Self, Place, and Memory: Spatial Trauma Among British and Finnish War Children

  • Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-ArponenEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Geographies of Children and Young People book series (GCYP, volume 11)


This chapter discusses the existential relations of self and place among war children. During World War II, more than 1.6 million British and Finnish children of various ages were sent away for safety from their homes either within their country or abroad. Forced displacement changed children’s familial social and physical environment and created fractures in spatial belonging. War children’s oral accounts on displacement describe a sense of placelessness, irrespective of the length or physical distance of their displacement. Typically, war children’s autobiographical memories of their displacement are fragmented and temporally disoriented. However, recalled memories often include emotionally and bodily vivid accounts on particular events, places, smells, sounds, and kinesthetic information. Given the ambiguousness of displacement experience, the concept of spatial trauma is introduced here. Spatial trauma means that forced displacement has created drastic, bodily experienced and memorized, psychophysical experiences that continue to affect people’s ties, sights, and practices of belonging later in their life. Empirically, this chapter is based on oral narrative interviews and written memories. It looks at how displacement experiences and partial effacements of memories affected war children’s sense of belonging. What kinds of socio-spatial coping mechanisms were deployed during the displacement? How and what do former war children tell about their experiences, and how does spatial trauma practically manifest itself in their childhood memories and their overall life course? By tracing existential spatial practices, this chapter provides new insights into postwar and post-conflict literature on the experiences and aftercare of displaced people.


Forced displacement Spatial trauma War child World War II Great Britain and Finland 

1 Introduction

Spatial belonging is one of the key features defining human experience. The question of one’s belonging becomes ambiguous when forced displacement , due to war or conflict, occurs. Daily practices of displaced people are often in fact part of wider transcultural tactics of belonging, and for example, transnational geopolitics becomes manifested in and through the body (Carter 2005; Puumala and Pehkonen 2010). Whereas contemporary psychosocial interventions and research focus much on the handling of violence-related memories and mental health of the forcibly displaced (e.g., Reed et al. 2011), less is known about the psychological effects of war on children and youth (e.g., Gabarino and Kostelny 1996; Goldstein et al. 1997; Dybdahl 2001, p. 1214; Peltonen and Punamäki 2010) and even less about the meaning of spatial fractures in the subjective life span (Kuusisto-Arponen 2008, 2009, 2011a, b). This chapter discusses the memories of displacement among Finnish and British war children and how these fragmented emotive-spatial experiences evolved into spatial trauma . It looks at how displacement experiences and partial effacements of memories affected war children’s sense of belonging. What kinds of socio-spatial coping mechanisms were deployed during the displacement? How and what do former war children tell about their experiences, and how does spatial trauma practically manifest itself in their childhood memories and their overall life course? By tracing existential spatial practices, this chapter provides new insights into postwar and post-conflict literature on the experiences and aftercare of displaced people.

Empirically, the chapter is based on 32 narrative interviews with Finnish war children, conducted by the researcher between 2005 and 2007, and on written accounts of British evacuee children’s experiences. The book by Schweitzer et al. (1990), Goodnight children everywhere: Memories of evacuation in World War II, includes 80 stories, of which 63 are stories by war children evacuated from London. Out of these, 61 children were evacuated within the country and two were sent abroad. Some of the children sent to the countryside traveled with their mothers, and sometimes, entire school classes were also evacuated. British overseas evacuation experiences are analysed also from the findings of Michael Fethney's (1990/2000) book “The Absurd and Brave” which is based on survey of 90 former war children. All empirical accounts have been collected several decades after the war, and therefore, it is adults or now elderly people who tell about their experiences. The Finnish research data is presented anonymously: only the war child’s gender is stated in the citations. The British recollections give the name and the age of the person, as in Schweitzer et al. (1990). Narrative analysis was applied to the entire data (Wiles et al. 2005). Particular attention was paid to how these former war children describe their childhood evacuation, what they remember, what emotions and bodily memories they report, and when and where the fragmentation of memories occurred. Experiences of children evacuated within their home country were compared to the experiences of those sent abroad.

