Originally published in the Ontonagon (Mich.) Herald, June 1, 2016
By Henry Kisor
Who would have thought a tiny news clipping from an Ontonagon Herald of 1931, inserted into a mystery novel published in 2003, would result 84 years later in the reunion of two long separated Finnish families—one in Green, Michigan, and one in Finland—and the rediscovery of some of their lost history?
|Karoliina and Simon Talikka|
The story, nurtured over the years by the dogged detective work of Doug Karttunen, a native of Green and a historian of the town, begins in 2001 when I was researching Season’s Revenge. I found a brief item in an old Herald about a group of Finnish immigrants enticed to return to Soviet Karelia during the Great Depression.
I put the clipping into Season’s Revenge. On page 111 appears this paragraph from the fictional Porcupine County Tribune:
“SIX FINNISH PEOPLE
“LEAVE FOR RUSSIA
“Mr. and Mrs. Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Weser and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer, and Henrikki Heikkila, who have lived at Greenfield for several years, left Thursday for Kontupohja, United Soviet Social Russia.
“A farewell party was given for them at the Farmers’ Hall at Greenfield Monday evening.”
Except for one, the names of the emigrants are real. All I altered was the name of the paper and the name of the town, Green. “Henrikki Heikkila” is a fictional character I added to support a motive for murder involving a subplot of the novel.
That subplot involved the historical reverse migration of more than 10,000 struggling Finnish farmers from Upper Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario to Karelia, a Finnish-speaking Soviet province next door to Finland. Most were never heard from again, presumably having perished during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. Many of their American properties were abandoned for taxes, sold to greedy land speculators or fought over by embittered relatives—giving rise to a possible motive for murder.
One day in 2009 I sat down at the computer to the following email (slightly abridged). It was from Kevin Levonius in Gilroy, California.
“I was shocked,” Levonius wrote, “when reading your book Season’s Revenge when I came across the section that talked about Karelia and Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Weser and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer . . .
“Your fictional story was non-fiction to me. I have been searching for decades trying to find out what happened to my missing relatives that went to Karelia from Green, Michigan. They are Simon Talikka, Arthur Wesa [the 1931 Herald had spelled it Weser] and sons Arthur Jr., Elmer, and Eero. I find your story more than coincidence. Simon Talikka and his wife took in (unofficially adopted) Arthur’s boys shortly after Olga (Arthur’s wife) died. Arthur also lost a very young son named Onni.
“I pray that you might have some information on my missing relatives. After Simon Talikka and Arthur Wesa and the boys went to Karelia, we lost contact with them in 1936.
“Mayme Sevander’s book Of Soviet Bondage has a listing of wartime labor camp victims, one of which is ‘Vesa, Arthur; from Green, Mich. US 1931’.
“The last time anyone heard from Arthur and the boys was in a letter written by Simon Talikka in 1936.
Simon wrote that he was no longer living in Karelia, but rather in the Ural Mountains “digging gold, working in a gold mine. Wesa [Arthur] stayed with his boys in Karelia. They are working there in the woods. Young Paavo [Walter Wesa] was a teacher in Tunkua.” [Tunkua is a town in the northern part of Karelia].
Simon also wrote that his first wife was still alive, and that “I left her in Karelia, and took another, younger one. This one gets along well with the Russian language, had been a teacher for 9 years there in Karelia, and is 35 years old. A gorgeous person.’ ”
Levonius concluded: “This was the last piece of solid evidence that Arthur and the three boys were still alive. I would appreciate any help you can provide.”
He also posted a photograph of the Wesa boys, along with pictures of Arthur and his wife, Olga.
I had to tell Levonius that I had no further information on his family, but that I would post his letter on my blog (www.henrykisor.blogspot.com) in the long-shot hope that someone researching the Karelia period might know what happened to the Talikkas and the Wesas and would discover the blog during a Google search.
To Levonius’ post Doug Karttunen commented the same day:
“I dare say most of the original Finnish ‘Greenfield’ families will have a relative or two in their genealogical closets that were caught up in the ‘Karelia Fever.’ Sadly, almost none of the adult men of those that went there survived Stalin’s purges during the late 1930s or the Winter and Continuation Wars with Finland that followed. Except for a small number who managed to escape from the Soviet Union, almost all were shot or imprisoned. Most of the wives and children were, however, spared the fate of their menfolk. Many of these (or their descendants now) still live in Russia, having survived a very difficult life.”
