My name is Harry Antero Siitonen. I was born at Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts on March
18, 1926, about 4PM. My parents were Finnish immigrants, both of whom arrived in the United States in
1915. I was their first-born.. They were married in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1917. Their names were
Antti Siitonen and Hanna Siitonen, nee Saikkonen.
These are my memoirs in rough copy, which I hope to type and edit in bits and pieces as time goes on. I
wrote the accompanying outline in Berkeley, California. I’m writing this opener in Tampere, Finland where
I am spending the summer months of 2002. I envision this as a “work in progress” which I intend to keep
writing for the remainder of my life. It will include personal and family matters, my educational and work
experience, my exposure and activity in politics and the labor movement, and my observations of these
experiences within the context of the world around me during the course of my lifetime. I hope it may be of
value to my family and friends as well as to researchers and historians at archival institutions in which I
hope the material will be deposited.
I will begin with sketches of my family background, beginning with my parents, singly and then jointly.
My father, Antti Siitonen
Antti Siitonen was born in Helylä, Finland on October 27, 1888. Helylä is just north of the city of Sortavala, which is on the north shore of Lake Laatokka (Ladoga) in Finnish Karelia,
which territory was ceded to the Soviet Union in the wars of the mid-20th century.
He was the son of Pekka and Cecilia (Simpura) Siitonen. Pekka was a tailor by trade, who died probably in
his early 50s when my father was two years old. Pekka and Cecilia had 8 children in all: sons Pekka, Matti,
Juho, Antti and August; and three daughters: Maiju (Siitonen) Majonen, a second who was a deaf-mute who
died at 14 when hit by a train. The third, older than the rest and the issue of an earlier marriage of my
grandfather who I know little about. According to my father, she married a Russian man and they moved
across the border into Russian Karelia. So I may have had cousins in Russia I know nothing about.
PEKKA’S AND CECILIA’S ELOPEMENT
Pekka, and Cecilia, my paternal grandparents, had met under unusual circumstances. Pekka plied his
tailor’s trade by moving from one relatively well-to-do house to another, fitting the men-folk for their suits
and living with the family until the work was done. Pekka liked his booze and never saved much money, a
good portion of which went for alcohol. He came to stay with the Simpura family in the Helylä region. Theold man Simpura (my great-grandfather) was a relatively well-off farmer in Karelia, cash-poor, but wealthy
in land and livestock. Jhe had a number of sons and one daughter, Cecilia. He had hoped to marry her off
to the son of another well-to-do farmer. Fate intervened.
When the penniless tailor Pekka Siitonen finished his work and was paid off, he not only departed from the
farm, but Cecilia eloped with him. This infuriated farmer Simpura and he disinherited her, dowry and all.
So the young couple lived a meager existence and had a lot of children. My late cousin Pentti Silvennoinen
told me a story in the early 1990s that Pekka, to supplement his income, manufactured illegal booze which
he bootlegged in this Grand Duchy of the Russian Czar, in which apparently prohibition prevailed. He was
arrested and apparently did some jail time. Cecilia was allegedly also implicated but remained free. My
speculation is that she might have been spared because somebody had to take care of all of those children.
Eventually, Pekka was released but died about 1890, leaving a young family. My father was only two years old, my youngest uncle August only a year old. Pekka was about in his early fifties when he died.
So Cecilia was left a poor widow with many children to raise. Fortunately, one of her brothers took pity on
her and provided a small cottage on a part of the land he owned in Helyla so tat they had a place to live.
The oldest boys had to go to work in their early teens with scant schooling.: Pekka, Jr., Juho and Matti. Pekka was able to do a baker’s apprenticeship, worked at the trade as a journeyman and master baker and
eventually became a small businessman as working owner of small bakeries. Matti and Juho worked in the
woods and in laboring jobs. Maija, my father and August were able to get elementary schooling. But the
family did know hunger and want. I’ve been told that at one time during the winter months, Maija, Antti
and August took turns going to school as they had only one pair of boots among them.
