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Don't Eat Chocolate Like it Was Bread

by Lea Springer about a month ago in immediate family · updated about a month ago
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A Father-Daughter Life Comparison in Tribute to my Father

Don't Eat Chocolate Like it Was Bread
Photo by Tetiana Bykovets on Unsplash


My father’s home was in Ingria, a little-known area in what is now within Russia’s borders, just east of the Gulf of Finland and Estonia. It had been fought over by Sweden and Russia for hundreds of years until it was ceded for the last time to Russia in the 1700's.

The Area of Ingria Outlined in Red

My father’s family were descendants of earlier Lutheran Finnish peasant farmers, so ethnically and linguistically Finnish with schools, churches and even a newspaper in their own language, who had been enticed by Sweden in the 1600’s to migrate into the area to strengthen Sweden’s hold over this much fought-over land.

(See video "Vuole" below. Skimming through this video of old photographs will give you a general idea of the parish where my father lived. His family info is at 2:17 & 2:22. English captions. )


"Don't eat chocolate like it was bread," you gently, but matter-of-factly, admonished me when I was about four years old and eating a chocolate bar (real chocolate, not a candy bar) far too quickly for your liking. It wasn't until decades later that I understood the significance behind your words, for chocolate had been part of your military rations and was meant to be savoured during a time and place in history when you were immersed in the chaos of war.

You were born in Finland in a house belonging to the landowner for whom your parents worked and where you lived with them and your siblings. It was a short distance away from the border of your parents’ home country from which they had fled the aftermath and turmoil of civil war in Russia and the rampages of Bolshevik soldiers who were terrorizing the area.

My Father (wearing a hat) With his Mother & Siblings

I was born in a hospital in a small, safe city in Sweden with doctors and nurses in attendance. My closest family members, you and my mother, and a grandparent from each of you, had moved to Sweden from Finland, but not because all of you had left because of dangerous situations or that anyone one had been terrorizing your homes. You were the only one among the family who sadly had fled to Sweden from imminent danger.

When you were 5 years old, Stalin encouraged all those who had gone to Finland, like your parents, to return to Russia with the assurance that they could take up residence in their former homes. Your mother, longing for the home she had left behind, loaded you and your infant brother onto the wagon, hitched the horses to the front and you were on your way through the forest, with one of your older sisters herding the family cows behind, heading back to Ingria, Russia.

Having made that fateful decision to return to Russia, you and your family were now trapped. There was no going back, for the border was closely guarded with manned watchtowers, and any attempt to even approach the area without permission, carried the risk of being shot.

When I was 5 years old, I lived in the same city and country in which I had been born and there had been no need to move to another for safety reasons. I had never been in danger from war or civil unrest, and I was secure in the midst of my family members in Sweden.

Reaching your home in Ingria, in a meadow, outside the village, was an unpleasant shock, as it was in shambles due to the destruction left behind by Bolshevik soldiers who had taken up residence in it and then had ransacked the building, stolen everything made of metal, including the oven door, torn down wooden outbuildings to use as firewood and broken all the windows. Fortunately, you were able to stay with your uncle in the village. As your father and one older sister had not yet returned from Finland, it was left to your mother to make the house liveable.

My first childhood home was in Sweden in the attic of a house in the countryside that was shared with you, my mother, and two grandparents. It may have been crowded, but I was safe and secure. In the midst of a housing crisis, you searched the city until you found a two-room apartment for us. Both homes may have been humble, but both were clean and comfortable. I slept in a soft bed with meticulously ironed sheets and ate with you and my mother at our wooden kitchen table by the warmth of the wood stove.

Having cleaned up your home so that you could finally move in, your mother went to work for the neighbors, leaving you at the age of 5, to do a few chores and look after your toddler brother. While you were sweeping the floor one morning, he slipped out to play in the pond behind your home and drowned. No one blamed you but it left you with a sad and heavy burden to carry for the rest of your life.

At the age of 5, I also had a 2-year-old sibling—a sister-- but I was not responsible in any way for her safety or for any household chores. With you and my mother both working full time, you hired an au pair to look after us during the day. We also had our grandmother close by to visit and play with her empty thread spools as she whirred away on her sewing machine.

At the age of 11 years, you witnessed the arrest of neighbours who were taken away by the state police. The fathers of each family were arrested on trumped-up charges to make it appear legal. Among them was your uncle, the village blacksmith, who was taken to the infamous Lubyanka prison in St. Petersburg. His family, as well as other neighbouring families, were given one week to pack up their belongings in preparation for being transported by cattle car to Siberia and other places in Russia’s interior, far from their native village homes; their only crime being their ethnicity as Ingrian Finns and living too close to the Finnish border for Stalin's liking. Your uncle subsequently died in the horrors of that prison after being held for two years.

