This letter from “H. H–n”, Nurmes, dated 18th January 1868 (published in Tapio, 8 Feb. 1868), describes the benevolence of doctor’s wife Mrs Lindfors, from Kuopio, who sent various provisions and cash (including paying for freight) for the most distressed children in Nurmes.

Mrs Lindfors’ donations – sent for redistribution to Pharmacist Fredrik Calonius in Nurmes – would probably have arrived too late for Perttu, Anni and their family, the (fictional) tragic protagonists of Juho Reijonen’s shocking short story, Nälkävuonna. They had been forced to leave their home in Kuohatti in late January 1868, and on the way to Nurmes had fallen in with a larger group of wanderers who were trying to escape the famine by heading for the Russian Karelian town of Aunus (or Olonets, about 500km distant). I have translated the story in full and it can be found in the three blog posts immediately preceding this one (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3). The short story also alludes to other areas where famine had been at its most extreme, and where today memorials can be found – such as Rautavaara and Lieksa.

Kirkkoharju, Nurmes, February 2017.

Although there is no national memorial in Finland for the Great Hunger Years, I am asked fairly regularly where such a monument might be eventually be erected. I’m not really sure whether such a memorial will actually be established in the future (although, of course, “the future” is a relatively long time) – but it seems to me that an appropriate place would be in one of the worst-hit regions: maybe in the Parkano / Hämeenkyrö / Kauhajoki region; maybe in the border regions around Northern & Central Ostrobothnia and Northern Savonia (in the vicinity of Ullava – Lestijärvi – Kärsämäki — in fact Pyhäjärvi, sitting on the junction of Road 4 and Road 27, would be a very accessible location); or then in the North Karelia / Kainuu / Northern Savonia marches between Sotkamo, Nurmes and Rautavaara. [In terms of a location currently without a memorial which occurs regularly in famine stories from the 1860s, the Kainuu parish of Hyrynsalmi, and might seem to be a good candidate]. The strong memory of the famine years in Nurmes, however, and the fact that its famine memorial was the first such memorial to be a named piece of public art, means that it ranks in my mind as one of Finland’s most striking 1860s monuments.

“Maaemon Syli”, Nurmes, Feb. 2017.

I have visited Nurmes in all seasons, and I feel a strong affinity with the town for reasons that I’ve not yet worked out. It was also the final stop in the small commemorative tour I made with Dr. Eliza Kraatari in May 2018. We visited several sites to mark the “end” of the Great Hunger Years, and lay wreaths that Dr. Kraatari had made from such items as lichen, moss, bark and other food surrogates. Details of this trip can be found on Eliza Kraatari’s own blog, in English and in Finnish.

Henri Jokela, “Muistoseppele nälkävuosien uhrien muistolle”, Ylä-Karjala, 31 May 2018.

Plans for a memorial had been in place in Nurmes for several years (Etelä-Suomen Sanomat, 18 Sep. 1962). Eventually inaugurated in 1965. The memorial in Nurmes was a pioneer among Finnish famine memorials in that it was a named piece of art, a relief by Veikko Jalava (see Heinävesi, above) entitled “Maaemon Syli” (“In the Lap of Mother Earth”). 

The inauguration speech (on the second Sunday after Pentecost, 1965) at the monument was given by provincial provost Aatto Koivisto. A wreath was laid by the descendants of Provost Karl Johan Engelberg, who had been the parish pastor during the worst of the famine years. Another indication that famine memorialization was entering a new stage in 1965 is that the unveiling of “Maaemon Syli” was accompanied by a 147-page book, edited by Yrjö Juustila. The local significance of the famine years is highlighted by the inclusion of the opening lines of Juho Reijonen’s short story Nälkävuonna (which focuses on the tribulations of a family from the Nurmes village of Kuohatti) in the preface of Juustila’s book. The foreword also explains that the Nurmes parish lost 1,218 inhabitants in 1868, buried in unmarked mass graves, and that to “honour these victims’ difficult battle for their daily bread”, the consortium of local organizations named on the memorial had commissioned Jalava’s sculpture. An additional aim was to connect those who died “to the members of the same families one hundred years later”, something that was achieved by naming all of the local famine dead, including date and cause of death.

Pages 72-3 of Juustila’s book, Maaemon Syli. Published to coincide with the inauguration of the memorial in Nurmes, this book lists all of the parishioners who died in 1867-68. These victims perished in January – February 1868, during the fictitious events of Reijonen’s Näkävuonna. On these two pages alone, various causes of death are listed, and the ages range from 6 days (Lars Kejonen’s son Josef), 1 month (Johan, the son of Petter Kaikkonen), to 90 years (Sven Rautiainen).

Location: Kirkkoharju, Nurmes (Nurmeksen Sankarihautausmaa); via entrance and steps on Pappilansuora.

Modern Municipality: Nurmes

Modern Region: North Karelia (Pohjois-Karjala)

Year of Memorial: 1965

Inscription:  “In memory of those who died of hunger in 1866, [this memorial] was erected in 1966. Nurmes Parish, Council, and Chamber of Commerce. Valtimo Parish and Council”.







Etelä-Suomen Sanomat, 18 Sep. 1962.

“Luettelo keräämisistä hädänalaisille Nurmeksen pitäjässä”, Tapio, 22 Feb. 1868.

“Nälkävuoden 1868 muistomerkki”, Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, 10 Jun. 1965.

H. H—n, “Nurmeksesta”, Tapio, 8 Feb. 1868.

Henri Jokela, “Muistoseppele nälkävuosien uhrien muistolle”, Ylä-Karjala, 31 May 2018.

Tuomas Jussila, “Nälkävirret: 1860-luvun nälkävuosien historiakuva Pietari Päivärinnan, Juho Reijosen ja Teuvo Pakkalan teoksissa” (Tampere University, Masters Thesis, 2013).

Yrjö Juustila, Maaemon Syli: 1860-luvun nälkävuosien nurmekselaisten uhrien muistolle (Nurmes, 1965).

Juho Reijonen, “Nälkävuonna (Karjalainen Kertomus)”, Nuori Suomi iii (1893), pp. 6-21.

Heikki Rissanen, “Maaemon syliin kätketyt”, Ylä-Karjala, 24 Apr. 2018.

Suomen Muistomerkit. Osa 10. Pohjois-Karjala (Nousiainen, 2000), p. 63.

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