There was no separation of church and state, so the school system was very religion-driven, with the
Lutheran Church dominating the curriculum to indoctrinate the children in its dogma. My grandmother was
very religious to begin with. The only books that she read were the Bible and a religious novel called Geno-veeva, or Genevieve. But at least her sons reacted against this indoctrination. I don’t know about
Maija, but the boys became atheists. At that time, Marxian Socialist thought was sweeping throughout
Europe, attracting the Siitonen brothers except for Juho who was non-political. Pekka, Jr., a
socialist/pacifist, read deeply into Socialist thought and although a small businessman, was a committed
My father became bitterly anti-clerical because of the church dominance, how it exploited the poor with the
clergy expecting gifts of eggs, butter and meat from peasant families who had nothing, and for their support
of a conservative, and reactionary political environment. He, too became a life-long Socialist, as well as my
uncle August, who became more of a moderate Bernsteinian Social Democrat.
My father finished four years of school and then went to handicraft classes for awhile. Then he apprenticed
as a baker, as did August. He was about 12 years old when he began his apprenticeship. During that
period, he would live during the week at the bakery because it was too far to walk home. He slept in the
bakery loft among flour sacks with rats scurrying all around hi. But tired from long hours on the shop floor,
he was too far gone to care.
The apprentice boy would do the dirty work, janitorial duties as well as scraping greasy racks and pans and
cleaning ovens. He would also run errands for the master and journeymen. He would fetch them buckets of
beer and the journeymen would let him drink some, getting pleasure of seeing the young apprentice
staggering around drunk. He would also be sent out to buy tobacco for him and they’d give him some to roll
for himself. So he learned to smoke at an young age. He became a lifetime two-pack-a-day man , until lung
cancer killed him in the United States at age 55. My father complete his apprenticeship, graduated to
journeyman and later became a master baker.
ON THE ROAD
I have a copy of my father’s traveling book which was obligatory under the craft provisions of Czarist
Finland. It includes the details of his apprenticeship, dates, journeyperson records, dealing with
professional abilities, industriousness, cleanliness and sobriety. As he traveled and worked around the
country, employers would enter the dates he worked for them, and evaluate his work record. This
document constituted his traveling card which he would present at his next place of employment. One of
his employers was his oldest brother Pekka.
As young single men, my father and his brothers did their share of Saturday night drinking, wenching,
and brawling and would sometimes end up in jail, to be released to go to work on Monday morning
after sleeping off hangovers. Particularly, the oldest brothers, Pekka, Matti and Juho, who enjoyed a good
drunken Saturday night fight with other town toughs.
My father once told us a story about his brother Matti and a buddy, who took a gulf boat to St. Petersburg to
drink, a wide open town where alcohol was apparently legal. On the way back to Sortavala, they got in a
drunken quarrel with each other and started to trade punches on the deck of the small steamer. When the
crew tried to break up the fight, the brawlers teamed up and began to beat up on the crew. When the
deckhands retreated, they resumed fighting each other again. When they got to port, the cops were waiting
to arrest them at the dock. But Uncle Matti charged through them and ran off into the woods. From time to
time, the bailiff would come to my grandmother’s place to arrest him, with his younger siblings throwing
stones at him from the roof. But he never caught Matti at home and finally the law quit trying to find him.
A more bloody incident happened at a wedding party of a distant relative. The party lasted for days and
there was much drinking and feasting and dancing. Present were my grandmother, my father who was then
21, as well as all his siblings.
Everyone sat at long tables feasting away, when a gang of countryside roughnecks from another district
came charging on the scene with horses and light buggies. They were the early 20th Century rural Finnish
equivalents of today’s American urban street gangs. Their plan was to beat up all the men, drink up all the
booze, eat up the food and create mayhem.
The leader of the hooligans stepped into the large dining hall at the head of his gang and announced they
were taking over. They had had their share of drinking before their arrival on the scene, as well as had the
wedding celebrants. At which point my big, strapping Uncle Matti leaped over the long table, pulled out his
puukko (knife) and went for the leader. It was a brief but fierce battle, at one point of which the stranger
ripped open Matti’s arm the whole length with his knife. In reflexive retaliation Matti ran his puukko into
the man’s gut , killing him.
Seeing his brother possibly bleeding to death, my father dashed outside to commandeer one of the raiders’
horses and buggies to rush Matti to a doctor. The marauder left to guard the horses resisted and my father
knocked him cold with one punch. Tourniquet his brother’s arm the best he could, he rode off to the
doctor’s. On the way, he flung his brother’s bloody knife into a marsh.
