New perspective on Finnish war children

The number of foster homes in Sweden doubled when seventy thousand Finnish children were evacuated during the Second World War. LiU researchers are now looking at how it was possible to mobilise so many homes in so short a time, and how separating children from their parents was viewed.


Foto: Charlotte Perhammar
The transports from Finland to Sweden were one of the largest evacuations of children in the twentieth century. It was at its most intensive at the end of the Second World War, but Finnish children were moved between the two countries for twenty years, from the start of the Winter War in 1939 until 1959.

A research project at the Department of Child Studies is analysing this evacuation of Finnish children from a new perspective: How did they manage to get public support in Sweden and so many families who were willing to take in evacuees? How was the separation of the children from their parents viewed? What political circumstances made the movement of the children possible?

During the war Jewish children, and children from Germany and the Baltic states and elsewhere, were all refused the chance to come to Sweden, but there was a strong solidarity between the Nordic countries. The evacuation of Finnish children was a way of supporting Finland that did not compromise Swedish neutrality.

“It was an enormous undertaking for the Finnish children and there was close collaboration between state and voluntary organisations,” explains Karin Zetterqvist Nelson, professor in the Department of Child Studies.

During the evacuation the number of foster homes in Sweden doubled, but the Finnish war children were not depicted as foster children and the people who took them in did not consider themselves foster parents, even though that was the label used by the press and the organisations involved.

“Finnish war children were taken in. Often they were called guests,” says Professor Zetterqvist Nelson.

She is a psychologist whose main area of study is the reception of the Finnish children and how experts during the war viewed the movements of children and their separation from their parents.

“They talked of the physical care, of how Swedish homes were safe and how there was no state of war in Sweden. But they did not talk about what it meant to send children away to a foreign country without their parents.”

The little that was written on the subject revolved around pragmatic advice about helping the children keep their memories of their home country and their parents alive by talking about them, thereby making it easier for the children to return home.

Professor Zetterqvist Nelson is currently going through the Östergötland County Council archives to investigate how children who were sick, for example with tuberculosis, were received. This concerns about 10,000 to 15,000 children who were taken in, mainly around the end of the war. Special medical transport was arranged to take them to different orphanages.

“Doctors in Sweden and Finland were in close contact, but the war was not mentioned in the patient records,” Professor Zetterqvist Nelson points out.

In order to understand the Finnish situation and what people thought when the children were sent away, the project research team is working with Finnish researchers.

“It is important for the project to be two-sided, not just have a Swedish perspective.”

Contact with researchers in other European countries has shown that the role of child psychology and the views on separation from the parents differed.

In France the evacuations during the war did not provoke any discussion since they followed a tradition of sending children to the French countryside for the summer.

In Great Britain, however, researchers with a psychoanalytical approach who studied the effects of the evacuations from London asserted that the separation of mother and child was bad for the child. One of these researchers was John Bowlby, who later developed the attachment theory.

“But the researchers were only interested in working-class children, and not upper-class children who were sent to boarding schools. There was an unspoken but strong belief that working-class children in particular should be looked after by their mothers,” says Professor Zetterqvist Nelson.

For a long time, Bowlby’s theories were rejected in Sweden. Here faith was put in the institutions, personal expertise and the slowly developing welfare state.

“I was struck by the belief in what Sweden could do. Children were saved, but in the opinions of the time there was no psychological thinking on children and childhood. Today the situation is completely different; questions about evacuees put the focus on the psychological trauma in such a way that other aspects of being a refugee are concealed,” says Professor Zetterqvist Nelson.

Text: Birgitta Weibull
14 March 2014