Doug was writing not only as a historian but also as a citizen with skin in the game. A great-uncle of his who had also emigrated to Karelia, he said, was sentenced to prison in 1938 for unspecified crimes against the state. In typical Russian bureaucratese, he was “rehabilitated” in 1996 after Mikhail Gorbachev allowed records of the Gulag to be made public. The great-uncle’s demise is unknown, but Doug suspects he was shot or starved in prison.
On August 19, 2012, three years after that blogpost, Toivo Talikka, now of Nottingham, England, happened upon the blog and added this comment:
“If his age in 1936 was around 50, Simon Talikka could be Simo Matinpoika Talikka, born 19 Sept. 1885 in the Tervajärvi village of Jaakkima municipality in Karelia. My own family was evacuated from the same region in 1944.”
Toivo Talikka provided the link to an item in a website that lists, in Russian, names of victims of the Soviet terror in the 1930s. One of them “is likely to be Simo Talikka, based on the year of his birth and his father’s first name.”
Translated, the link reads:
“Semyon Matveevich Talikka, born in 1885, locomotive engineer Ormedzoloto [a mining organization], lived in Kuvandysky municipality, Ratiyanka province.
“Sentenced to three years by the NKVD to Orenburg region, October 14, 1938.
“Verdict: Rehabilitated in October, 1989.
“Source: The Book of Memory of the Orenburg region.”
“These times,” Toivo Talikka continued, “were extremely tragic for immigrants and people with ethnic backgrounds in Russia. According to the archives, around 8,000 people of Finnish origin were executed, and out of 143,000 Poles, 111,000 were shot.”
The same day in 2012, Doug read Talikka’s comment and responded:
|Lillian Bolo McCaffrey|
“Yes, these are one and the same Simo Matinpoika Talikka [‘Simo Matinpoika,’ or ‘Simo, Matthew’s son,’ and ‘Semyon Matveevich’ are the Finnish and Russian for the same name.] Their birth dates and places match. Simo left Green to go to Karelia in October, 1931, along with his wife Karoliina. They had no children of their own, but were accompanied by three neighbor children whom they had helped raise after their mother died.”
What’s more, Doug said, he owns the actual 1936 letter from from Simon Talikka that Levonius quoted—and its return address is from Orenburg.
Those children’s Finnish names, Doug added, were Viljo (Arthur Jr.), Paavo (Walter) and Eero (Elmer) Wesa. The original Herald article of 1931 had omitted Walter’s name.
“Simon had an older brother, John Talikka, who also lived in Green,” Doug continued. “John and his wife Mary had several children, and descendants of theirs still live in the area. I am assuming, Toivo, that you may be related to these Talikka brothers. If you are interested, I probably can put you in contact with some of the family members still living in the U.S.A.”
On May 15, 2016, almost four years later, Doug posted this comment on the blog: “A couple of weeks ago I received an email out of the blue from a lady in Finland who apparently had come across the blog while searching for long-lost relatives, spotted my comment about the Talikka brothers, and decided to get in touch with me.”
She is Leena Kurra, who lives in Hankasalmi in central Finland. Born in 1940, she is the granddaughter of Eva Talikka (1870-1950), who was Simo and John Talikka’s sister. Eva did not emigrate to America but remained in Finland. She was mother to Leena’s father Onni Kilpiö.
In her email, Leena told Doug how the family in Finland kept up with their many Talikka relations in the U.S. until 1951, when Onni Kilpiö received a letter from Oscar Strang in Ontonagon revealing the death of Strang’s stepdaughter Vieno Talikka in 1950. (Strang had married Mary Talikka after John died in 1928, and they continued to live on the Talikka farm in Green until her death in 1953.)
Then the Americans and the Finns lost touch with each other.
|Chart by Doug Karttunen. Click on it to view larger.|
Lillian is the daughter of George Bolo, who, Doug writes, “lived at the far south end of the Halfway River Road up until the early 1960s. George married Vieno Talikka, the daughter of John Talikka (and thus niece of Simon Talikka).”
A few of George and Vieno’s descendants still live in or about Ontonagon, and several more out of the area, Doug said.
Is Toivo Talikka of Nottingham related to Leena Kurra? Not directly, she thinks, but Toivo wrote that his father was born in the same municipality, Jaakkima, in Karelia, suggesting that there may be a distant connection. Doug is presently searching for it.
So there we have it, thanks to the power of the Internet and the longing of far-flung members of two families to find their missing relatives.