It took Matti’s wound a long time to heal but he survived. There was an inquest as there was some kind of a
backcountry legal system. But the killing was determined as justifiable self-defense and Matti was
But it was not all drinking and brawling in Helyla. Pekka eventually got married to a woman called
Wilhelmiina as I remember and had five children, four girls and a boy. The boy, Vilho, was killed by a
slingshot pellet at 14 while playing cops and robbers with his chums. The girls, Bertha, Elvi, Kerttu and
Meeri survived to adulthood. Elvi died in 1998 at 92, the others died earlier, except for Meeri Kapanen
who is still alive at about 90 and is living in a senior care residence near Tampere, Finland.
As mentioned before, her father remained a dedicated Socialist. At one time, perhaps about 1912, Pekka
and my father operated a two-man bagel bakery for a short time in the Karelian Isthmus, or Karjalan
Kannas ,port city of Viipuri, now part of Russia. (my mother also worked in Viipuri at one time as a maid,
although the two never met in Finland.)
My father once told me he had bummed to Helsinki at the time of the Finnish General Strike of 1905, two
years after the Social Democratic Party of Finland was founded at Forssa. Thus my father, a young 17-year-old Finnish radical, participated in an important event in Finnish working class history and in the country‘s
road to independence. The only thing I can remember him telling about it was that since he had no money,
he slept under an upturned boat in Helsinki Harbor. But I think this landmark event helped to radicalize
him such as it did the young activists who demonstrated in the streets of Seattle in 1998 against neo-liberal globalization.
While mostly working as a baker, at one time my father and one of his brothers (Juho?) went across the
border to Eastern Karelia and worked in the woods and even visited the city of Petrozavodsk, or Petroskoi
as the Finns called it. During the Continuations War of 1941-44 when the city was under Finnish army
occupation, the Finns called it Äänislinna.
Juho and Matti remained bachelors all of their lives and my father never married while in Finland. He left
for the USA at age 27. I’m not sure what kind of work Matti usually did, but Juho worked in the woods
most of his life. Although he had one withered arm from polio he was famous for the prodigious amount of
trees he could cut down.
Juho lived with his mother until her death in June of 1926. But on Saturday nights he would dress up in his
one suit and tie and head to town and get drunk. He was an impressive, handsome, distinguished-looking
man in his suit. He was not religious, but when shnockered he began to sing old Lutheran hymns. My late
cousin Lempi (Majonen) Jaakkonen, my Aunt Maija’s daughter, said people would call him The Lukkari
(curate or priest) because of his inebriated hymn-singing. Juho was the least political of the brothers, but
had a quiet sense of humor, and easy-going when sober.
ACTING AND ATHLETICS
My father was very much involved in stage acting and athletics. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) and
the Finnish labor movement was big into physical culture as well as theater, both agitprop and romantic.
Athletically, my father’s specialties were Greco-Roman wrestling and gymnastics. His brother August was
also a good wrestler. The Finnish labor movement had its own athletic association which exists to the
present day: TUL, or Työväen Urheiluliitto (Workers’ Athletic Association).. They sponsored athletic clubsall over the country for young working class athletes. Although my father wasn’t particularly a track and
field man, one of my few items of memorabilia from him is a first place medal he won in a pentathlon
He also acted in workers’ community theater projects in Finnish Karelian towns/ These theaters did agit-prop plays against social injustice and for socialism, as well as musicals and dramas and general themes. My father and my Uncle August co-wrote a humorous skit of their own which they performed as a duo at
various functions both in Finland and America. (I remember seeing my father do the skit with a Fitchburg
Finnish-American actor Hugo Erickson at the Westminster (Mass.) town hall to raise money for Finnish
relief during the Winter War of 1939-40, the only time I ever saw my father act.)
Actually, my father played leads both in Finland and later at Veli (Brother) Hall, the Finnish Socialist hall
in Quincy, Mass., after he had moved to the USA. He also had a good singing voice and sang leads in
operettas on the Finnish language stage.
