.

That’s how the grownups talk to God, don’t they? Gracious Lord.

Mother opens the bedroom door: she’s undoubtedly been thinking I’m up to something I shouldn’t be – squeezing the pillow up against my tummy, like I did once, for instance. I stare at her on my knees before I even think of scrambling to my feet. I feel caught in the act, as if I’d been committing some sin, I don’t know what, pinching apples or reading a grownup book. I feel ashamed, even though mother’s taught us children to pray ever since we were little.

How I wish this reminiscence ended with my mother taking me in her arms, big girl though I am, eleven, and five and a half years older than my little sister. Or her saying ‘Let’s pray together’.

But for the most part mothers make nothing but mistakes. So my mother too stands there at the door of the adult world with her hand on the doorknob, not crouching down beside me; and all she has to say is:

‘Poor little thing, then: come here and pray.’

And my praying has somehow become comical: piddling, insignificant, anxious.

There the scene ends in my memory, but I suspect she then coaxed me to come to the table, to eat with the others. And coaxing like that is proper and kindly. ‘Come and have something to eat.’ Seen with hindsight, everything essential for that moment was surely there: to eat together, to sit round the same table in one’s own kitchen as long as one still could.

It’s autumn, 1939. We’re in the hamlet of Raivattala, near the village of Hiitola. In Karelia. In the province of Viipuri, a few miles from Lake Ladoga and the Soviet Union. Later in history the territory will be dubbed ‘ceded’. But so far we’re still at home. At home there.

Those frightening words ‘the war’s almost on us’ or ‘you bet, this’ll lead to war’ perhaps belong to the first of September, when Germany invaded Poland. In the morning I’ve set off for school; I’m in the second form now at grammar school; it’s the first day of the autumn term. I’ve taken the familiar path across the fields to Hiitola station, where the school train’s waiting to receive a gang of Hiitola kids, burnt brown by the summer sun and lanky with swimming. It’s ten miles by train to the mixed school in the town of Elisenvaara – where we’re to be instructed in culture. I’m carrying a little brown suitcase, specially bought for me as my school bag, and it contains my lunch: some sandwiches and a bottle of milk; no books as yet, since it’s the first day of term, but my first-form spring report, of course, its lower margin duly decorated with my father’s distinctive signature – those large curlicued capitals and almost unreadable small letters. Or perhaps my father has in fact driven me to the station in the car and dropped in at grannie’s to read the paper. We’ve got an almost new car, one of the very few private cars in Hiitola: an Opel Olympia. When father bought it in Viipuri, he rang home to mother and backed up his decision by saying: ‘No way could we get a bigger wreath for our grave.’ This remark made a great impression on everyone: it was bandied about and used again later as an argument, and no one could find a thing to say against it.

I remember the school train’s shiny, curved wooden benches, with their alternating dark and light slats, the net racks, and the ventilator in the carriage roof. Water dripped in from the ventilator when there was rain, and you could close it by pulling on a string loop that swung back and forth underneath it with the movement of the train. On the last day of school, slightly more than a month later when we were sent back home immediately after prayers because the school was being taken over by the defence forces – that swinging loop was used as a support by our friendly, podgy, deeply upset conductor, as he swayed along the central corridor, giving us schoolchildren a patriotic speech of goodbye and weeping.

I’ve long been living in fear, listening to the grownups’ talk, reading the newspaper headlines and the news, taking in the photographs. One of the cover photos of the picture magazine Suomen Kuvalehti shows two little girls looking up at a projecting artillery-piece, aimed above their heads as if straight into the children’s future. In some phase, putting our minds temporarily at rest, that image is overflown by ‘Chamberlain’s peace dove’. Children repeat the name ‘Tsamberlain, Tsamberlain’: it sounds out reassuringly from the radio, and my mother turns in the midst of kneading her dough to look at the picture in the paper, which shows a smiling Prime Minister Chamberlain just stepping out of an aeroplane, waving a message of peace to the whole of Europe. War’s not coming. Mr Chamberlain of England has been to consult with Herr Hitler in Germany, and these gentlemen have come to an agreement. God has heard our prayers. That’s how God answers our prayers, mother says. He uses people as his mediators. For sure, then, He has taken the children’s prayers into account as well. Perhaps it was He that was behind the foundation of the League of Nations too.

I’ve been dreaming war’s already here. In the dream I’m fearfully worried and absolutely isolated. For some reason it’s all happening on the main highway, just where the Hiitola Co-op stands on one side, opposite the large mill across the road. All through my dream I see the red wall of the mill and a sloping planking bridge that leads up to the mill. Just at the same spot there is also a large crossroads. I’m standing at the crossroads and I haven’t the faintest idea which way to go. Behind me there’s the wooden bridge, flying over the highway lanes, and the local timber yard, where father often goes, and, across from it, the railway station; but these I don’t see. I’m standing with my back to the crossroads, making no headway and all I can see are the deserted mill and its red wall. The Co-op too – it’s empty and closed, not a Christian soul in sight. Ahead of me’s the primary school, and the Village, and the church; but I can’t go there either. I know there’s a war on and everyone’s in danger of their life: I should be doing something – looking for a safe place, helping others – but I stand rooted to the spot, paralysed, incapable of a thing.

I’ve remembered this dream all my life, and all my later nightmares have been dominated, in one form or another, by the same atmosphere. It’s only in the last few years that the feeling of helplessness has left my dream­terror and been replaced by a sort of knowledge – secret, it seems, even in the dream – that I can bear it. ‘Just stick it out,’ says my dream-self to my other anxiously suffering dream-self. Time is beginning to have mercy on the child in me that’s still afraid.

