Letters from a lost brother

Taimi Pitkänen last saw her brother Aate (AH-tay) in a Leningrad railway station in 1931. She was returning to Canada from Moscow; Aate was headed for Soviet Karelia, on the border with Finland, where his skills in electricity and languages – both English and Finnish – were badly needed.

Left: From left, Aate and Taimi Pitkänen in 1931

Taimi’s brother never returned. Even when the dream went sour, he held on, writing home until 1941, when Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. After that, no one in Canada heard anything more of Aate Pitkanen. Sixty years later, the discovery of his last letters – written but never mailed from a Finnish prisoner-of-war camp – reveals his fate and brings together his sister and Alfred, the son Aate never met. Their story is the subject of a National Film Board documentary titled Letters From Karelia.

York University and the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies will host a special screening of Letters From Karelia on Monday, Nov. 22 at 7:30pm in the McEwen Auditorium at the Schulich School of Business.

The film tells the untold story of nearly 1,000 idealistic young Canadians of Finnish origin, who, like Aate, disappeared in the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930s. At least 600 ended up in a mass grave.

Right: Varpu Lindström

“There are all sorts of mass graves in the world, but nowhere are there as many Canadians buried in one place as the result of mass murder,” says Atkinson faculty member Varpu Lindström, a historian who served as the historical consultant on the film. Lindström adds that the genocide was virtually unknown until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and that now both Canadians and Russians want to know the truth about this episode in history.

Over 2,800 Canadians of Finnish heritage were recruited by Stalin in 1931 and left Depression-era Canada for what they envisaged was a socialist workers’ paradise in Soviet Karelia, a region in northern Russia with historical connections to Finland. But only five years later their utopian dreams were rudely shattered by Stalin’s brutal purges, and the tragic drama remained virtually unknown until Thunder Bay native Kelly Saxberg brought it to life on film.

Left: A map depicting the current borders of Karelia

Lindström believes that Pitkänen was probably kept alive by the Russians because he was one of the Soviet Union’s top skiers. At the start of the Second World War, Pitkänen and some other Karelia survivors were drafted by the Soviets to spy on the Finns (who by 1941 had occupied much of Soviet Karelia as co-belligerents with Germany). Pitkänen was caught by the Finns in 1942 and executed for spying. Before he died, he wrote farewell letters to his relatives in Canada and gave them to the prison warden. Because Canada was at war with Finland, the letters were never sent, but they were found in 1999 by the warden’s son, Jukka Lehesvirta, a journalist in Helsinki.

Lehesvirta sent the letters to Canada, where Pitkänen’s relatives, including his 90-year-old sister Taimi, were astonished to learn the details of Aate’s death, and also that he had a son named Alfred Pitkänen, 61, a distinguished DNA scientist living in Moscow. The film follows Alfred as he meets his long-lost relatives in Toronto and Thunder Bay and visits people and places that help him understand more about the father he never knew. The film follows him north to Petrozavodsk where he meets Karelia survivors and learns about their experiences. There, he searches to find his father’s grave.