He had performed on the Finnish Karelian workers’ stage with Hilja Koski who also later immigrated to the
United States and who acted at the Finnish Socialist Hall in Norwood, Mass. During the great political
schism of 1920-21, Hilja Koski and the Norwood Finnish Socialist Local went with the Communists. She
continued to perform on the pro-CP Finnish-American stage at Norwood, where she also directed and wrote
In about 1912, my Uncle August who had been operating a bakery in Imatra, Finland, decided to move to
the United States with his young wife Iita (Ida) and their infant daughter Lempi Rauha (born. 1911), who later proved to be profoundly influential in my own life. The young couple moved to Fitchburg, Mass., a
large Finn immigrant Mecca in the United States. The Finnish Federation Socialist local (or osasto) in
Fitchburg built the Saima Hall and Saima Park, and since 1905 published a Finnish-American newspaper,
Raivaaja (Pioneer) which developed into a six-day a week daily. It’s still published today as a non-partisan
bilingual weekly, for which I write regularly. Uncle August established a bakery in Fitchburg, as Finnish
immigrants preferred their own ethnic breads and pastries.
A few years later Uncle August wrote to my father asking him to come to Fitchburg to help out in the
bakery. My father agreed and Uncle August sent him a steamship ticket. My father left Finland in 1915
with World War I raging in Europe. Before the war, most of the Finnish immigrants leaving for The States
and Canada embarked from the port of Hanko on the Gulf of Finland. (This city helped trigger the Russo-Finnish Winter war of 1939-40, when the USSR demanded it be ceded to them for a military base.) Immigrant ships would generally got to Hull in England, and leave by ocean liner from Liverpool. But the
North Sea was now mined and controlled by the German fleet. So the wartime immigrants usually crossed
Sweden into Norway with U.S.-bound ships leaving from Oslo.
Since my father was a socialist political, my knowledge of the specifics of his trip is somewhat ambiguous.
As I recall, the Czarist secret police, the Ohkrana, had an interest in him and other politicals.. There was
also an issue of unpaid taxes that I hazily recall. Information about all this is no longer available.
So instead of crossing the Swedish border at Tornio to leave Finland where he might be detained by the
Czarist gendarmes or the Okhrana, he went in the opposite direction. He went into Russia proper itself to
Pietari, which the Finns called St. Petersburg. He then took a small steamer from near Kronstadt to Sweden
across the Eastern Baltic Sea. Once in Sweden, he had easy access to Norway and to Christiania, or Oslo. He shipped to New York on either the Gripsholm or Oskar II. (I don’t know which, as my mother came
over on the other of the two.) The Immigration Institute at Turku has all the passenger lists of ships
immigrants traveled on for most years, except during 1915 and some of the World War I years, for which
there are no lists available. So right now I don’t have the specific dates when either of my parents left for
the United States.
My father went through the Ellis Island immigrant arrival center where he and his fellow immigrants were
treated like crap.
So my father joined August, Iita and Lempi at Fitchburg. I believe he lived at Finnish bachelor rooming or
boarding houses and ate at Finnish-run restaurants. He became a reader of the Finnish Socialist paper
Raivaaja which he read for the rest of his life. He would shoot pool at Finnish pool halls, go to public
saunas, and attend dances, plays, and lectures at Saima Hall or Park. He worked in August’s bakery where
his sister-in-law Iita would pitch in as well. Other than this, I know little of their lives in Fitchburg. Which
is one of America’s biggest Finntowns.
About 1916, they all left Fitchburg as my uncle had a chance to go into a business partnership at the Quincy
Baking Company, a Finnish bakery in another large Finntown.
Uncle Auguist went into partnership in Quincy with William Wick, who became famous when he won
second place running in the Boston Marathon in April, 1919. The winner was another Finn from Quincy,
Carl Linder, who became the first Finn to have ever won the venerable Boston Marathon. Third or fourth
place went to another Finn from Brooklyn, New York. My father got a job at the bakery and Iita also
CONTINUE NEXT COLUMN
The Siitonens lived a full life in the Quincy Finnish community. Since they were Socialists, they were
involved with the Quincy Local of the Finnish Socialist Federation, in which meetings were conducted in the Finnish language. At one time, my uncle was recording secretary of the Local.
