perjantai 16. marraskuuta 2018

From America to Pöljä

Eeva Vartiainen in New York.
A hundred years ago “American fever” raged even in these parts of Savo. Thousands of Finns left in search of a better life across the pond. And that is what Eeva Vartiainen also did at the age of 17. Her brother, Sakari, had preceded her there and she joined him at first.

In the immigration documents Eeva is reported entering the country in order to work as a domestic worker. Those arriving were asked about their health and literacy. Finnish immigrants were considerably more educated than those coming from several other areas in Europe; Eeva, too, had completed grade school and knew how to read and write but only in Finnish, of course.

In due time, Eeva met Waldemar Pantzar, an immigrant from Pajala, Sweden, whom she married. Waldemar earned a living working for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, where their first two children, Irma and Robert, were also born.

Waldemar Pantzar and Eeva Vartiainen, just married.
Detroit, 1925.
Life was good. Eeva and Waldemar in Detroit. 
Happy warm summerday in Detroit. 
Waldemar Pantzar had also worked as a miner. Thousands of Finns worked as farmers  and in the mines in Calumet and Hancock, on the famous Copper Island in Michigan. The Finns, as well as the Swedes originating from Torne River Valley, were often quite idealistic. Some of them were strongly religious and others became extremely radicalized politically. Quite a few of the Finns belonged to the anarchistic and strike prone organization IWW, and some joined the radical communists in the 1920s. Strikes were often violently suppressed. The working conditions in the mines were often dangerous and the wages poor. The profitability of mining plummeted in the 1910s.

Leaving America, Ahmeek 1931. Irma is the little girl with a doll in her arms.
Irma was five years old when Waldemar and Eeva decided to return to Europe, to Eeva’s home district, to be more precise. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had driven millions of people to unemployment and the future looked bleak in America, too. In 1931 they got aboard a ship in New York.

“I was standing on the deck and the last thing I saw was the Statue of Liberty. I was too young to have a clear image of the journey. I recently watched a documentary on TV called “Punalipun kantajat” (Bearers of the Red Flag). It evoked strong feelings in me because I could have been one of the children in that story. Dozens of families travelled to the Soviet Union on board with us. We did not bear the Red Flag. I remember my father saying that there was a strong presence of communism and communist propaganda on board. The journey took three weeks. When the ship reached the North Sea, a storm broke out. Someone came down to our cabin and told us to somehow tie down everything because we were approaching a heavy storm. Everyone but my father suffered from sea sickness. The tables and chairs in the restaurant were all higgledy-piggledy.”

Off the coast of Helsinki, the people on their way to the Soviet Union were transferred on board a ship to Leningrad. “We waved them goodbye with white handkerchiefs and they waved red ones back at us. I thank my father and mother for choosing the right port.” Those heading for Leningrad were to meet a hard fate in Carelia and as victims of Stalin’s Great Purge.

The Pantzar family travelled from Helsinki to Pajala, Sweden, first and later settled in Kolmisoppi, Siilinjärvi, where two more daughters, Selma ja Mirja were born. The family had a small farm there and Waldemar bought a car in 1938 and became a taxi-driver.

Waldemar and his taxi.
Irma Roivainen née Pantzar lives in Pöljä, Siilinjärvi now. She reckons that without the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression, her family would not have returned to Finland. As Irma was born in Detroit, the polite CBP officers wished her “welcome home” when she visited America in 1992.

Translation Jaana Kivipato. 

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