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Forgotten in the wilderness - New light shed to Finnish war history for over 70 years ago - Part 1

2014-07-14
Tree with barbed wire war Finland

In the small store Metsäkylän Kyllkäkup in the village Metsäkylä, Metsakyla, near the town Taivalkoski, in the northern Finland, I got in contact with a local person. We started to talk about the ongoing World Championship in football in Brazil (July 2014), but after a while our conversation switched over to a even more serious subject: Finnish war history. Eagerly he startet to tell me about dramatic events during the Second World War deep in the forest just outside his home. He said: this was the part of the history few Finnish know about or wantet to forget. What happened here in the middle of nowhere?

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Photo. A tree where prisoners in the camp were hanged. © Travel Explorations.

Finnish resistance and fighting during the Second World War became world famous. There was an extremely high morale in the Finnish forces. In the Winter War 1939–1940 the Soviets possessed more than three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. Finland repelled Soviet attacks for several months, much longer than the Soviets expected. The Finnish fought also hard in the Continuation War 1941–1944 against the Sovjets. A famous book about this struggle of the Finnish people, is Vaino Linna's "Unknown Soldier" (Tuntematon Sotilas). The uniquely Finnish concept of "sisu" can best translated as "unwavering courage and tenacity in the face of insurmountable odds". But that`s another story.

When bombs where falling over London, Berlin and elswhere around the world, there was another struggle going on in Finland: unknown for the world at that time. And still almost forgotten.

Based on my experience travelling each summer around in Finland over ten years, I consider especially the region of Taivalkoski as a real paradise for nature lovers. And I can confirm that the wild nature there lives up to the following slogan and description of the region on the Taivalkoski Tourist Information`s website: "Welcome to Taivalkoski - The meaning of leisure! Bright spring hues, the magic of the midnight sun and an autumnal blaze of colour. The freely flowing Iijoki River, a touch of the natural wilds, and true peace and quiet. These things signify a source of strength for the Finnish people. Here in North Finland, in Taivalkoski, one has to redefine the concept of time, since this is one place where time slows. Taivalkoski is a true oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life. A genuine pleasure-lover’s paradise. The land of a thousand tales .....".

Not everybody has the same wonderful experiences as me in the region of Taivalkoski, and there is something unknown for me and I assume for most others too: there was a large and brutal prisoner of war camp here hidden in the wilderness. This is almost a unwritten tale about Finnish war history. It`s said to be a German runned prisoner of war work camp during the Second World War, but what about the Finnish involvement here? Traces from dramatic incidents in the camp are still found in the dense forest in Metsäkylä, Metsakyla.

Humans are remarkable creatures. Based of my exploration of the area and history two main things stood clear for me: human evilness has no limits and it was amazing what the prisoners in this camp achieved: building a remarkable long railway without wellsuited tools and under extreme terrible conditions. It was the Finnish "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (movie about the Second World War where British soldiers constructed a remarkable brigde. This film is a work of fiction but borrows the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–43 for its historical setting).

Between 1941 and 1944, there were, at the most, roughly 200 000 German soldiers in Finland due to the fact that Finland had joined a war coalition against the Soviet Union. Most of the German troops were placed in North Finland, from where they attacked the Soviet Army on the fronts of Petsamo, Salla, and Kiestinki. The Germans built nearly 100 prisoner of war and labor camps in the area in Lapland in the northern part of Finland. Another camp was established in Metsakyla, south for Lapland. Prisoners here died under inhumane conditions, poor supply of food, lack of shelter, mistreatment and executions.

At that time there was a small forest in the area, but now is overgrown and dense. We started from the local person`s home, passed a recently closed school from the 1930s and walked further into the forest. It was a strange silence here. I was thinking of what happened on here for over 70 years ago. Our guide pointed at place where prisoners were hanged from a huge tree (see the photo above). He also showed us places where it has been a tall barbed wire, kitchen, barracks, hug halls, mass graves and a piece of a track from the old railway. He had preserved a big bunch of the old barbed wire at a secret place, and he gave me a piece of it so I could keep it as a souvenir. After the war the Finnish built a new railway over the old one.

Both German political dissidents, Russian and Polish soldiers were kept here as prisoners. His father was a merchant. Through the fence his father sold food and other products to guards and prisoners. One time one of the guards didn`t like the taste of his father`s food and kicked him in the back. He also told me about a dramatic escape ended in tragedy.

Watch more photos on Travel Explorations` Facebook page.

The large camp here was called Korvua Camp and the route for the railway was called the Korvua Route. Based on information from the website of Taivalkoski Tourist Information, this was a concentration of camp areas for personnel from where prisoner workers and other men were transported as needed to other camps along the trench railway. The Korvua Camp was also a place where young men were trained to fight on the battlefront. The route beginning in Palokumpu, Metsäkylä, is about 6 km long, but there it`s also possible to reach several places in shorter parts and drive closer by car.

Read more: Forgotten in the wilderness - New light shed to Finnish war history for over 70 years ago - Part 2.

Stein Morten Lund, 14th July 2014

Additional information

Sources:
A published report about German Penal Camps in Finland, 1941-1944, Prisoners of war and forced labour – histories of war and occupation, The Falstad symposium 20.-21.November 2008, Lars Westerlund.
SOTAVANGIT JA INTERNOIDUT, Kansallisarkiston artikkelikirja
Lars Westerlund (toim.)
Prisoners of War and Internees
A Book of Articles by the National Archives
Lars Westerlund (ed.)

Forgotten in the Wilderness: WWII German PoW Camps in Finnish Lapland, Oula Seitsonen
This collection of articles, published by the Finnish National Archives, deals with issues relating to Prisoners-of-War and internees primarily during World War II. Fifteen scholars from Finland, Norway, Germany, Poland, and Russia examine different aspects of the capture, treatment, ethnic backgrounds and repatriation of POWs and internees.

Wikipedia - Finnish War History

Taivalkoski Tourist Information - Read about the background history for the Korvua Camp and several routes where the railway was built.

 
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