2 The Evacuation of British and Finnish Children in World War II

In recent decades, a good deal of research has been conducted on memories of World War II. The focus has changed from war history to collection of oral histories and experiential narrations. This growing interest is worldwide (e.g., Young 1993; Edkins 2003; Till 2005; Till and Kuusisto-Arponen 2015). Several societal developments have led to this interest: the end of the Cold War and other geopolitical shifts in the world order, the release of classified files in several national and military archives, and the generation of the war veterans passing away. Simultaneously, the experiences of children and youth during the war have attracted more attention. In contemporary research, these former war children are not seen as silent victims of war, who should not recall their wartime experiences, but as active subjects in their own life: then and now. This was not the case in the immediate aftermath of the war, when many experiential and autobiographical memories were suppressed by official geopolitical discourses of postwar societies all over Europe. This social and political silencing equally applied to former war children, now in their 70s and 80s, who after the war were marginalized through two different practices. First, children and youngsters were rarely asked by adults how they had experienced their wartime displacement. Second, these war children often assumed that taking up these issues was not a good idea in war-torn families. Thus, it is only quite recently that nonfiction, memory anthologies, and autobiographies on children’s war experiences have been published (e.g., Goodman 2005; Näre et al. 2007). In addition, peer groups and local associations for World War II children have been founded both in Great Britain and Finland during the 1990s (Evacuee Reunion Association in Great Britain and Sotalapset-Krigsbarn in Finland).

The term war child (kriegskind) was established after World War I when many Austrian and German children were sent to neighboring countries due to poor living conditions and lack of food in their home regions. Also, during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), children were sent to France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Mexico (Legarreta 1984). In this chapter, war child refers both to British children who, mostly without their parents, were sent either to the countryside or abroad and to Finnish unaccompanied children who were sent to other Nordic countries during World War II. During the Winter War (1939–1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944) in Finland, about 70,000–80,000 children were sent to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Kavén 1994/2003). These war children were relocated to foster families or children’s homes. In the United Kingdom, 1.5 million British children were sent to the countryside. In addition, the British Government established the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), which organized 2600 child evacuees to be sent to Commonwealth countries (such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Canada) and the United States. This scheme operated for only a few months during the summer and fall of 1940 and was called off because SS City of Benares, one of the evacuation vessels, sank when torpedoed by a U-boat (Fethney 1990/2000). After the CORB scheme was canceled, most of the British overseas evacuations were privately organized, and an estimated 17,000 British children were sent abroad (Parsons 1998, pp. 169–171).

3 Self and Sense of Placelessness

In order to understand war children’s experiences of evacuation in relation to senses of place and self, it is helpful to draw on humanist approaches in geography. Humanist geographers became interested in the experiential nature of place in the early 1970s (Relph 1976; Tuan 1977). They focused on the existential relations between self and place: what constitutes spatial experience, how people are affected by place, and how place evolves in people’s socio-material relations. In 1976, the geographer Edward Relph wrote the seminal book on Place and Placelessness. For Relph (1976. p. 43), “the essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines places as profound centres of human existence.” He also stated that “people are their place and a place is its people” (Relph 1976, p. 34). Relph was worried about the assumed disappearance of the distinctiveness of places. He argued that the making of standardized landscapes destroys meaningful places and in the end leads to placelessness, i.e., place’s inability to create senses of belonging and emotional attachment (cf. Casey 2001: thin and thick place). Relph’s strong arguments need to be understood in the context of early critiques of globalization and its effects on localities. In contemporary geographical understandings, place is understood as processual and constantly evolving, but these qualities are not considered a threat to the existence of particularity or intimate relations of the self and the spatial (e.g., Cresswell 2004; Massey 2005).

According to Mathis Stock (2000), the essence of place is constructed in a subjective relationship between individuals and a place. “The word subjective signifies the relevance to subjects and not to the particular individual: hence the sense of place may be the same for many people” (Stock 2000, p. 616). Experiences of place are personal, but by nature, the sense of place is intersubjective (Kuusisto-Arponen 2009, p. 549). Sense of place and spatial belonging are created through several mobilities: mobility of people, geographical thought, and imaginative landscapes (Ashworth and Graham 2005). Further, Kevin Hetherington (1997) argues that places are relational and existing in similitude. They should be understood as in the process of being placed in relation to, rather than just being there (Hetherington 1997, p. 188). It is in this constant process of becoming that the sense of place is formed and lived.

