Surviving Stutthof

By Liisa Kovala

Surviving Stutthof
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As the first Russian bombs drop on Oulu, Finland in early 1940 during the Winter War, Aarne Kovala is a young boy with a great love of the sea. While the war rages, Aarne takes fate into his own hands and joins the Finnish merchant marines. He spends his days delivering war ... Read more


As the first Russian bombs drop on Oulu, Finland in early 1940 during the Winter War, Aarne Kovala is a young boy with a great love of the sea. While the war rages, Aarne takes fate into his own hands and joins the Finnish merchant marines. He spends his days delivering war materials between Finland, Poland, and Germany. But when Finland's ties with Germany are severed after the signing of the Moscow Armistice in 1944, Aarne and his fellow sailors are arrested by the Nazis and sent by cattle car to the infamous Stutthof concentration camp deep in the Polish forest. Surviving Stutthof is a tale of survival, hope, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

Liisa Kovala

Liisa Kovala is a Finnish-Canadian teacher and writer based in Sudbury, Ont. Her short stories have appeared in Sudbury Ink, Creepy Capreol, Jr., Along the 46th, Kippis! Literary Journal and other publications. Her creative non-fiction pieces have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada, Canadian Teacher Magazine and Sudbury Living. Liisa studied creative writing at the University of Toronto and is currently working on a novel.



Sudbury, 2012

Our journey together began on a cold Sunday afternoon inJanuary, typical of Northern Ontario, on the first of what wouldbe many weekly visits to my parents' house in search of myfather's memories. The small brick bungalow was cozy and warm,although the temperature outside had plummeted. The picturewindow framed a view of the yard blanketed by a thick layer ofsnow, extending out to cover the ice on St. Charles Lake like apristine sheet of paper. The sun bounced off the stark landscapeand caught the light in the flecks blown from the rooftop. Thefamiliar smell of coffee and fresh cardamom from my mother'shomemade pulla, a traditional Finnish coffee bread, wafted infrom the kitchen.

Since I was a child, I'd heard fragments of my father's story,but I'd foolishly paid little attention. A natural storyteller, hewas always conscious of his impressionable young listeners andavoided anything that might be too traumatic. Now, as an adult, Iwanted to know what life had been like for my father in farawayFinland and Poland in the 1930s and '40s. As I prepared to write,I resolved not to let my father's stories evaporate. I needed topreserve each droplet and join them with the river of memoriesthat flow from witnesses around the world. I wanted to be ableto tell my children and grandchildren what really happened,something more than partial recollections from childhood ofdinnertime conversations.

After almost seventy years, he was ready to share his stories,and I was anxious to hear them. But how much would heremember? Was he ready to return to those dark times? Was Iprepared to hear about the horrors?

Across from me, my eighty-three-year-old father, AarneKovala, sat in his faded blue armchair. He placed before mea white shoebox that I had coveted as a young girl. It smelledfaintly of dust and mildew, but when I removed the lid, the imagesinside were as fresh and crisp as the day they were taken. I wasastounded to find a collection of black and white photographs,postcards of ships, several passports, and seamen's union cards,amongst other treasures. He had stuffed several decades of hislife into this little container. Each piece represented a story, orcould trigger a recollection. I knew if I asked the right questionsthe memories in the shoebox would come to life one by one.

My father had yet to speak. He sat in his chair, large forearmsresting on his knees, back hunched forward in a posture so familiarto me. Between his thumb and forefinger, he aimlessly twistedand turned a piece of paper, as I had seen him do so many timesbefore when he was lost in thought. His blue eyes, soft and kind,focused on something in the middle distance, the place betweenthen and now, before he turned to look at me directly. The lineson his forehead furrowed as he shifted in his chair. Then, withoutwarning, his eyes shone, and a smile animated his face.

He began to speak in the sing-song of his native Finnish,its long words and vowels rolling gently like waves. I looked atmy mother, Anja, seated in her matching recliner. She shruggedslightly and shook her head. Were the memories of his Finnishpast wrapped only in his native tongue? In that instant, I regrettednever having learned my parents' language.


"Read this. It will make you a better person. "


- Marina Nemat, author, Prisoner of Tehran & After Tehran"Liisa Kovala has achieved something extraordinary in telling her father's remarkable story: she has turned living history into living art. Survivng Stutthof reads like a novel, but there is never any question that it is delivering a universal truth. "-- Wayne Grady, author of ,i>Emancipation Day.

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