The Finnish Independence Day is December 6th. This year the local LA Finns celebrated it early at the Marriott in Sherman Oaks. The superbly-organized gala evening attracted about a hundred people in the hotel’s grand ballroom. Gourmet salad, chicken and vegetarian entrees, and ice cream with white chocolate were on the menu. They went down with either red or white wine. Later on many Finns were delighted to find out that strong Sisu booze was available at the bar.

This year a spotlight shone on those, without whom there wouldn’t be an independent Finland as we know it. There are about a dozen Finnish war veterans still living in Southern California, plus just a handful of Lottas (female volunteers of the Finnish Armed Forces ). All but a couple made it to the party. Ava Anttila gave a moving speech, in which she recognized the sacrifice the veterans had given to their country.

Finnish war veteran Ari Antiila with daughter Ava

“Finnish Independence Day on December 6th is a solemn, reverent homage to the SISU of our fathers and mothers who ‘told’ Russia they could not take back Finland in 1939 –independent only since 1917.  Finns do not like change—and they certainly do not respond well to being told what to do!,” Ava explained.

Click here for the full text of Ava Anttila’s speech

Ava then produced a small wooden box, explaining that her father Ari gave it to her. In the box there were war time leaflets, urging Finns to put down their weapons and surrender – courtesy of Russians.  The now 87-year-old Finnish war veteran Ari Anttila, completed the story. The Germans had spread boxes like that throughout the forests in the eastern front. They were made of wood as not to be able to be detected by a metal detector and to make them look like something one would like to pick up and take home. But each box was filled with explosives and upon opening would have exploded, doing some serious bodily damage to the poor soul who opened it. Ari, who served in the Continuation War as a Corporal, explained that they used to prod them carefully with long sticks. This particular box had not exploded. He had taken it home, kept it all these years and even brought it along to America, where he emigrated with his family in 1959. Not well enough to attend was Ava’s mother Raija, but no doubt she was there in spirit. Raija is one of those few remaining Lottas that are still with us. Lilja and Vincent, around five years old, hand-delivered a small, wooden Finnish flag to each veteran and Lotta in attendance. That brought tears to many an eye.

Honorary Council Kathryn Mautino of San Diego delivered official greetings from the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö.

Then there were the official greetings from the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, delivered by the Honorary Council Kathryn Mautino of San Diego. In the early part of the evening we were treated to some cello music by Pauliina Haustein, née Pölönen from Nurmijärvi. Pauliina, 26, studied cello at the Sibelius Academy. She met her future husband, Martin Haustein at a music festival in Hungary. Martin is a neurobiologist, working as a researcher at UCLA. The Hausteins have made their home in LA just for a year, but it has been a successful one. Pauliina recently got a coveted seat as an understudy at the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the summer home of the LA Phil. She will replace the regular cellist in case of an illness. And just last Friday Pauliina made her big Hollywood debut as a cellist on the hit show Glee. Pauliina can be seen on episode 11 of the current 4th season. Fans of Pauliina can hear her beautiful music during the regularly scheduled Finnish church services at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Santa Monica.

Cellist Pauliina Haustein, née Pölönen, with husband Martin Haustein.

Outside on the patio party guests exchanged news. Businessman Kimmo Piironen, a barcode industry expert, had just returned from a business trip to France. In the past with a longer hairdo, one could mistake him for Conan O’Brien.

“Food in Lyon is much better than in Paris,” Kimmo hinted.

Tuomas Keskinen, 32, was there. The younger set might remember Tuomas as the ex-guitarist of the Finnish rock band Negative. These days Kimmo leads a dual life. During summers he works in Finland. Last summer he performed 150 concerts. In the winters he works in a recording studio in Hollywood owned by a fellow Finn and an Ostrobothnia resident Jimmy Westerlund. Tuomas plans to spend this Christmas with his parents in Finland. The Keskinen family house in Lappajärvi is located in an idyllic setting – on an island with only 50 inhabitants.

Tuomas Keskinen with the ever so beautiful Kristina Duff

The star performer of the evening was Pepe Willberg, 65. Pepe’s career has lasted amazing 50 years. Last year he was awarded the prestigious Iskelmä-Finlandia, a music award for popular music comparable to a lifetime Grammy. Pepe and his wife Pauliina had not been to LA before. Pepe told me he had visited San Francisco some 15 years ago. They first visited New York for a couple of days, then flew into LA four days before the show. Pepe said they had been doing a lot of sight seeing and had spent hardly any time in their hotel room except to sleep. Pepe was bewildered about the “chaotic” traffic of the city of angels. When he returns to Finland, he will give Christmas concerts in Turku and Helsinki. Pepe and Pauliina also sing in a choir, so Helsinki residents and visitors, look out for those upcoming choir concerts there as well.

