With the 1860s Memorial Wreaths initiative, a small-scale, personal intervention by me and researcher Andrew G. Newby, we toured across Finland to place eight memorial wreaths at different local memorials dedicated to the memory of the Great Hunger Years of 1860s. While this initiative served as a personal commemorative action we also wanted to bring attention to the local memorials and to the immense suffering which was endured by so many individuals, families and communities in many different parts of Finland. This second part takes you to this tour through pictures.
1860s Memorial Wreaths Tour: 21 – 22 May 2018
With the wreaths ready and packed, it was time to deliver them. The locations were selected so that we would leave wreaths at a sample of memorials in southern, western, central and eastern parts of Finland. To cover the eight memorials selected to our tour, we scheduled the route for two days, starting from Lahti, Southern Finland, and ending in Nurmes, North Karelia. Each wreath was left with a card shortly explaining the initiative.
After the early morning start, driving from Jyväskylä to Lahti, the Memorial Wreaths tour started at the Railway Builders’ Graveyard. The mass grave area is surrounded by a fence made of rail tracks and it holds a memorial, on which it reads: “During the 1867–1868 Great Hunger Years, were buried in this place railway builders who died of hunger and disease from Hollola parish, the villages of Lahti and Järvenpää, and from other places. Monument erected by Lahti Parish, 1953.” The initiative to put a memorial on this mass grave was taken by Lahti-Seura (‘Lahti Society’) in 1950. The area was previously in the possession of the Railway Board, but it was handed over to the Lahti congregation. The memorial was the erected in accordance with this transfer.
Building railway, roads, bridges and canals created emergency work sites that employed thousands of those who had been struck by the hunger years. In poor working conditions many of the workers died. Indeed, the railway from Riihimäki toward St. Petersburg was known as the ‘Skeleton Track’ (Luurata) as it was said that bodies were buried even in railway embankments.
Driving to north from Lahti we stopped in Asikkala to see the “Hard Times Memorial” dedicated to the “work of the past generations” listing events from the Great Northern War (1713–21) to the Winter War and the Continuation War (1939–45). In addition to these, the memorial lists the building of the local Vääksy Canal (1868–71), the Great Hunger Years (1867–68) and “the phases in achieving independence” (1917–18). Here, it is of interest that the 1860s hunger years are listed along with wars and the building of the canal. How come? Was languishing in hunger an achievement comparable to building means of transportation or fighting a war? Against what or whom, then?
Situating famine memorials close to war memorials is not exceptional. In Jämsä, Central Finland, location for the second wreath, the memorial is situated at the ‘Muistojen hautausmaa’ (Graveyard of Memories) next to Jämsä church. The area also holds memorials to the Civil War (1918) and to the Winter and Continuation Wars. The Jämsä memorial is made of black granite following the design by Paavo Keskinen and it was revealed in 1987. The three coarse boulders are meant to symbolise the broken life cycle of the famine casualties. According to the text panel next to the memorial, 1,082 people from Jämsä area were lost (in 1868).
After laying the wreath in Jämsä, we continued driving some 200 km north to Perho, Central Ostrobothnia. Here, the memorial is found on the Perho church hill and it offers an example of a contemporary memorial from the 1860s, a plain stone with the number “1869” and a cross symbol engraved on it. The stone is framed with a low chain fence that distinguishes it from gravestones surrounding it.
The last memorial of the first tour day was at Kivijärvi, Central Finland. The memorial is easy to access and located by the enormously beautiful natural strait, Hannonsalmi. Massive in size, the memorial is built of stone slabs from the previous Hannonsalmi and Matalasalmi bridges that were constructed as relief work; Hannonsalmi construction was active exactly in 1868.
Laying the wreath at Kivijärvi, we met editor Anne Mietala from the local paper Viispiikkinen and she wrote about our visit for the special issue dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Kivijärvi municipality (Viispiikkinen, 28 June 2018). A large number of Finnish municipalities were founded at the time of the Great Hunger Years; Kivijärvi counts among these. As Mietala writes in her article, famine hit also this new municipality hard. The mortality peak that preceded the new harvest season was witnessed when on one day, 7 June 1868, 39 bodies were interred.
Kivijärvi famine memorial was erected in 1985 by Lions Club Kivijärvi and Kivijärvi Municipality.
On the second day, we headed to memorial locations in North Savonia and North Karelia, areas Eastern Finland. We started the day with a 200 km drive from Jyväskylä (Central Finland) to Lapinlahti (North Savonia).
Here, we were delighted to meet the municipality culture coordinator and the secretary of the local culture association, Lapinlahti-Seura. Although we could not spend too much time at any of these sites on our tour, we were grateful to feel so warmly welcomed to visit and meet people dedicated to keep and watch local history and heritage. As the secretary of Lapinlahti-Seura pointed out, the memory of the Great Hunger Years was brought up in e.g. local schools on the sesquicentenary. Lapinlahti memorial, situated near the war graveyard, had been placed on the centenary, in 1968.