Both were active at the Finnish Socialist Hall, the Veli (Brother) Hall. Owned by the Finnish Labor
Society Veli. Like in all Finnish Socialist or Temperance halls (Quincy also had a Temperance hall) there
was a wide range of activities with which the immigrants were involved. Athletics, which included track
and field, wrestling, and gymnastics. There were dances, orchestras, brass band ensembles, choruses, folk
dances, theatre, and political lectures. In Socialist halls there was the Ihanneliitto (Idealistic League) for
children which was the secular Socialist Finns’ equivalent of the Lutheran Sunday schools operated by the
various sects of the Finnish Lutheran Church. Both of these kinds of schools had classes to learn to read
and write Finnish, with the Christians employing the Bible and other Scriptural material, and the Socialists
Ihanneliitto introducing the ABC’s of Marxism and the class struggle.
My father plunged right into the cultural life of the Hall, while Uncle August was more politically
involved. Both Siitonen brothers excelled on the wrestling team, with my father even thinking of turning
pro when it was still real wrestling, not show business. My father was also heavily involved in the drama
society, acting and singing in plays and musicals. And he was also involved in the acrobatics of the
gymnastics (voimistelu) group, which involved parallel bars and other equipment , building human
pyramids, synchronized drills and other movements.
The Finns really believed that a healthy body goes hand in hand with a sound body and good
citizenship. The Hall was the whole consummate life for these young people, who despite 10 to 12 hour
work days, six days a week, had the enthusiasm and the energy of the young to engage in a full and rich
social and cultural life.
Most of the Finns lived in west Quincy where the Veli Hall and the Quincy Baking Company were
located. The Socialist Finns read the Raivaaja, the news organ of the New England Finns. Many also read
the Säkeniä Sparks, political magazine published by Raivaaja for a number of years.
At this time I’ll interrupt my father’s story and develop my mother’s, who also ended up in Quincy as an
immigrant, up to the time of their meeting.
My Mother, Hanna Johanna Saikkonen
Hanna Johanna Saikkonen was born on May 27, 1894 at Otsoistenkylä (Otsoinen Village) on the Karelian Isthmus (Karjalan Kannas). This isthmus is now Russian territory, and then part of the Czarist Finnish Grand Duchy. Otsoinen is almost impossible to find on any map, but it’s not far from
Jaakkima on the western shore of Lake Ladoga (Laatokan Järvi in Finnish).
She was the daughter of Paavo and Mari (Kettunen) Saikkonen. Paavo was a stonecutter by trade, Mari a
homemaker. My mother also had a brother Antti, three years older than she. I vaguely remember my
mother mentioning that Paavo had been married before and had two children from that earlier marriage who
had died before my mother and her brother were born. In that earlier marriage, even perhaps with Mari, he
had at one time lived in Pietari, or St. Petersburg, in Russia proper. He had even served in the Czarist Army
in Siberia during the Russo-Turkish War.
Paavo worked as a stonecutter and was a skilled artisan. He was a notorious drinker and sometimes
when drunk would brag: “I can carve a human being out of stone. The only thing I can’t do is to give it
life.” He was also an early Marxian socialist and an atheist. From what I gather, he wasn’t a bad fellow
except for his alcoholism.
When my mother was six years old, my grandmother Mari died. Paavo was quite improvident because
of his drinking although his wages were quite good for that time. The kids were passed on from family to
family to be taken care of , with Paavo often working in Jaakkima or Sortavala, the larger city at the north end of Lake Ladoga. Antti and Hanna weren’t very well treated by their caretakers. My uncle Antti
Saikkonen chronicled the account of their life until he left for America, in pencil on sheets of paper he later
left with my mother. I have his account which I’ve typed, but at this writing have not yet translated them
into English. When I’ve done that, I’ll attach it as a supplement to this memoir.
Not long after Mari died, Paavo took up with another woman called Anni Toivanen., with Antti and
Hanna opposing the union. Anni was a cousin of Paavo’s as his sister was married into the Toivanen family
which owned considerable farmland. She became a stern disciplinarian and according to my mother treated
her very badly, particularly when she and Paavo began having children of their own. In order, they were:
Hilja (my mother’s half-sister), and the boys: Toivo, Hannes (who drowned at age 10 or so), Paavo Einokki
and Otto Einari, the youngest who was born in 1911. Anni was reportedly good to her own children but the
proverbial “cruel stepmother” to Antti and Hanna. Later on as they grew, she began to be nicer to them.
