A Dane helping Finnish refugees in Lahti in 1947

“It was a long, hot summer, similar to this one”, tells us the 93-old Asta Schmidt (née Nielsen), looking past me, while her son Sven Ole pours me a cup of coffee. We are visiting his parents who live 10 kilometers from Aarhus in a co-housing community that they co-founded 30 years ago.

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“We had to get up before six in the morning, and start working in the forest when it was still cool enough. We stopped working at the latest at noon. The heat drained all energy from us.”

She is recounting her experience in the summer of 1947 when she took a boat from Copenhagen to Helsinki to work as a volunteer in my hometown Lahti in Finland. A new Danish humanitarian association for international co-operation, Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, sent her. The association was founded in 1944 to help countries suffering from the consequences of the Second World War. Finland was among the first countries to receive volunteers through that organization.

“Yes, we did work for free. But maybe it was not so idealistic as it sounds. We had been trapped in our hometown Randers in northern Jutland for five years because of the German occupation. No, the Germans did not treat us badly. They were disciplined and they did not rape women.

When the occupation ended in May 1945, all of us young people were overjoyed. We just wanted to travel. Anywhere. Some of my friends traveled to Paris or Italy. I can’t remember why I chose Finland. Maybe one of my friends suggested it. Finland was an exotic country to us. We knew of small children that had been sent for safekeeping to Jutland. We knew Finland was a small country that had fought against Russia for a long time. 

Communication with the Carelian refugees and other Finns was challenging. The authorities had sent some Swedish-speaking Agronomy students from Helsinki to function as interpreters. They showed us what we should do. It was not complicated. We cut tree branches on the ground and collected them in piles. The Carelian farmers had been given equivalent parcels of land as what they had owned in Carelia. They could then earn money by cutting and selling trees and branches, and start to use the deforested land for growing crops. 

Finnish women were skeptical of us. They had lost so many young men in the war, and were afraid we might take the few that were left. We didn’t care. We went dancing with the Agronomy students and had a good time.

We were four groups from Denmark, I think. Local farming families who had spare room available housed us. Or they didn’t really have any spare rooms, but they stuffed their children somehow together into one room. And we did not eat with the families. There were shortages of food. Our organization provided us with some basic ingredients and we cooked our own food. Everything was so simple: no coffee, no chocolate or other luxuries. But it didn’t matter. We were young. 

My accommodation was at Sirkka and Urho,  or Yrjö Halme’s home. They had a son of my age, Kalevi. I lost contact with them a long time ago. They must be dead by now.

What astonished me were all the new buildings in Helsinki. I did not see any signs of destruction by the war. Or, wait a minute, I did hear of some bridges that were blown up by Germans when they fled towards the north chased by the Finnish army. There were still landmines next to those bridges. Therefore they were not rebuilt.

It was a good summer. We felt useful.”

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