By the time I was 11 years old, I was safely ensconced in a quiet neighbourhood learning the history of early North American explorers in my 5th grade class in Canada… but knowing nothing of your history or of the country that had once been your home. I thought you were also from Finland like my mother. The only relatives I had ever met were those in Sweden from my mother's side. I knew nothing about Ingria or your family's life and fate.

When you were 12 years old, Stalin instituted a system of collective farming that forced all villagers to join their lands and required everyone to work together. Cows, horses, wheels, carts, and all farm machinery had to be relinquished to the state’s collective, with only one cow allowed to be kept by each family.

Your parents joined in 1930 and worked every day at the communal farm where you also went to help in the fields. At harvest time, government officials procured large amounts for the state and what remained was divided among workers, according to hours worked. The amount your parents received for their year’s work lasted for only a three-month time period.

My Father's Parents

Life went on…things were getting worse and poorer. Store shelves were empty of food and goods—no sugar or tea. If something came in, there were long lineups of people waiting to buy them...there was a shortage of everything.

During the years of Stalin’s imposed collective farming in Russia, up to 12 million people (mostly peasant farmers) died of starvation because the state extracted large amounts of the harvest even during times of poor crop yields.

At the age of 12, I was still in elementary school, playing soft ball in a girls’ league and carrying home armloads of books from the local library. Saturdays were movie days after helping with some light household chores.

As both you and my mother had full-time jobs: you as a skilled machinist and my mother as a bookkeeper in a bank, neither of you were at home during school lunch times so my younger siblings and I were responsible for eating lunches on our own and returning to school on time.

But there was always food in our cupboards and more to be had at the grocery stores, so we never had to face a food shortage.

Life changed for you and your parents when they left the collective when you were 13. They had no recourse to recover the land, animals and equipment that they had previously relinquished. Even the small piece of land that was left to them was heavily taxed, as were the crops they managed to grow on it.

Taxes were to be paid with grain and potatoes and a certain amount of milk from the cow had to be given to the state each week. That left less food for your family’s needs and your father was forced to buy produce from others in order to pay the state tax. Had he not, he would have been put to work for the state with no pay.

In Canada, you and my mother also paid taxes on your earnings and property, but never at such a cruel and punishing rate that your children suffered or went without food. Unlike in Russia, our family in Canada, benefitted from the taxes you paid—to provide water, snow removal, garbage collection, policing, and fire protection.

We, as children, were not even aware of taxes, whereas you, from a young age, were directly affected and very aware of them as you witnessed milk and produce being taken away by state agents.

At the age of 14, you went to work along side your father with a horse and sleigh, hauling away cut logs in a state deforestation program to clear the border area. Your earnings were used to make up the shortfall caused by your father’s loss of pay.

He had sought out and fixed a broken sleigh from behind your uncle’s smithery that was much lighter and better designed to replace the clumsy, heavy one that he had been given. Accused of using state collective property without permission, as he was no longer a member, he was sentenced to continue his work without pay for one year.

I had completed my last year of elementary school at the age of 14 and was anticipating the excitement of high school. By this time, you had moved us closer to our respective schools so we wouldn’t have such a long walk.

We had light household chores and at times, weekend part-time jobs as well, but never did we have to give up school in order to help support the family or relinquish the money we earned to help our parents.

When the forestry work and your father's sentence of working for the state came to an end, other employment was difficult to find. He did find a job in St. Petersburg tending the heating systems in railway cars, a low paying one that also meant long absences from home.

And as you had not been able to find paid work, the family often went hungry as there was little money for food.

Your mother often spoke about regretting her decision to return to Ingria and her wish to go back to Finland secretly to live with her sister and brother. Life had been much easier and better there than it was in Ingria now that collectivization had been introduced as there were no jobs.

One fateful day in May 1935, when you were just 16, you made a brave decision that changed the course of your life-- you decided to make for the border and cross over to Finland.

Walking through forest and swamp all day and evening, while keeping an eye on the watchtowers, you reached the barb-wire- fenced border, crawled under it, and gave yourself up to the border guards on the Finnish side.

They took you into custody, questioned and observed you for several weeks, even threatening to return you to Russia-- which would have meant sentencing you to a work camp or even something worse.

Unknown to you, Russia was recruiting Finnish-speaking young Communist men and women at the time to be airlifted into Finland as spies which was the reason they held you in suspicion for so long.