An important part of the Great Hunger Years’ history in Lapinlahti, is the construction of the Nerkoo Canal, a project that was started in 1866 and opened a route for transportation in 1869. The harsh work paid very little to workers and cost the life of hundreds. In a way, then, the Nerkoo Canal created a memorial in itself – at least until the canal was rebuild for increased transportation needs in early 1980s. In 2016, Savon Sanomat featured an article about the history of this canal construction.
Varpaisjärvi, Korpijärvi village
In the middle of beautiful Savonian country landscape in the Korpijärvi village, 20 km from Varpaisjärvi town, lies the ‘Koiraharjun kalmisto’ (graveyard), a small grove surrounded by fields. This graveyard was established ad hoc in 1867–68, when casualties of the famine needed to be buried. Intended only to be a temporary grave, it nevertheless became the final resting place for the ca. 60 persons buried here. The hollows dug in the ground can still be discerned.
There are two memorials from different decades in this graveyard. We laid the memorial wreath at the newer memorial, a polished granite stone from 2012. In the memorial there is engraved a descriptive text: “Buried here are approximately 60 people, who died during the Great Hunger Years 1867–68.” It appears that the approximate number refers to the earlier grave markers, preceding the stone memorials, wooden crosses and, following the old Finnish custom, two grave planks with the names of the persons who had been buried here carved in, but, worn by weather, the text was later hardly readable and the planks were taken to museum.
Considering that the place was not initially consecrated for its purpose, it is also poignant that the Biblical line chosen for the memorial is from Exodus 3:5 (in Finnish The Second Book of Moses): “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Back from Korpinen, we drove through Varpaisjärvi town centre and then some 30 km to Nilsiä. Here, the famine memorial is located at the Old Churchyard in the town centre. A natural stone boulder with a plaque, the memorial was inaugurated on the centenary of the Great Hunger Years in 1968. The text on the plaque reads: “To the blessed unknown inhabitants of Nilsiä in this graveyard, particularly to those who died of hunger in 1860s. 1253 souls perished in 1868. Municipality and Parish, 1968.”
In Nilsiä, we also had the chance to meet an editor from the local paper Pitäjäläinen [update to follow].
The last destination of our two-day tour was Nurmes in North Karelia, where we arrived after a 75 km drive from Nilsiä. The famine memorial in Nurmes is located on Kirkkoharju, a ridge bordering the entrance way to the town centre, where also Nurmes war graveyard can be found.
In our sample of local famine memorials the memorial in Nurmes is distinctive with its artistic nuance. A relief by sculptor Veikko Jalava (1911–1981), the memorial appears to depict a person bending over to cover its lap; the title of the sculpture, The Lap of Mother Earth (Maaemon syli), allows to interpret the image. Also the famine memorial in Heinävesi, inaugurated in 1967, is a work by Jalava. The sculpture in Nurmes is relatively large, ca. 2,5 meters in height, standing on a plinth. The title of the work is engraved in the plinth, along with the descriptive text: “In the memory of those who died of hunger in 1866, [this memorial] was erected in 1965 by Nurmes Parish, Municipality and Town and Valtimo Parish and Municipality.”
Of special interest is that concertedly with the inauguration of the memorial there was published a book that listed names of those lost to famine, detailing the date and the cause of death. The foreword to the book tells that 1,218 people from Nurmes parish were lost in 1868 and that they were buried in unmarked mass graves.
In the making process of the wreaths it was clear to me that I wanted to dedicate one of the wreaths especially to the children lost to famine. Learning about the memorial in Nurmes, The Lap of Mother Earth, it was apparent that this was perfect place for the “children’s wreath”.
Our wreath laying visit at Nurmes famine memorial was reported in the local paper Ylä-Karjala (31 May 2018).
1860s Memorial Wreaths Tour Map
After laying the last wreath, late in the afternoon of 22 May, we headed back home, first driving 275 km from Nurmes to Jyväskylä, from where my tour companion and co-driver then continued southwards to the Capital Region. The tour drive alone grew into near 1350 km. For comparison, that would stretch from Kiel, Germany to Genoa, Italy, from the Baltic Sea coast to the Mediterranean coast.
The work on studying the commemoration of the Great Hunger Years continues as an article discussing the local famine memorials, the mass graves and the remembering of the Great Hunger Years in Finland is coming up later.
For a detailed list of local famine memorials in Finland, see the article ‘Finland’s “Great Hunger Years” Memorials: A Sesquicentennial Report’ by Andrew G. Newby (2017), also used as source in writing this text.
Thank you for reading!