The tomatoes are sprouting at my studio. The tomatoes I have sown this year are a piece of Finnish history. These heirloom variety tomatoes were brought to Finland after WW2 by the evacuated population of Finnish Karelia. The variety is so hardy that it can bear fruit outside of a greenhouse in the mild Finnish summer. The variety is called evakko which is a Finnish word meaning the evacuated Karelians.

My father’s mother was evakko, one of the evacuated Karelians. Her family was dispersed throughout Finland after the war and because of this many connections were lost and today I don’t know any of her living family members – except of course the family of my father, but we – I feel – have lost the connection to this heritage. E.g. nobody knows how to make the typical Karelian dishes that my grandmother used to make – except maybe my aunt who might know how to make the karjalanpiirakka the way my grandmother made them. But other than that I feel we have no Karelian traditions. 

My grandmother was born to an Orthodox Christian family and probably had learned to speak Livvi-Karelian as her first language. I had the pleasure to participate in a couple of Orthodox church events with her: the easter night service and the burial of her brother. 

The burial was terrifying for a kid who had only been to Lutheran burials before. What was the most visible difference was the open coffin. I had never seen a dead person before. I stared at the pale dead skin of my great uncle that was beginning to develop water droplets on its surface as his cool body started to condensate water. The priest was singing the service and at some point we were asked to say our goodbyes (or something like that). My grandmother with her sisters were first to go and in an apparently true Karelian way, they started to weep loudly over the dead body, kissing his cheeks. I stood silently in shock. Then it was our turn. My Lutheran family just stood there in silence in a good Lutheran manner. I’m not sure but maybe my father touched his uncle but other than that we just stood there in silence. We who have a Lutheran background don’t show emotions. But apparently my grandmother and her sisters who all had an Orthodox background knew how to behave and show emotions almost to the point of it being a performance. Afterwards we all went to eat and I sang silly songs with my sister to my grandmother’s sisters and we bonded. 

For me this event is very telling about the difference between the eastern Finnish orthodox church influenced culture and the western Finnish Lutheran influenced culture. And how difficult it must have been for my grandmother’s family and many similar families to come from the eastern part of Karelia to western Finland where the culture sees such expressions of emotions and feelings as unhealthy or even sinful.This pressure and judgement from the dominant population of Lutheran Finland towards the Karelian speaking, orthodox migrants can be seen how the names of people changed after they settled in Finland. My grandmother’s father was born (according to the church records) Timofei Dimitrijev Isrikki. This would sound like a Russian name for the western Finnish population, and after the war all and everything resembling Russia was hated and persecuted. So on the tombstone of my great-grandparents his name is a Finnish version Timo. The last name for whatever reason changed from Isrikki (a karelian name apparently meaning Israel taken from bible), to Istrik, that doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe it was a clerical error a Finnish Lutheran cleric made when they were taking up the names of the evacuated population, and who might have difficulties understanding the Karelian dialect of Finnish my great-grandparents spoke. But changing Timofei to the Finnish version Timo seems like an attempt to hide the past that is now perceived by the surrounding society as bad and Russian even though it was really Karelian.

Pasha and kulitsa of 2020

One of the most precious memories from my childhood with my grandmother was the easter when my mother had found a recipe for Pasha from a magazine and wanted to try out something else than the usual Finnish mämmi for dessert. Pasha is a traditional Orthodox easter dessert. That year my father’s parents were visiting us. When my grandmother heard that my mother was making pasha she became very happy. I remember her being so happy that yet again she was crying. She started to tell me many things (that I have now forgotten) about easter traditions in her home town in Karelia. What I remember is something about virpominen (very difficult to translate maybe see here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virvonta), receiving a beautiful colored egg, and getting the pasha blessed and going to the church service. Easter is the biggest of the church celebrations for Ortodox church. I believe it’s even bigger than christmas.

That year we then went for the first time to the Orthodox easter night service. My grandmother was overjoyed and I think this was the first time she participated in the service after her marriage to my grandfather when she had to change religion to Lutheran. I enjoyed the service: the endless singing, the smell of incense, the candles, the gold and my grandmother holding my hand tightly. It was one of the most meaningful easters I have ever had.

The spring is a time that I tend to remember and honor our family’s Karelian past. Every year during Easter I make pasha and kulitsa (a type of bread you eat with the pasha) which we share with my family on our traditional easter meal. During Easter I go light candles in an orthodox church for the deceased family members. And I attend the saturday night service or at least follow the broadcast of it, even though I am not a member of any church. It is so lovely to listen to the endless singing and see how the light spreads out as church goers share the light from their candles to each other. And in the summers I try to take care of my great-grandparents grave in Central Finland to remember the family that was separated and dispersed throughout Finland and to maintain the only remaining object  bearing the family name Istrik. These are the remains of the heritage that I have from my Karelian foreparents. This I want to keep and honor. And through these actions I feel a connection spanning many centuries of ancestors.

I remember my grandmother sitting at her kitchen table, telling funny stories to us kids, making us laugh. And then in a split second there could be sadness in her eyes as she looked out the window through lace curtains.

Spring is the time when I honor the joyful and sad spirit of my paternal grandmother.

Spring could be also the time when we all could remember and celebrate all displaced people and their heritage now scattered throughout the lands.