Finding you to be, “honest, beyond reproach and a decent boy, (the Central Police respectfully propose that he) be granted entry and permission to remain to live in Finland…”.

An uncle in Helsinki agreed to take you in and you were given train tickets but warned not to tell anyone where you came from on your way.

At the age of 16, I was having a carefree life with my high school friends, playing the clarinet in the school band, enjoying dances and movie dates. Never had there been any reason for me to even think about leaving my home to face the world without my family. I was secure in knowing that both my parents would be home after their daily work hours were over.

My summers were spent at the cottage that you had built for us or working at resorts with others my own age where we had liberal time off to swim and boat. Life was an adventure, but without the risks and dangers that yours had been.

The next 4 years of your life in Finland saw you apprenticing in what would become your life-long trade-- until that morning in 1939 when you saw Russian bombers flying overhead heading toward Helsinki.

Russia launched an attack on Finland for no reason other than Finland’s refusal to give up part of its land and the “Winter War” had begun.

Shortly after your 21st birthday, you enlisted in the Finnish Armed Forces and served in two wars, both started by Russia with just a 15- month interim peace between them.

My Father on his 18th Birthday in Helsinki, Finland

At 23, you were engaged in your first firefight during a mission as you dragged an injured fellow soldier to safety behind a snow mound while a Soviet sniper’s bullets sprayed snow all around you.

When I was 23 at my first teaching job, having flown into a remote northern village, the only “danger” I faced was bad weather that prevented planes from landing.

That meant no mail or fresh food. Moose meat was substituted for beef and canned foods for fresh…but the only shooting that took place was that of the villagers who supplemented their family's meals with moose meat.

During your more than 4 years as a member of the secret special forces battalion that sent small patrols far behind enemy lines to conduct surveillance, you faced daily dangers.

Even in 1944, at the end of the last war, you found yourself in danger as Stalin was demanding the return of all Ingrians who were living in Finland. The Finnish government, in fear of reprisals, had no recourse but to comply.

Hearing that members of your secret patrol were being rounded up and taken in for questioning, put you in double jeopardy as you were also still a defacto Russian citizen.

The promise of automatic Finnish citizenship made to you by the Finnish government when you enlisted hadn't materialized in the post-war chaos, so you were one of the thousands in imminent danger of being forcibly sent back to Russia.

Many Ingrians fled to Sweden to avoid forced removal to Russia. You skied across the frozen river that forms the border between Finland and Sweden in the dead of night and were admitted into the country as a political refugee.

After living in Sweden for several years you and my mother made the brave decision to move the family to Canada. Officially the reason given for leaving was the abysmal housing situation.

But I have since learned that Soviet agents with lists of names and addresses of former Ingrians, as well as of those from Baltic countries, then under Soviet rule, were in Sweden, knocking on doors to persuade or force people to return to Russia.

I know from photos in your album that you met up with mysterious men (were they Russian agents?) to hold discussions, and that one had been a former patrol buddy-- had he come to warn you?

With only a smattering of English, but knowing there was a steel industry in Ontario in which you might find employment, you set out alone to explore the possibilities and within a short time, you had secured a job that matched your skills, as well as a rental house ready for your family’s arrival.

Moving to Canada with my mother and siblings was the first of my real life adventures as we sailed across the Atlantic. Waving goodbye to my grandmother at the pier in Sweden is still an almost surreal memory as it didn't really fully register with me that I would never see her again.

But finally arriving at the house you had found for us was a joyful reunion and to think that you had found us a house with fruit trees (I especially remember the peach tree) and berry bushes, made me forget for a while the sadness of leaving my grandmother and all I had known in Sweden.

And that brings us back to the conversation about eating chocolate and bread. After reading your memoirs, I have come to the realization that “chocolate” represents something more than just a part of your military rations.

It represents the special things in life—freedom, family, friends and happy, prosperous times that are meant to be treasured, savoured and celebrated, but never taken for granted, for they can be lost or taken away by unpredictable fate.

“Bread”, on the other hand, even though at times scarce in your early life, represents the more mundane but necessary activities that are part of daily life—commuting to work, paying taxes, mowing the lawn, washing the car.

If one has access and the means to enjoy both, then life is truly blessed; something, that as a father, you instilled in your children.

And “chocolate” isn't something that is always given or comes easily to a person-- it is earned by working for it, which was the reason we had part- time jobs at an early age. We weren’t coerced into them, but searching for one was something we learned innately from your example.

You also taught us not to take anything for granted. There was a time when you heard one of our friends remark, “You have a TV!” and our reply, “Of course”, was immediately met by your rejoinder, “Not of course!” meaning that having one should not be taken for granted.

