It is commonly very well known how the Jews were persecuted during the second world war by Hitler. It is less known, or maybe less talked about, that Stalin and his regime persecuted the Jewish people as well, aiming to the destruction of their culture.
Worldwide spread clichés portray Nazi Germany as a black spot of racism in an otherwise racism-free world, while the reality was very different: during the second world war, black and Asian people had plenty of troubles in America as well. Racism was a global problem, and pushed the persecuted people to move as far as possible, as long as it was possible; this was the case of Hannele Venho’s Jewish mother and great-grandmother, who managed to escape from Russia, finding in Finland not only shelter, but also further information about their family. I interviewed her for a university project back in 2020, but this is the first time the content of the interview is released to the public.
How does the story start?
The story starts so: first of all, my parents were related. Both families where from Rhine Valley, in Germany which was and still is a Jewish area. In fact they were both of Jewish descent. At some point in the middle of 1800 a part of the family moved to Sweden and another part moved to Russia.
Why Russia and Sweden?
Both places were kingdoms and were safer for Jews. On both sides the men worked in the army and in Germany for Jewish people the situation had been hard since many years already.
In Russia, as long as the Tzar Nikolaj held the power, the Jews were in a very good position, but after that Russia became unsafe as well, and that’s why my grandmother’s family decided to move towards West, while working in import-export field. Later, Stalin didn’t like the Jews, and he ended up killing many more than Hitler.
How happened that your grandmother came to Finland?
What follows is what I heard from my son, because my mother never actually told me this story.
During Stalin’s time my mother and her family lived on an island in Russia, near Laatokka. It was still Finnish territory back then. When she was a child, just nine years old, once she and her grandmother went to the forest to pick up mushrooms, and when they came back they found out that all the rest of the family had been gunned in its own backyard. It happened around 1938. My great grandmother decided that it was wiser to search for shelter in a monastery, where they have been hidden. Then the Winter War started, therefore my great grandmother said my mother that they had to move as far towards West as they could, till they met the sea.
The winter came, so they could walk on the frozen sea from Latokka. During the day they buried themselves under the snow, and they walked during the night.
They finally reached nowadays borderline between Russia and Finland. There was a railway, and a train was coming from Sortavala, which belongs to Russia nowadays, going towards West, to destinations such as Lahti, Heinola and Mikkeli; the train porceded very slowly, because it was the kind that picks up people, so they stopped it. From here the trip became finally a bit easier, after a couple of hundreds of kilometers on foot. My mother could not know in that moment that the driver was her future father-in-law.
How did their lives proceed after that?
They went to Turku. My mother lived there for five years, but then her grandmother died, therefore she decided to move to Helsinki, so that she could attend school and start working in kitchens. She became a chef, and she worked – after many years of experience – in the best restaurants.
How about the other side of the family?
The part of the family which moved to Sweden eventually moved to Finland. Finland used to be part of Sweden back then and since they were soldiers the King sent them to Finland to fight against the Russians, granting them some land as a reward.
What happened later? How did your father and your mother meet?
They met around 1949, because then my mother lived here in Helsinki. She already had a boyfriend, according to what I read in her diary, after she died. I do not exactly know how it happened, but it was here, my father and my mother met, and she quickly understood that he was the love of her life. They had no idea that they were related. Back then my father was officially married, but he and his wife did no longer live together.
How did their relationship develop?
The first time when my father brought my mother at his parents’ home, in order to introduce her, my grandfather said: “Throw that Jew out of this house”. He didn’t like her at all.
But later I don’t know how, they found out that they were related, and that even though my father’s family was not Jewish anymore, it was of Jewish descent. But I guess if we go back in time, one way or another we are all related to Jews.
It must have been so that the side of the family that moved to Russia was mostly composed by women, while the side that moved to Sweden was composed mostly by men, and that is why the Jewish tradition was kept only on the Russian side: the Jewish bloodline is matriarchal.
What was your father’s political faith?