Finnish icon Pepe Willberg

Willberg, accompanied by Jouko and Sari Nyqvist, had selected his program thoughtfully. The first set consisted of songs familiar to the WW II generation. Among others, we heard the beautiful “Romanssi” from the Finnish war time hit movie “Katariina ja Munniniemen kreivi”, (Katariina and the Count of Munkkiniemi). There was also a moving moment, when Willberg announced that the lyrics for his next song “Niitty”, (meadow), were written by his good friend, poet Tommy Tabermann, who died a little over two years ago of brain cancer at 62. Tommy’s older sister, the cosmetics queen Marita Tabermann was sitting in the audience. She was moved by this lovely tribute to her late brother. As the Sisu-booze took effect, more and more couples overcame their shyness and took to the dance floor to the tune of the master crooner Pepe Willberg. He was in fine form, the unmistakable, original velvety voice untouched by years. He is a man of contrasts – soft-spoken, even a little distant when you talk to him, but oh boy, when he starts to sing. It is as if though he possessed the master key to all the yearnings, secrets and desires of the heart.

Comedian Josh Steinberg

After the solemn start, comic relief was delivered by Josh Steinberg, who had spent some serious time in Finland. His observational humor went to the jugular. Among other humorous quips, he complained having had difficulties in landing a job in Finland, where formal degrees are worshipped to the high heavens.

“Even to be an auto mechanic in Finland you need a degree in engineering!”

Pepe Willberg with Mikko Koskinen

The other singer of the evening was Mikko Koskinen, who belted out contemporary Finnish pop tunes. There was a silent auction going on at a side table with art, food, wine and other goodies. A Teemu Selänne signed hockey jersey had gone up to $310 last time I looked.

I had the incredible honor of interviewing  Finnish war veteran Veikko Kautiainen, 85, and I hope to do justice to his story. Veikko was born in Kemi, Northern Finland in 1927. His father died when the boy was eight years old. Mom took him and two sisters to Petsamo (that other “arm” of Finland that was lost to Russians in the war). The gold rush was going on and she supported her family as a seamstress, employing a couple of other ladies. They would make and mend men’s clothing. In the fall of 1939 the Russians invaded Petsamo and the civilian population was evacuated. Veikko was 13 at the time.

Finnish war veteran Veikko Kautiainen with wife Aino and daughter Kathryn

“We watched from the other side of the lake as Finns burned down our home village, Salmijärvi, so that the Russians wouldn’t get it. It was heart wrenching.”

The family fled to Narvik, Northern Norway. But unbeknownst to them, the town was a prime target for the allied. For it was through Narvik that the Germans shipped iron ore, produced in Kiiruna, Sweden, back to the Third Reich. So the allied started bombing Narvik and again the Kautiainen family had to flee – this time to a nearby fjord. They realized that it had been a mistake to go to Norway. After six months they returned to Finland. At first, they went back to Petsamo, but there was nothing left there but ruins. So they settled in Kemi.

“There I joined the military boys, sotapojat, a voluntary organization for underage boys who wanted to serve. I thought that there I’d at least get food a roof over my head.”

Veikko never returned home after that. He first served as a messenger. After a short truce with the Russians, the Continuation War broke out in June of 1941 with a Soviet offensive. Veikko served in the strategic air defense (ilmatorjuntapatteri), and stayed until the end of the war in September, 1944. After the war Veikko remained in the army. After having been properly trained, he got into the car company and says having enjoyed driving (he still drives around town by himself and just got a five year driver’s license). Finally in 1948 Veikko was discharged from the army. He worked odd jobs at as a lumberjack, carpenter and postman. Then in 1949 he moved to Sweden. There were recruiters there from Canada, who enticed young, able-bodied men to immigrate there. So, in 1951 he said goodbye to the old continent and headed west to Canada.

“I was in London, Ontario. My first job was a dish washer for 50 cents an hour,” he chuckles.

He got a job as a lumberjack in the forests of Northern Ontario. But the winters were too cold there for even the robust Finn. His next job was a miner in a town called South Porcupine – right next to Finntown, Ontario. He met a young lady named Aino, who also was from a Finnish stock. They married in 1954. Life in the Canadian wilderness was harsh, so Veikko filled out paperwork to immigrate to the U.S. Three and a half years later the papers came through and in 1962 – 50 years ago – Aino and Veikko Kautiainen moved to North Hollywood, California. They still live there today.

Tomi Hinkkanen interviews Finnish war veteran Veikko Kautiainen

“I’ve been an extension of the hammer all these years,” Veikko responds, when I ask about his work.

By that he means that for decades he worked in construction and also has a contractor’s license. Veikko has been retired for the past 24 years and he has visited Finland every single year, except this year. Aino and Veikko had three children, two of whom are alive. Their son Jimmy took after his father and is a construction supervisor. Daughter Kathryn married a Texan and moved to Dallas. She visited her parents and came to the independence ball. At the end of our meeting, I ask this Finnish war hero, what does independence mean to him. He responds modestly:

“It’s nice to be independent.”

It is, indeed. Thank you, Veikko and others like you!

Lotta Sirkka Toth shared her rendition of a beautiful poem

Slideshow with Music:

SUOMI 95, Los Angeles

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