Whereas there are many visually and narratively communicable aspects of sense of place, some are indeed nonrepresentational, unreflected, and intuitive. Studying relational and constantly changing places is nothing new in geography, but there is still a need to conceptualize and empirically examine the semi-unconscious and nonnarrative elements of bodily experiences of place (Kuusisto-Arponen 2011a, b). The embodied experiences of particular places are personal, but even those have intersubjective meanings that easily evolve into communal identity politics. These affective dimensions and relationships of people and places are crucial in understanding the significance of displacement experiences and the essence of diasporic spaces and practices (e.g., Brah 1996). Thus, placelessness in contemporary geographical thought is not seen as a threat to the existence of the particularity of a place, nor does it mean that a global sense of place cannot exist (on misinterpretations of Relph’s book, see Seamon and Sowers 2008). Instead, placelessness is indicative of the existential fractures in the relationship of self and place (Kuusisto-Arponen 2014).

Placelessness is one dimension of experiential place. It is created in conscious and unselfconscious lived experiences of place (Relph 1976, pp. 65–67). Already Relph (1976, pp. 38–39) pointed out that people’s rootedness is born out of significant places that evoke affection and care. In the case of forced displacement, this dwelling place of being is profoundly changed and a sense of placelessness appears (Relph 1976, p. 39). Individuals interpret these fractions in spatial belonging as rootlessness. Mindy Fullilove (2004) calls this forceful separation of people and places root shock (Fullilove 1996, 2004). Topological narrations of not belonging are, however, only one aspect of the fractured sense of place (cf. Relph 1976). It is argued here that several non-topographic phenomena and practices exist which clarify the significance of placelessness experiences in people’s life course and explain the vagueness of narrated war-related memories.

War children experienced several placings (both physical and ontological) during wartime. Leaving the familial environment led to multiple personal negotiations where sites and ties of belonging were sought and newly defined. Several studies have concluded that in a traumatic situation, such as forced displacement or war, children’s psychophysical defense mechanisms and coping strategies are activated (e.g., Fernando and Ferrari 2013). These affect children’s abilities to recall and to remember traumatic events and might even lead to distortion of autobiographical memories throughout their later life (Meesters et al. 2000). On these occasions, forced displacement has resulted in a spatial trauma (Kuusisto-Arponen 2008). It is argued here that the denial of the existential emotive-spatial relations among war children simultaneously led to losing part of their selfhood and suppressed their place identity from fully developing. This, however, occurred only partially consciously. The contextual and psychological conditions of the development of spatial trauma are discussed in the following section.

4 Spatial Trauma : Multidisciplinary Approach

The fractures in the sense of belonging form the key element in understanding and analyzing the long-lasting effects of forced displacement. It has been concluded that spatial trauma sometimes develops especially in those situations where forced displacement has created drastic, often bodily experienced and memorized, psychophysical experiences (Kuusisto-Arponen 2008). Spatial trauma is considered a conceptual tool, not a clinical indicator, characterized by the prolonged sense of placelessness, difficulties in oral expressions of childhood displacement experiences, and blurred memories of traveling, but also by extremely accurate and vivid memories of specific emotional events and places. Moreover, the concept of spatial trauma should not be associated with negative connotations of persistent traumatization but as a way to elaborate altered dynamics in the existential interconnectedness of self, place, and memory due to forced displacement. Trauma in this context refers to fractures in relating self and place, which have started to define the autobiographical memories, lived experience, and attitudes toward future spatial belongings. Thus, spatial trauma as a concept enables studying of the cultural meanings, contextual nuances, and possible universal features of emotive-spatial tactics employed in the situation of forced displacement.

In Humanistic and Social Sciences, memories and mnemonic practices are often studied without connecting these to human physiology or memory systems and functions. In other words, Oral History and Memory Studies scholars seem to focus exclusively on the narrated outcome, i.e., people’s verbal and written recollections of their experiences. This is characteristic of the disciplinary traditions mentioned above and their epistemologies, but it is argued here that more attention also needs to be paid to the memory structures and functions which actually define how the narrative autobiographical data is recalled and which memories become voluntarily available and which are left in silence or appear involuntarily. This chapter combines the approach of humanistic geography and memory studies with (neuro)psychological and trauma research. The purpose is to explain why some typical practices of narrating displacement memories occur and to create new and novel ideas in explaining the long-term effects of forced displacement on individuals and communities. The multidisciplinary approach enables one to simultaneously analyze how the spatial trauma develops, how it is reflected in and through autobiographical memories, as well as how and with what consequences the coping strategies are applied.