Antti did well in elementary school but went no farther, with poverty plaguing the family. He went to
work as a clerk’s apprentice in a store and did quite well at it. My mother never went to elementary school
for more than a year and one half. She never learned to write very well although she read a lot and was a
smart and literate person. She went to work early in the fields and in household chores.
It was a pretty drab and difficult childhood for Hanna. She often went hungry when Paavo had spent all
of his wages on booze. What food there was went to the younger children and in large portions. A crust if
dried bread was often Hanna’s lot.
My mother once described an incident in her early life which provided a pleasant memory of her father
who did have an earthy sense of humor.
THE PASTOR’S STUCK-UP DAUGHTERS
It seems that the pastor of the local church who had social status in the community, also had two young
very conceited and arrogant daughters who didn’t want to have anything to do with the children of the
common clay. Every Sunday they could be seen coming from church with fine dresses which most of the
parishioners couldn’t afford to provide their own children. The pastor’s daughters would walk down the
country road to the parsonage, always with their noses stuck up in the air.
My grandfather told his kids one Sunday that he was going to have some fun at the expense of these two
young snobs. It was common to have fly paper set out in sheets in these rural households to try to trap
large numbers of flies. The sheet Paavo chose was literally covered with dead flies. He dug up a sheet of
fancy colored tissue wrapping paper, rolled it up into a scroll with the revolting flypaper inside. Clever with
his hands, he then whittled a couple of pieces of wood as caps for both ends of the scroll and attached a nice
piece of ribbon to both ends to act as a pretty handle to this serendipity packet.
With the kids following him, he placed the attractive scroll in the middle of the country road that he
knew the pastor’s daughters would be shortly walking down. Then all the kids and my grandfather went
into some nearby bushes to hide.
Soon enough, the two preacher’s daughters came down the road from church, in full haughtiness. They
noticed the beautiful object on the road. Seeing no one in sight, one of them picked up the scroll by the
ribbon and down the road they went. It was left to the imagine of Paavo and the children what reaction
there would be in the minister’s household once the flypaper was revealed in the unwrapping of the scroll.
HANNA ON STRIKE
My mother left home at about 15 to go to work, with one of her first jobs to work as a live-in dairymaid
at a dairy estate called Lahdenpohjan Hovi on the Karelian Isthmus. It was operated by a Patruuna (Squire)
Schmidt, a German. It was extremely hard work, long hours and paltry pay. My mother’s two co-workers
were teenage country girls like herself. The conditions were so dreadful that the three girls drew up a set of
demands to alleviate their conditions and presented them to Schmidt to accept, or they’d walk off the job. This was an extremely courageous act as there were no unions to turn to, and these inexperienced young
women acted spontaneously in unity to raise their protest. This was the first time something like this had
ever happened in Southeastern Finland, particularly in the agricultural sector. Schmidt promptly fire them.
Since my mother was only 15 this must have occurred in 1909.
There example became a cause célèbre for the Finnish Socialist and labor movements in that
part of Finland, a first of its kind. The Social Democratic Party, then in its Kautskyist
Marxist incarnation, had been officially founded in Forssa in 1903 and was growing like
wildfire, building workers’ halls in cities, towns and hamlets throughout Finland.
These girls were asked to come to a meeting at the hall of the local SDP on the Isthmus
and were treated as young heroines. The girls stood in front of the hall before a full house
of enthusiastic supporters who cheered as the local Socialist organizer extolled them for
the courageous act of standing up for their rights. My mother told me that all the girls
could do was to stand there and cry.
This act of my mother’s I’m very proud of, and it probably was one stimulus among
others for me becoming a labor and political activist myself.
Hanna moved from place to place in Finland, working as a maid and waitress in hotels,
restaurants, and wealthy households around the country. She even worked in the thriving
Karelian port city of Viipuri where my father and my Uncle Pekka operated their bagel
bakery, perhaps even in the same time period. But my parents never met in Finland. She
also worked in Lappeenranta, where she was a maid in the household of the prison
director. She also worked in Hanko, Turku and Helsinki.
BROTHER ANTTI LEAVES FOR USA
In the meantime her brother Antti had left as an immigrant to the United States at age
16. Having no money, he was advanced a loan by his older cousins Otto and Matti
Toivanen, who also left for the States. They were the sons of Paavo Saikkonen’s sister, my
great-aunt. His departure is recorded in Antti’s journal notes.
