On Tuesday the remains of nearly 80 World War II-era Finnish soldiers were brought from Russia to the Finnish border town of Lappeenranta. The troops died during the Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War of 1941-44 on the Karelian Isthmus and in the formerly Finnish area north of Lake Ladoga. They will be buried with military honours in May.
The remains have been recovered by the Taipale group, led by Border Guard officer Mika Albertsson. For the past 20 years, this small team of volunteers has been searching for remains of Finnish soldiers who died on the Karelia during the Second World War era.
So far the group has repatriated the remains of 260 soldiers for burial in military cemeteries in Finland. A majority have been buried as unknown soldiers in Lappeenranta, some 30 kilometres from the Russian border.
Others have been identified by their dog tags, with the name verified through DNA testing. The identity tags are then handed over to the soldier’s relatives.
“We usually accompany the soldier as he is finally laid to rest,” says Albertsson. “Usually we hand over the ID tags at the ceremony. The relatives include their sisters, brothers and children. Nowadays the grandchildren are also especially interested in those who died in the wars. And that’s a fine thing.”
This winter, Finland is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the three-month-long Winter War, which left nearly 27,000 Finns and 127,000 Russians dead.
Memento of a fallen father
One of the Taipale group’s most poignant incidents began with a child’s pacifier. A little girl gave it to her father as he was heading back to the front after his final home leave.
More than half a century later, the group was searching in Tali, one of the areas ceded to the Soviet Union after the war. They found the remains of the Finnish soldier – and the intact pacifier. They identified the man and decided to see if any of his relatives could be traced. They determined that his daughter had moved in the 1960s, where she still lives. With her approval, they went to visit her, returning the memento of her father.
“She didn’t understand at first what had happened,” recalls Albertsson. “It wasn’t until after the group had left that she called to say that now she understood, and thanked us profusely.”