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The secret Nazi camps of Finnish Lapland

Every country has its own narrative about the Second World War, but in Finland the tragedies that befell the native Sami have been left off the official record

One would think that there were no new stories to tell about the Second World War. That everything has been discussed already. Well, that doesn’t seem to be true to me. My novel Land of Snow & Ashes is all about revealing secrets and untold stories from that time.

When I first had the idea of writing a novel, I wanted to write about Sámiland, because I was haunted by its beauty: the dark nights during the winter when the sun doesn’t rise at all, and in return the magical sun during the summer, when it doesn’t set for many months. But I also had the story of my grandfathers: one of them was in prison during the war, and the other one had gone missing during the reconstruction period and never returned. He changed his name and settled in Sámiland, and he died without anyone knowing who he really was. What are those people’s stories – and why does no-one talk about them? 

People like to tell only one side of the narrative of themselves – and the same goes for history. The Second World War years were a long period of terror, during which people made bad choices in order to survive, to bear the pain and anxiety. In the novel, one of the characters, Koskela, says, “None of us can predict how we will behave under such duress. None of us knows the limits of our endurance, we don’t know when or how we break.”

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There is a grand narrative that every country tells about the Second World War. And that – sadly – is a very narrow story. There are lots of people who feel that the official story doesn’t reflect their own realities or what happened to their grandparents. They might not feel that they were either heroes or the bad guys. They simply did what they had to do. When it comes to the truth, every one of us has our own truth and our own story to tell. Not to mention that the trauma that the war planted in us hasn’t gone away: the new generation still carries the trauma of past generations in their heritage and family culture.

And those are the stories I have always been interested in: the hidden, untold ones. Land of Snow & Ashes tells the story of small people. It’s a story about a native people and a story about a Finnish Nazi, Väinö. The novel delves into a narrative that hasn’t yet been told, and that has never been part of any country’s official history, although it should have been: There were 200 secret Nazi camps in Finnish Lapland. Lapland is also known as Sámiland; a land where the only native population in the EU lives.

After the War, the Finnish and Norwegian Sámiland had been burned and ravaged by the withdrawing Germans, and the Finnish and Norwegian governments enforced assimilation politics on their native people – to such a degree that one could call it the cultural genocide of the Sámi.

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Education and media offer us a rather general and narrow view of history. I am interested in breaking these big narratives and giving ordinary people a voice to speak from their own point of view about the past. For example, in Finnish schools we don’t study the colonisation of the Sámi people or the Nazi camps. Since I was young, I have wondered why. I myself am not Sámi, but I have spent a lot of time in the Sámiland region throughout my life, know many Sámi people and have travelled and worked there. I have listened to their stories and learned things that no-one talks about in schools or in the news. 

Land of Snow & Ashes by Petra Rautiainen is out now (Pushkin, £12.99)

As I’m not Sámi, my responsibility as a writer and a historian is to analyse my own position, being part of a majority writing about a minority. I’ve chosen to write the story of Bigga-Marja, a Sámi girl, from the point of view of the white people who, on the one hand, force her to attend a boarding school where she is not allowed to speak her own language, and on the other want her to remain ‘traditional’. Inkeri, one of the main characters, a stern, independent journalist, doesn’t appreciate when Bigga-Marja wears western clothes instead of traditional Sámi dress. 

That attitude can still be observed today: the majority wants to define the minority. The majority is still representing the minority. In Land of Snow & Ashes, Inkeri means well and writes about the Sámi for the biggest national newspaper. However, she doesn’t let Bigga-Marja write her own articles about her situation – it wouldn’t even occur to her. At least, not until she learns to look herself and her prejudices in the eye, and discover why she really acts as she does. 

Petra Rautiainen is a journalist and author

You can buy Land of Snow & Ashes from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops

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