5 Displacement as Traumatic Event in Childhood

Typical for all trauma memories is that they are overgeneralized and not integrated into autobiographical memory on the same emotional level as other important events (Schönfeld et al. 2007). Traumatic memories are often narratively fragmented and mix up temporal order (e.g., Bremner 2008; Dalgleish et al. 2008). The American psychiatrist Lenore Terr has studied the traumatic memories of children and young people and especially what happens to these memories in adulthood (e.g., Terr 1994; Terr et al. 1997). Her interest has been on the mechanisms that prevent people from recalling some difficult memories of their childhood. Terr argues that children often retrieve place and, for example, clothing from the traumatic event (Terr 1994/1997, p. 72). Places are not only remembered as descriptions of physical sites but as visualized and bodily experienced sensations. Depending on the type of childhood trauma, different characteristics appear (Terr 2003, pp. 327–331). The first type of childhood trauma means single-blow traumas, the second type refers to multiple or long-standing traumas, and the third type is a crossover between the first two. In the case of war children, the crossover type of trauma occurs. Typically, these crossover trauma children have lost something permanently: for example, their parent(s), home, or health. They experience a single-blow trauma, resulting in long-standing effects in their later life or even adulthood. The type three children are exposed to prolonged sadness and pain, from which they try to escape, for example, through numbing or significant character changes. Children suffering such a traumatic event can still have full, detailed and etched-in memories, but they may be partial and fragmented, and mistiming and misperceptions may also occur. Children try to work through the memories by searching for and giving explanations to why the event happened, how it could have been reverted, etc. (Terr 2003, pp. 331–332).

It has been noted that refugee children, for instance, suffer from crossover trauma and have a high rate of depression in their adulthood (Terr 2003, p. 332, see also Yule 2002). Similarly, research on Finnish war children reports that some have high levels of depression over 60 years after World War II. Further, this traumatic experience in early childhood is associated with significant alterations in reproductive and marital traits among former war children (Pesonen et al. 2007, 2008). The research data on British war children’s psychosocial well-being is more ambivalent in this matter. Some studies show that child evacuees were more likely to have insecure attachment styles than the control group (Foster et al. 2003). On the other hand, Tennant et al. (1982), as well as Birtchnell and Kennard (1984), reported no differences in mental health or no raised levels of depression. These clinical studies, however, show that long-term social and mental risk factors of childhood displacement are possible. More importantly, it has been recently acknowledged that traumatic experiences of displacement continue to affect autobiographical memory and ways children and adults narrate their childhood experiences (Howe et al. 2004; Peltonen and Punamäki 2010, pp. 97–98).

6 Self, Memory , and Socio-Material Context: Connections and Disjunctions

In order to understand spatial trauma implicated in narrative and situational sensational memories, there still are some intriguing questions to be answered. What happens to memory structures when a traumatic event is experienced in childhood? How are self, place, and memory psychologically connected? The entire twentieth century is said to be “the golden era” of (neuro)psychological memory research, even though several still unresolved questions of the functional roles between hippocampal and medial prefrontal cortex and related limbic structures exist (Moscovitch et al. 2005). Several researchers have concluded that the hippocampus (and related limbic structures) has a crucial function in the recalling of experiences (e.g., Moscovitch et al. 2005; Bremner 2008). It connects and integrates different types of memory functions. The hippocampus is the site for episodic (autobiographical) and spatial memory. Spatial memory consists of detailed spatial representations of experienced environments, topographic elements, and elements comprising the environment, such as houses, streets, trees, etc. Episodic memory includes particular autobiographical episodes and events in the individual’s life. It contains information both on the content of the experience and the spatial and temporal context (Moscovitch et al. 2005, pp. 39–40). Bremner and Narayan (1998) have concluded that extreme stress and trauma during childhood can have lasting effects on hippocampal-based learning and memory (also Bremner 2008). Studies also indicate that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during childhood affects mental health and memories in adulthood. Only recent brain imaging techniques have verified that both traumatic stress and PTSD change hippocampal functions and can result in the fragmentation of the episodic memories of childhood and the appearance of intrusive memories, flashbacks, and pathological emotions (Bremner 2008). This partly explains the effacement and fragmentation of the autobiographical memories of war children.