Paavo brought his oldest son to the local railroad stop by horse and wagon, when he
left for Hanko, the point of embarkation for most immigrants. The year was about 1907. (To be confirmed in shipping records.) As they parted, my grandfather had testified that
Antti had been a good model son, and that he had been a poor father, and wished him well.
That was the last time this father and son ever saw each other. Antti told my mother that
Paavo had tears in his eyes as he stood by the horse as the train pulled away.
Antti and the Toivanen brothers took a ship from Hanko to Hull, England, then by train
to Liverpool from where they shipped for New York. They went by train to Ironwood,
Michigan, where they went to work in the iron mines. The Toivanen’s demanded the
money the had advanced Antti for his passage, but he said they’d have to wait until he
started to draw paychecks.
The cousins separated with the Toivanen’s heading West to work as traveling shaft
drillers at new mines, while Antti worked in a number of Northern locations as a miner and
logger. He moved on to work in logging camps in Maine. Many of the Finnish loggers and
miners became Wobblies, joining the Industrial Workers of the World for their union
affiliation. So did Uncle Antti and he became a dedicated member, and later subscribed to
the Finnish language IWW newspaper, the Industrialisti when it began to publish around
1916. Unlike many of the rough and ready loggers, Antti never drank or smoked or
consorted with prostitutes, and saved his money.
GRANDFATHER PAAVO PASSES ON
Meanwhile, my mother continued to work in Finland. Occasionally, she would visit
home, which I believe at that time was around Jaakkima by Lake Ladoga. On one of her
visits as she was walking down the country road, Paavo came toward her with horse and
wagon. He was drunk and tipped his hat, greeting her, but not recognizing Hanna as being
his own daughter. Paavo died about 1913 in his early fifties when his youngest son Otto
was about two years old.
Sometime during the second decade of the 20th century, Hanna worked in Helsinki as a
waitress. She was a high-spirited, fun-loving woman. She’d tell us how she and her young
friends would go dancing in the night along the cliffs of Kaivopuisto, a historic park in
Helsinki, accompanied by some young chap with an accordion.
HOMESICK RUSSIAN SOLDIERS
She often described of her association with Russian soldiers from the Czarist garrison
which occupied militarily strategic points around the city At that time she was working as
a waitress in a coffee shop. Off duty, the young Russian soldiers would wander around
the city, broke, lonely, and homesick for the distant Russian provinces they came from. They had no money and during the cold winter evenings, would just constantly keep
moving to try to stay warm. No older than my mother and the other waitresses, they’d
sometimes stop by the café and ask for a cup of hot water to warm their innards. They
were innocent, decent young men and the Finnish waitresses felt sorry for them.
So they’d give them hot tea and a few pastries and let them hang around all evening
where it was warm and comfortable. Although Russians and Finns have been described as
historic enemies and many Finns are resentful of bad treatment by Russian governments,
on a personal level, despite language barriers, these young people just saw each other as
human beings, with no animosity. Compassion, kindness and friendship prevailed.
When Hanna first arrived in Helsinki, she had very little money, so she stayed at a
non-profit women’s boarding house and cultural center operated by Miina Sillanpää, one of the few woman leaders of the newly founded Social Democratic Party. She was also
elected to the Finnish Parliament on the SDP ticket and served for many years, before and
after independence and the Civil War.
Sillanpaa’s establishment was akin to Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. It provided
a friendly, supportive refuge for penniless young women from the impoverished
countryside who sought work in Helsinki. Hanna was very appreciative of Sillanpaa and
always spoke admiringly about her. This experience was probably a significant factor in
my mother becoming a Socialist. This, and her youthful battle against exploitation at the
Lahdenpohja dairy farm. Of course, her father was also a Marxian Socialist but a poor role
model for one.
There was considerable anti-clericism in the early workers’ movement because of
the alignment of the conservative Lutheran Church establishment with the ruling class. “Work and pray, live on hay, for you’ll get pie in the sky when you die,” sang itinerant
Swedish-American IWW troubadour Joe Hill in the United States during the early 1900s. That was the sentiment of many Finnish Socialists of those times. That was my mother’s
attitude. In fact, in the initial SDP Forssa program of 1903, there was a plank calling for the
separation of church and state in Finland. Finland has yet to realize that provision. The
modern Finnish Left is reluctant to campaign for church-state separation, as many of its
advocates and voters are devout Christians and the Left doesn’t want to alienate the
religious vote. The mainstream Lutheran Church is more progressive today then before,
supports the welfare state and works with the labor movement on behalf of workers’ rights
and social needs.