But how did you do it, Dad—after all the deprivations, dangers and losses in your life? How did you remain so optimistic and sure of life?

You set the bar high for us, Dad, with your life’s accomplishments. There were seldom any obstacles that you were not able to overcome, but you were also modest about them. But it wasn’t just about your achievements, but more importantly, about the quality of life that you gave us.

You were more engaged in our lives than any other of our friends’ fathers. You filled our childhood with summer weekend trips to beaches near and far, to camping trips in Algonquin Park, and day trips as far away as Niagara Falls before you built us a cottage that became our summer destination. There were always places and destinations to explore and you revelled in the freedom to be able to visit them with your family.

Family at Niagara Falls

Winter weekends were filled with skiing trips when you taught us the skills you were so expert in--that had been life-saving ones for you while on patrols during the war, sometimes forced to ski day and night to out- distance yourself from Soviet pursuers.

Eventually when your children moved to distant parts of the country, you ventured out driving a whole day to reach one of us or flying across the country to visit another one. Nowhere was too far away for a visit with your children.

Your Small Patrol Group on Skis In Soviet Territory

The most treasured legacy you left for us was your memoir, the story of your life, times and family. It enriched, expanded and instilled in us a new appreciation of our roots and heritage. We were aware of our Finnish identity by virtue of the language we spoke, but we were still just a small nuclear immigrant family, with no other relatives in this country and little knowledge of the lives of our ancestors until you told your full story.

You did tell us a few tales when we were young as we sat in the semi-darkness of the livng room totally enrapt in the story about sharing loaves of bread with some Russian villagers during one of your intelligence- gathering patrols, or of the Russian soldier sitting in a nearby Finnish tent, tending to their fire one night while the Finns slept. You once began a story with the words, “When the old Czar died….”, but we had no idea of the full context and circumstances of those events.

The most valuable gift parents can bestow on their family is knowledge of their historical and cultural roots, not to create separation from other cultures around them, but to ensure they do not see themselves as just flotsam in a multi-cultural milieu with no attachment to one of their own.

That surely must be the reason for many people to engage in genealogy at some point in their lives. There seems to be a cultural imperative to discover one’s “tribe”—and you gave us ours.

Your memoirs established the time and place of our ancestors, and by extension, we, their descendants, learned how our family came to be, buffeted and shaped, at times very cruelly, by the vagaries of history.

You recorded your story first with paper and pencil and then at the age of 84, you bought your first computer and even though legally blind, you began pecking away to rewrite it, your only complaint being that the keyboard letters were not in alphabetical order.

You would be pleased and somewhat humbled to know that your memoirs were published in six installments in a veterans’ publication in Finland whose editor had asked you to send them. Sadly, you had already passed away before that Finnish version was published.

Since then I have had them translated to English and have published both versions on Amazon as official “Suomi-Finland 100” projects in 2017 to celebrate Finland’s centenary. So, your legacy lives on, Dad, not only with your family, but with others around the world.

Having read or been told parts of your story, some of your grandchildren have already been to places in Finland and Sweden that you wrote about, and your younger great-grandchildren are eager to do so when they’re old enough.

Sadly, your Ingrian home village area is no longer in existence, having been replaced by an inaccessible military installation and Russia is not currently open to visitors due to its incursion into Ukraine, leaving communication with family members still living there impossible.

I know that would weigh heavily in your heart, remembering how you longingly had wished for one more visit to your home village shortly before your death.

Thank you, Dad, for the bountiful “chocolate” you gave us throughout your life and for teaching us about “bread”; lessons that hopefully our own children will also remember and live by. We treasure your memories.

For my father's full story: https://www.amazon.ca/Crossing-Borders-Refugee-Freedom-Fighter/dp/B09SBRGDL4/ref=sr_1_3?crid=UH8A71IEJ1R0&keywords=eva+mckay&qid=1656893686&sprefix=eva+mckay%2Caps%2C75&sr=8-3

immediate family

About the author

Lea Springer

I have one published children's story on Amazon & another on the way. I edited and annotated my father's memoir, "Crossing Borders: From Refugee to Freedom Fighter and Beyond" (Amazon), which describes his life's journey from Russia.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (4)

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  • J. Delaney-Howeabout a month ago

    Great family history told so well.

  • Jennifer Trueabout a month ago

    Fascinating history and story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  • Kendall Defoeabout a month ago

    This was truly fantastic. Thank you for sharing this narrative!

  • Heather Hublerabout a month ago

    That was so well done :) I enjoyed going on that journey with you and your father. What an extraordinary life he led. Thank you for sharing it.

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