These clinical and neurological studies of traumatized children support the findings of several oral history interviews of former war children, which report similar experiences (Kuusisto-Arponen 2009, 2011b). Here the concept of spatial trauma is not a clinical indicator, nor is the aim of this chapter to make any neurological claims. However, strong evidence on psychological research verifies that experiences described by the former war children in their oral narrations actually illustrate the typical changes in recalling memories and the challenges for traumatized children’s emotive-spatial attachment. This conclusion is not enough to explain why certain coping strategies were applied and what effects the forced displacement had on children’s later life. In order to understand the wider picture of wartime forced displacement experiences, social and contextual factors need to be taken into account. Along with Nelson and Fivush (2004, p. 488), it is argued here that “autobiographical memory depends partly on neurological developments necessary for the development of memory and, specifically, episodic memory, but that autobiographical memory emerges from interactive development across social, cognitive and communicative domains to serve the functional goals.” Thus, examination of the existential fractions in relations between self, place, and memory requires a socio-materially and historically contextual approach.

Several contextual factors created the conditions for the development of spatial trauma among British and Finnish war children. First, these children were sent away from their familial social and cultural environment, many traveling unaccompanied without siblings and familial peers. Second, the decision to be sent away was often done without hearing children’s own opinions. Even though mass evacuations of children were necessary in the bombed British cities and the war-torn Finland under the constant threat of Soviet invasion, it was the children who had to bear the reality of being forcefully uprooted several times (leaving home, adjusting to foster homes, returning back home). Third, the age of war children varied from about 3 to 12 years. The smaller the children, the less developed their language skills were. Experiences of forced displacement were felt bodily and psychologically, but these were not easily narrated. This partial or total lack of narrative and recalling skills, in addition to the traumatic experience of being forcibly displaced, had an enormous impact on children’s autobiographical memories. Nelson and Fivush (2004, pp. 486–489) conclude that autobiographical memory develops gradually across the preschool years. Only through autobiographical memory are times, events, and experiences connected to one another. This requires narrative comprehension and other cognitive skills that many war children did not yet possess because of their young age. The lack of narrated memories does not mean that the experiences would have disappeared, quite the contrary. Forced displacement was mainly experienced bodily and was recorded to situationally accessible memories (SAMs), which include sensory and physiological aspects of experiences (on SAM, see Brewin et al. 1996). Bodily sensations, sounds, smells, and sights are typical SAMs, but these aspects of memories are not voluntarily recalled or easily changed (Brewin et al. 1996). Thus, they often also function as cues when involuntary recalling of traumatic memories or events occurs. Fourth, and this applies exclusively to the Finnish case, war children were sent to other Nordic countries where the Finnish language was not spoken. Finnish children ended up in a completely new linguistic environment where they could not at first understand their caretakers and vice versa. Later, when children learned Swedish, for example, they often (partly or totally) forgot their native language. When they returned home, they again found themselves having to readjust to a different linguistic environment.

Based on the wide documentation of geographical and psychological research literature, it is safe to suggest that spatial trauma is a valid concept in analyzing the ties and sights of belonging among the war children. Spatial trauma develops through the traumatic event of being forcibly displaced. This existential event becomes implicated in varying narrative and emotive-spatial experiences. In the next section, this chapter defines three types of socio-spatial coping strategies illustrating spatial trauma among the Finnish and British war children. Empirical data was approached with two analytical questions: How are fragmentations of memory, partial effacement, and involuntary recalling described? How and with what consequences do coping strategies appear in the narratives?

7 Evacuated British Children on the Home Front

According to oral history data, war children can be divided into those who reject the place, those who conform to the place, and those who have a dispersed sense of spatiality. Interestingly, no matter which attitude and coping strategy the child developed, some sense of placelessness seemed to occur. Rather than seeing placelessness only as one chronological developmental phase in the process of losing and resettling into socio-materiality of the network of meaningful places, it is more important to follow the wider dynamics of remembering forced displacement during the childhood years and illustrate how the sense of belonging was formed in the daily life encounters during the war and the years following it.

