Finnish war children of the Winter War
Almost 5,500 children and 1,100 adults were sent to safety outside of Finland, primarily to protect them from the air raids of the war. These individuals came from more than 3,000 families. Approximately 200 of the people sent to Sweden were transported further to Norway and Denmark, with each country receiving approximately 100 people. After the war ended, the return of the evacuees was not rushed. In June 1940, 800 children were yet to return to Finland. At the end of the year, approximately 80 people had still not returned.
The Centre for Assistance to Finland was established on 5 December
The desire of Swedish non-governmental organisations to assist Finland was already sparked during the negotiations in Moscow in autumn 1939. After the outbreak of the Winter War, these organisations formed various consortiums to assist Finland.
Soon after the start of the war, Maja Sandler, wife of Rickard Sandler, who still held the post of Swedish foreign minister at the time, proposed to Hanna Rydth (PhD), the chair of the Frederika Bremer Association, that Swedish non-governmental organisations should offer asylum to Finnish children. The two women decided to hold a meeting in order to organise assistance to Finland. The invitation was sent to Swedish women’s organisations, of which 20 sent their representatives to a meeting held in Stockholm on 4 and 5 December 1939. At the meeting, the decision was made to establish a joint organisation to assist Finland. The organisation was named Centrala Finlandshjälpen, CF (Centre for Assistance to Finland).
The Centre for Assistance to Finland became a national committee on 20 December 1939
During its founding meeting, the organisation found its first urgent order of business to be assisting Finnish refugees. The Centre for Assistance to Finland was established as a national committee with a letter sent by the king, dated 20 December 1939.
The Nordic Aid Centre was established in Finland
Sandler and Rydth travelled to Finland on behalf of the new organisation on 11 December. They invited Finnish mothers and children to escape the war to Sweden. As a result of the visit, the Nordic Aid Centre (Nordiska Hjälpcentralen i Finland) was established in Finland to organise the distribution of Swedish material assistance in Finland and make the necessary arrangements for sending the evacuees to Sweden. The aid centre in Helsinki was placed in charge of the evacuation of children in Finland.
The Finnish authorities participated in the operations
The Ministry of the Interior informed the Finnish public of the opportunity to send children and mothers of young children to Sweden for the duration of the war. The ministry sent a missive on the subject to all rural police chiefs and the supervisors of municipal boards. Information on the opportunity was also published in newspapers. The Finns initially showed tepid interest in evacuating their children, but their interest increased by Christmas.
The selection criteria for those who would be evacuated to Sweden were decided upon in negotiations between the Nordic Aid Centre, Minister of Social Affairs K. A. Fagerholm and Minister of the Interior Ernst von Born. The upper age limit of the children that would be evacuated was set at 12 years. The accompanying mothers had to have at least one child under the age of three. Pregnant mothers were also later accepted among the evacuees.
The parents were in principle required to contribute to the travel and maintenance costs
The wealth of the parents was not taken into account in the selection of children, but parents in a good financial situation had to pay for their children’s travel and maintenance costs. The maintenance cost was 200–800 Finnish marks per month, while the journey cost FIM 100. The funds collected were used for improving national defence and the status of the displaced population in accordance with a regulation of the Ministry of the Interior.
In the final stage of the war, the Nordic Aid Centre decided that the children of parents from mandatorily evacuated municipalities would be prioritised when choosing which children would be sent to Sweden.
Almost 5,500 children were sent from Finland to Scandinavia
According to the statistics of the Nordic Aid Centre, approximately two thirds of those sent to Sweden came from the operating area of the Helsinki division. A total of 6,654 people were sent from Finland to Sweden, comprising 5,471 children and 1,183 adults. The number of adults comprised 1,008 mothers and 175 elderly persons. The evacuees represented 3,042 families. The majority of those who arrived in Sweden stayed there. According to the records of the Nordic Aid Centre, 107 children were transported from Sweden to Norway and 93 to Denmark in March.
The children were transported to Sweden by ship, train and plane
The transport of the children to Sweden started in mid-December with ships that travelled from Turku to Stockholm. Towards the end of January, the ship transport was discontinued due to bombings, the risk of running into a mine and the ice conditions. Prior to this, 302 children and 70 adults had been transported to Sweden in a total of seven shipments.
Rail transport from Helsinki to Haparanda started on 11 January 1940. From there, the journey continued aboard Swedish trains. Seventeen shipments were sent by train during the war. They carried a total of 4,600 children and 786 mothers.
Air transport between Vaasa and Sundsvall started on 21 January 1940 but was discontinued on 17 February 1940, primarily due to the high cost. A total of 620 children and 152 mothers were transported on 34 flights. Two of the flights were from Turku to Stockholm.
One train met with an accident in March
One of the trains that was transporting war children met with an accident on 3 March. An express train travelling from the north collided with a train that was transporting children to Tornio. Three nurses, 15 children, one mother and one pregnant woman were killed in the accident, while 20 people were injured.
The return transport of the children started slowly
When the Winter War ended on 13 March 1940, the Nordic Aid Centre discontinued the transport of children to Sweden. The people in Finland wanted to wait for the country to stabilise before the war children were returned. The plan was to start the group journeys back to Finland in mid-April. The Nordic Aid Centre provided detailed instructions on the repatriation of the children on 30 March 1940. Germany’s invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 expedited the return of the children, particularly from these two countries. The children were sent back by ship and train.
Some of the war children still remained in Sweden at the end of 1940
Following the end of the war, the attitude towards the evacuees was divided in Sweden. Some of the Swedes wanted the Finns to return home as quickly as possible. In contrast, some of those who had fostered Finnish children wanted them to stay and announced their willingness to adopt them. However, the Finnish authorities were against the adoption of the children, even when the child in question came from an orphanage.
In Sweden, the operations of the Centre for Assistance to Finland ended on 1 June 1940. At the time, approximately 800 evacuated children had yet to return to Finland. The final official shipment of children took place on 21 August 1940. At the end of 1940, approximately 80 children still remained in Sweden.
Some of the war children already travelled back to Sweden at their foster parents’ invitation in summer 1940. During the Continuation War, more than 1,000 war children left to stay at the same places where they had stayed at during the Winter War.
Antikainen, Kirsti, Suomalaiset sotalapset Ruotsissa talvisodan aikana (Finnish War Children in Sweden During the Winter War). Master’s thesis in history. University of Joensuu 1989.