As mentioned before, my Uncle Antti became a Wobbly in the United States and must
have corresponded with his sister about the class division of capitalist society. All of
these factors undoubtedly contributed to making my mother both a socialist and an
atheist. She never read any ideological theory but her sentiments were always with the
socialist movement. I remember her telling me that Karl Marx was a good man because he
championed the cause of the workers.
HANNA LEAVES FOR THE STATES
Finally, Antti, who corresponded frequently with Hanna, invited her to come to the
United States and that he’d send her the money for steamship passage. He said life in
America would be easier for them both than it was in Finland. So Hanna jumped at the
chance and in 1915 did the deed.
Again it was in the middle of World War I that my mother made her move, and again due
to wartime blockades, traveled through Sweden to Oslo to embark, either on the
Gripsholm or Oscar II. At the Finnish-Swedish birder at Tornio at the north shore of the
Gulf of Bothnia, Hanna and the other immigrants were confronted with a negative, nasty
scene with the Czarist Russian gendarmes.
They were quite ugly and searched her meager belongings, including dear-to-her
personal mementoes. These included photos of boy and girl friends, personal
correspondence, poems and songs she and her friends had written into her personal
notebooks. Much of this material was torn up and discarded by the jeering gendarmes. Hardly a fond farewell to her native land and the oppressive imperial power that ruled it. All she could do was cry. The train finally arrived at Oslo, or Christiania, as it was known
at the time. After a few days of hanging around in the perks of the Norwegian capital, her
ship sailed to new York.
Again she arrived to a most unpleasant experience at Ellis Island through which
millions of immigrants were funneled. Again there were rude and belligerent officials like
the Russian gendarmes at Tornio, who yelled and screamed at the immigrants, most of
whom like my parents knew absolutely no English. Delousing was an affront to personal
dignity. So this gross Ellis Island experienced overshadowed the hope symbolized by the
Statue of Liberty.
There must have been a Finnish support group to help orient the immigrants. My
mother’s destination was Quincy, Massachusetts, as her brother Antti was working at a
logging camp in Maine, which made for easier access between them. Also, Antti had a
girlfriend in Quincy. Quincy had a large active Finntown and Finnish maids and cooks
were in high demand by wealthy families in the Boston area, known for their cleanliness
and strong work ethic.
HANNA IN QUINCY
Arriving in Quincy, it didn’t take long for Hanna to get a job as a cook and a maid. Her
initial pay was $3 a week with room and board. Work days were long and the traditional
maid’s days off were Thursday nights and Sundays.
The first money she spent in America with her first paycheck was a pair of shoes, for
the full $3 pay. She would often say that in Finland it would take her weeks to save up
enough money to buy a pair of shoes. No Visa cards in those days. Another of her first
purchases was a subscription to Raivaaja, the Finnish Socialist newspaper published in
Fitchburg. She must have joined the Veli Hall early on to become acquainted with the
The Raivaaja was founded in 1905, so both of my parents had subscriptions when the
paper had been around for only a decade. That subscription has never stopped. When
Finnish-reading immigrants began to die off the six-day-a-week Raivaaja began to publish
less frequently and it is now a bilingual weekly, without the old politics and continues to
be published in Fitchburg. When my mother died at 83 in 1977, I picked up her
subscription and have continued it to this day. So now in 2003, the Raivaaja has been
coming to the Siitonen family for 88 years! As I mentioned before, I frequently contribute
articles to it.
VELI HALL IS A MAGNET
Hanna’s brother Antti visited her from Maine and told her to stay away from the Finnish
men in Quincy, as the were mostly “lazy drunks”. But the Veli Hall became her center of
social life with its abundant cultural opportunities. Of course, my 21-year-old mother
began to frequent the dances, the Hall stage plays, concerts and other affairs. She was a
high-spirited woman and very social and talkative, which appeared to be characteristic of
Finnish Karelians, compared to the more stoic, quiet types from Ostro-Bothnia and Häme Provinces. So she made many friends at the Hall early on.
of Installment 1