On the tenth of October the paper showed a large picture of Juho Kusti Paasikivi. The Councillor of State had been photographed late the previous evening at Viipuri station.

I still feel, looking at that picture, as if I were part of the crowd. I’m somewhere on the fringe, while they’re singing him farewell with ‘Our Land’, ‘Listen to our Sacred Vow’ and ‘God is our Fortress’. He’s been invited to Moscow for consultations about – how do they put it? – ‘concrete political questions’. What’s so threatening in such a politely phrased invitation? Why are people blowing their noses and standing devastated and bare-headed as if at a funeral? Why are my own fingers going cold and white, why am I going limp as I listen to it on the radio and read about it in the paper? Is it because of the announcement not very long before that Estonia and Latvia have ‘decided to yield’, and now the Red Army is sending tanks and soldiers there? Lithuania is still trying to object and declares itself ‘undesirous of a military alliance’. That’s how politely states can behave towards each other, provided, that is, the larger and more powerful one is in accord. On the same page there’s a small item about Australia sending 3,600 men and six air squadrons to France. Elsewhere there’s an announcement of air-raid and blackout precautions in Helsinki: air-raid sirens are to be tested, and the neon lighting extinguished; people are urged to remain calm.

Whatever you practise for happens, doesn’t it?

No, not at all. We children had to join in the gas drills, in case gas should be used in war. I don’t remember how systematic the training was or where it took place, but one school friend’s birthday, at least, we played at gas drills – and found it exciting. We knew you’d got to stuff a wet cloth over your mouth and nose as soon as you smelt gas, if there wasn’t time to grab your protective pad – specially sewn together and filled with charcoal – or a proper gas-mask. It was equally important to be able to warn others. Then you had to push the wet pad aside for a moment and, without breathing, shout the terrible word GAS! – which always seemed to have an exclamation mark after it. It felt tricky and formidable, but after all it was something even children could practise.

Docilely we learned to stop breathing for a moment and shout GAS! And always as we did so, we turned and looked backwards, as if each of us was at the very front of the group and was protecting those behind with our warnings. This is a skill, however, that we’ve fortunately never needed in our lives, not even in wartime – unless one fine day, before the exit of the last of this gas-trained generation, things somehow turn out so badly that gas-training’s needed even in the midst of all our peaceful co-existence.

Days turn into weeks. Paasikivi comes back from Moscow, travels there again, comes back. Molotov gives a speech and is very cross with Finland. Childhood goes on. We come into a new month. It’s the darkest and gloomiest bit of autumn. Everything looks black. There’s nothing that could be called snow. Is even winter scared of coming now? The leaves don’t drop off the trees: it’s a bad omen. Paasikivi travels to Moscow for consultations.

The only cheerful news that month is that the novelist Frans Emil Sillanpää has been awarded the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize. Actually, even that seems to be overshadowed by some wicked omen. Why is the world paying us so much attention… Or did that feeling only come into existence later, after listening to the talk of the grownups, and because so soon it was impossible to be glad about anything? Anyway, the threat of war draws a black frame around even this event: the very edition announcing Sillanpää’s prize tells us that ‘common ground’ has not been found in Moscow, and the talks have broken down.

Father was appointed to oversee the evacuation of the civil population via Hiitola; but that very afternoon, for some reason, he received a posting to the front. Mother, together with us children, ‘fled the bombardment’ – as this, our first departure, was characterised. Everything that was happening – the information coming in, the decisions, the arrangements, our partings, our setting off, our journey to a forest village miles away – took place in the course of a few hours.

I don’t remember anything about it. I am blank about the procedures, the physical hardships, the spiritual pressures, which must have been considerable, and I can’t explain why my memory’s silent, even though I was involved in everything and may have tried to be of help.

Instead of this single departure I see many departures, dimly perceptible, one through the other, and muddled together, like the outlines on a negative that’s been exposed several times. I seem to be seeing a white card – a call-up card, or whatever they named it. As if in a punishing nightmare, I grasp that father’s got to go, and yet I can invoke no image to somehow concretise this feeling. Instead I seem to be aware of father’s smell – the smell of his clothes, his pack, his hair. I don’t remember how we travelled, or what time we arrived, or how all this managed to happen. What about the dogs – the hound and the Finnish Spitz? What about the rabbits in their hutches: did they die of hunger? What about the foxes father kept? Had they all been skinned already? I remember one soft bag sewn out of sheets, which I sat on at a later stage of the same history, and a pillowslip with silver inside it.

Anguish conjures images that draw near and fall away, and I can’t get a grip on a single one. Father gives a deliberately ordinary wave of his hand and turns away, his pack hoisted on one shoulder. Is that how it was? Piku, the horse, has been harnessed and loaded up with stuff, blankets, sheets, grain, flour, potatoes, no jam. The dogs are ordered to stay and protect the house. They understand and obey. The station restaurant will soldier on as long as possible, and the dogs will go there and eat from their usual bucket as before. Or what? Every struggle to remember breaks down: this blankness brings unimaginable pain. In the real world, action was prompt and decisive, with no time wasted on sentimentality.

My father drifts away. We leave in the opposite direction. There’s darkness everywhere.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Talvisodan aika was awarded the Runeberg Literature Prize in 1990

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