He was not so much, but his father and the rest of the family were really Nazi. But quite often my father used to say: “Look at the children: this is what happens when a Nazi and a Jew get married”. He was not serious about it, though. I must say anyway that I did don really get to know that side of the family; both my grandfather and grandmother died around the year when I was born. I have seen a bit of my father’s sisters and they seemed to be rather fascist, in their own way. On my wedding day my aunt told me about her husband: “I will never divorce, but I might kill him”. She totally meant it. When my father was still officially married to his first wife, but they were already no longer living together, his first wife had a child from another man. My aunt took that baby and gave him away for adoption, he ended up in a good family, I think that he’s still alive. I got anyway to know about this story after my father died, when I was going through all the documents. I called my mother straight away: “Who is this child I have never heard of?”. But then she explained me that actually it was not my brother. It turned out that even the man himself heard only a couple of years earlier that he had been adopted.
Didn’t your mother ever explain you anything about where did she come from?
No, she never said it to me, she only told the story to my son. I have tried to study my family from my mother’s side, but since those archives nowadays belong to Russia it has beed quite difficult. Thank God there is only one Gardemeister family in this area, so there have been other people studying it before me, and that is how I got to know that my mother and my father were related.
Did they come to know at some point?
They knew it because they had the same old family name, but the final proof was the fact that I have this disease: Dupuytren’s contracture. A woman can have it only if the gene comes from both sides; it’s very common among old men, but in the whole Finland there are only four women with this disease, and somehow we are also all related, even though nowadays we do no longer have the same family name.
Why do you think your mother told the whole story to your son but not straight to you?
I think it is due to the fact that when you have skeletons in your closet you do not want to talk about it to people who were somehow close to the facts. My mother was a quite religious person; my brother was once in a motorcycle accident, and for a few days the doctors were not able to say if he would survive or if he would not. During those days my mother has spent a lot of time at the synagogue, but she always hid it. I think it was also because after she came to Finland she felt that she could not trust anyone. I actually do not even know the exact day when her family was murdered, there are no graves. It was Stalin style.
Which reminds surprisingly a lot Hitler’s style…
Actually, Hitler killed them in the gas chambers, while Stalin first made them build train train tracks and after that they had to dig their own graves, so that they could be shot straight there. No names, of course.
How do you think it was possible for your mother to coexist with your father’s family?
My brother was born in 1952. They have been somewhere in a foreign Country for a couple of years, because my mother worked in France when she was pregnant with me, and when I was born it was May, and till the end of that year we both lived there, only after that we moved back to Finland. But obviously I do not remember anything about that time. I think that one thing that protected my mother was the fact that she really worked a lot. Of course, in the restaurant business it is always hard work, but she also wanted to work a lot. She was young and totally out of money, she wanted to work hard enough and become someone, so that she could take care of her family whatever happened.
Do you think that she worked so much to keep her mind busy or rather in order not to spend too much time at home?
I think she did it especially to keep her mind busy and to make money. She was a really good businesswoman, good at making money, while my father was good at spending it (laughs).
Do you consider yourself a Jew?
Well, no, actually no. When I was younger I was against any kind of religious stuff, but nowadays my daughter-in-law is very interested in that kind of things, and this softened me. I do not like religion when it is too extreme, when people are too much into that kind of story, but nowadays I can handle it. I know that my son thinks the same: religion is ok, if it helps. I have anyway learned things that belong to the Jewish religion. It is a tradition. My mother could not do Hanukkah at our place, because my father was against this, against any religion.
Do you think that that tradition belongs to your identity?
It is a part of me, because there are some things in my mentality that I learned from my mother, therefore I think it is part of me, in the traditional and cultural rather than in the religious way.
Nowadays, whenever there are episodes like it happened recently, when the synagogue of Turku has been vandalized on the Shoah Memorial Day, do you feel that you could be in danger?
I am of course totally against that kind of behavior, but no, I do not feel in danger at all, because I live in a steady world. Nothing bad will happen here. I have travelled quite a lot when I was younger, but I never felt in danger if not as a woman. As a woman sometimes it has been hard, but never because my mother was Jewish.