Rockland woman recounts Finnish Winter War

By Juliette Laaka | Dec 13, 2012
Marjatta Pihala and her husband on their wedding day.

Rockland — Marjatta Pihala remembers the winter of 1939 — bitter cold months when war raged in her native country of Finland for 101 days.

The Winter War ignited with the invasion of the Red Army, and it transformed her life and country — "it was complicated and is impossible to explain how terrible it was," she said.

Finland fought to keep their nation independent of Russian influence and Pihala said the Soviets attempted to occupy Finland as geographically, it would give the Red Army better proximity to invade neighboring nations and, eventually, Germany.

Pihala, now of Rockland, was raised in the port city of Rauma, where she learned to skate during the era of figure skating champion Sonja Henie and her father owned a sporting goods business to support a family of seven.

"I was a figure skater until I learned it was fun to go out with the boys," she said.

At 19, Pihala married in the summer lull of fighting between the Winter War and the Continuation War, the second war between Finland and Russia during World War II. Her husband was an officer on the front lines of the Finnish Army. He suffered injury, but survived the war.

During the Russian assault, residents in the Eastern region of the nation known as Karelia, fled, sometimes with only the clothes on their bodies, layered for warmth.

"That was all they could carry for belongings from their homes," she said.

Pihala's two brothers fought in the war but only one returned home.

Finns showed solidarity and spirit, known as sisu — uniting to support their besieged country. Pihala was part of an organization, Lotta Svard, that gathered Finnish women to work supporting the cause.

The women worked in hospitals, set up camps for soldiers and were tasked with continuing traditionally masculine lines of work.

Camps were erected on the Eastern border where combat raged. "They [the camps] had to be set up for the groups that were fighting. The border line toward Russia is woods, real deep woods. They can't live if they can't get food," Pihala said. The responsibility and burdens Finnish women undertook was a vital part of guarding the homeland.

"All the men were with the army," she said. "Women had to take over everything — growing crops — just everything," she remembered.

There were innumerable Russian soldiers and Finnish lines pushed farther into their own country. There was no school and Pihala said war jobs were apportioned to graduated age groups.

No one knew how long the war would last or what would happen.

Pihala worked in a hospital and later was responsible for delivering Finnish children to safety in Sweden, where they were kept in households and nursing homes until the end of the war. More than 70,000 Finnish children were sent to Sweden for refuge.

"All the mothers wanted their children to be safe," she said.

Finnish children were separated from their families, homes and language, but had respite from war. Sweden was a neutral country and therefore not in danger of invasion.

"They [Sweden] gave all the possible help during the war," she said.

Pihala helped to transfer hundreds of children by plane and adopted an infant son, Karl, whose father was killed in combat and his mother was left unable to care for him. Karl had an older sister, but what happened to her is unknown. Pihala believes she was kept in Sweden.

"It has no bearing anymore — it's something in a memory," she said, adding that recalling such a time is painful.

Pihala has since met some of the children she helped escape. One is a doctor in Florida she regularly visits.

Pihala eventually immigrated to the United States and settled within a Finnish community in New York City on 86th Street.

"Everything here is big — more stores, more people," she said. "At that time Finland only had 3 million people, so you can imagine how New York seemed."

In the city, Pihala said she studied everything available, including fashion design, which was her best talent. She even designed an outfit for actress and singer Ethel Merman for a Cadillac commercial.

After the death of her husband, she moved to Maine, following Finnish friends she made in New York.

Pihala has returned to Finland on visits, taking ships captained by her childhood friends that often docked in New York, but she never returned to make it her home.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at

Comments (4)
Posted by: Judy Olson | Dec 19, 2012 05:31

Thanks to Marjatta Pihala for relating these personal events in her life.  Very interesting history, giving insight into the hardships people have survived and some of the painful memories she has been left with. Also, great reporting, Ms. Laaka.

Posted by: kalla Buchholz | Dec 14, 2012 17:43

My mother, was one of those children who were sent to Sweden for safety...She speaks of it often.

Posted by: Lawrence Butler | Dec 14, 2012 12:31

This was a poignant profile timed to Finnish independence day earlier this month. Thank you to Ms. Laaka and Rouva Pihala for joining forces to bring this story to life. I've lived many years in Finland, and the response of the Finnish people to the events of December 1939 have no parallel in modern history for courage, sacrifice, and "sisu."  Finland is a free, thriving country thanks to the sacrifices of 70 years ago.

Posted by: David Cobey | Dec 14, 2012 09:55

I look forward to this kind of reporting. More, please.

If you wish to comment, please login.