The British children evacuated on the home front developed a sense of placelessness even though the alterations in their cultural and social environment were not nearly as formative as in the case of the British and Finnish children who were sent abroad. The home front evacuees spoke the same language as their host families, but at the beginning, the dialectal differences sometimes caused awkward or funny incidents. Several, especially younger, children traveled with their mothers, and school children were often evacuated together with some of their schoolmates or other peers. British home front evacuees sustained some sense of familial social ties not only because of such peer relations but also because the siblings were not usually separated from one another but lived in the same host family. In addition, the unaccompanied children were often placed in families with other evacuees.

Many evacuated children recall playing and socializing with other evacuees in the area. In Schweitzer et al. (1990), children from London described rare occasions when they were able to visit their homes and their parents could sometimes visit them in their evacuation families. Letters and drawings were also sent home and responses were eagerly expected. This way it was possible to maintain some sense of closeness to home. The upholding of social ties made a great difference for children’s sense of self and belonging. This did not, however, prevent home front children from experiencing homesickness and placelessness.

In their written recollections, most British child evacuees framed their evacuation experience tightly against the familial environment at home. They also compared the different places they lived in during the war to one another: home was always described with a much more loving and caring attitude than the evacuation place. Directly war-related memories seem to have had a significant role among the British child evacuees on the home front. Home in the city environment turned out to be quite a different emotional and physical scene from the one before the war. Often the nightly airstrikes and air-raid sirens, bombing of the cities, seeing people dying or dead, and the constant feeling of fear became emblematic childhood experiences. Yet, the home city remained the primary site of socio-spatial belonging and center of being. Evacuation challenged the dynamics of belonging but even the safer rural environment did not resolve children’s anxiety. It changed its form: children were often worried about the well-being of their parents or other relatives left behind in the cities. Paradoxically, this had to do with the fact that social connections were sustained and information among the evacuees was exchanged.

The British children evacuated within the country can be divided into two categories that also reflect their different narrative and spatial strategies: (1) children traveling with adult family members (or another larger group of familial peers) and (2) unaccompanied child evacuees traveling alone or with a sibling or siblings. The children in the first category who traveled with a parent or familial peers recalled several single events of their evacuation time in a manner typical of traumatic experience, but they also narrated their life history very differently from the unaccompanied children. This has to do with the social component in the development of autobiographical memories that Nelson and Fivush (2004) also emphasize. Adult family members or peers often discussed and narrated the evacuation experiences and daily encounters together. This made it possible to connect some of the fragmented memories and experiences in a narrative form. Social ties did not just create a sense of familiarity but functioned as an essential explanatory structure for the children living in the midst of emotive-spatial confusion. Evacuated children had their own subjective experiences of being displaced, but the sense of placelessness was shared with others, which eased the coping. Thus, many children in this category became rejectors of place. This meant that social ties to home defined the emotive-spatial orientation to evacuation places. Whereas some emotional events and sights might have been recalled, these did not evolve into existential experiences, nor did these ease the sense of placelessness because children knew or at least intuitively assumed that the evacuation was a temporary phase in their life and returning home was possible sooner rather than later. In a way, children denied the entry of places into their selfhood in order to protect themselves and keep memories of home as their primary site for belonging.

Children rarely understood the physical distance of their travel. This is one of the intriguing features in the sense of placelessness. The relative distance between the familiar and the strange seemed infinite; even traveling with a parent did not change this existential experience of being forcibly displaced to some unfamiliar place far away. This is well described in 9-year-old Allan Burnett’s recollection of traveling by train to a nearby rural town. Allan, as many other child evacuees, paints a detailed picture of the sites of leaving and arriving, but does not remember the actual journey and routes.

The journey seemed endless. It took all day, although it was only a little over hundred miles. […] At our destination we were herded, hundreds of us, into a school. […] St. Pancras (the train station in London where the journey had started from) seemed so distant, millennia away in time and space. (Allan Burnett, nine years old, Schweitzer et al. 1990, pp. 36–37)

The strategy to reject place becomes even more evident in the recollections of returning back home. Children describe that their homecoming to a bombed and ruined city was simultaneously sad and happy, but they easily fitted back to the normal rhythms of life. In their later life, they felt more nostalgic than anything else toward the places they had seen and the people they had met when evacuated during the war. As one boy evacuated with his schoolmates recalls:

I was pleased to be home with my own family at last, I could never forget those I had lived with, those I had played with, the places I had seen and the things I had learned during my five long years of evacuation. (Tony Fawcett in Schweitzer et al. 1990, p. 74)

The second category of home front evacuees traveled alone or with a sibling or siblings. In their narratives, several typical features of traumatic experiences are notable. These children often felt lonely, unwanted, and sad at having been sent away from home. They recalled details of the houses they lived in during the evacuation and the kind of clothing they wore in particular situations. These recollections were extremely vivid and detailed, with sensational and other kinesthetic memories. Moreover, the memories of the unaccompanied children seem to include a series of single events with no explanatory or connecting narrativization. They also described in less detail lived memories of daily life. They often felt a sense of placelessness or in-betweenness and, for example, recalled denial and the suppression of emotions. As one girl traveling with her little brother explained:

[In the train station and rushing to the evacuation train] I wasn’t sad or unhappy – in fact I was quite looking forward to the adventure. Someone must have done a wonderful job of brainwashing me. I didn’t cry then, but now, fifty years later, I do shed tears when I cast my mind back and remember. […] We didn’t know, and neither did any of the parents, where we were going. My mother and father had drummed it into me that my brother and I must not be separated. (Anita Truman, 8 years old, Schweitzer et al. 1990, p. 230)

The quote above illustrates how the oldest child often carried the psychological weight of taking care of not just oneself but, more importantly, the younger siblings and was therefore continuously worried about failing the parents’ demands that the siblings should stay in the same family. Anita managed to do this but only by grabbing her brother’s arm and not letting go when the evacuees were being allocated to host families. Similar memories frequently occur in the unaccompanied children’s emotive-spatial descriptions.

Unaccompanied children developed two coping strategies to tackle placelessness. Some of them rejected the place and tried to exclusively keep up the ties to and memories of home. This was much more difficult without adult support and shared narrations of other evacuees. Interestingly, some home front unaccompanied children developed a coping strategy, what is here denoted a dispersed sense of spatiality. This meant that they simultaneously aimed at retaining the lived memories of home and former social and spatial ties while also adjusting to the prevailing situation. This strategy often led to multiple experiences of socio-spatial confusion, which on some occasions continued to affect war children’s life in the years after the evacuation. In the following quote, Pola, 5 years old at the time of the evacuation, describes her sense of insecurity and feelings of strangeness that unexpectedly surfaced every now and then.

A certain amount of valuable ground was lost in my emotional development, as result of being evacuated, affecting my confidence and limiting my ability to interact normally with others. Many years after the war, when away from home too long, or in strange surroundings, I was still subject to strange feelings of insecurity and disorientation, as if I were in no man’s land, in limbo, feeling to which I had become so accustomed. In fact, a day’s outing or even a visit to friends was sometimes enough to spark off these strange feelings of unreality and confusion. (Pola Haward, 5 years old, Schweitzer et al. 1990, p. 86)

Pola’s experience is an excellent example of bodily and situational memories that cannot be actively recalled but surface involuntary (Brewin et al. 1996). These kinds of intrusive and inexplicable memories of forced displacement have affected some war children’s later life and orientation to other meaningful places, sites, and events – in other words spatial trauma continued to define their lived sense of belonging. In general, British home front evacuees were forced to cope with placelessness mostly during the war years, but their homecoming restored their existential sense of belonging. The duration of spatial trauma was short-lived, and the fractures between self and place did not end up as formative as in the case of the war children sent abroad.

8 British and Finnish War Children Abroad

The narratives of the British and Finnish war children who were sent abroad during World War II illustrate socio-spatial confusion, fragmented autobiographical memories, embodied emotions, and sensational memories of places and events that cannot be connected to a certain time or a definite spatial context. The sense of placelessness comes across even more intensively than in the narratives of the home front evacuees. War children traveled abroad alone, and the adult caretakers on those evacuation journeys did not know the children they were escorting. Thus, the familiar social ties were left behind and often fractured right from the start. These children also landed into completely new social and cultural contexts, which radically changed their daily practices and rhythm of life. Whereas on the home front the majority of war children rejected the place and tried not to lay down roots in evacuation places, and only a small minority described a dispersed sense of spatiality, the case of war children abroad is quite different. Among these children, all three socio-spatial coping strategies were identified from their accounts. According to the empirical data of this research, a minority of war children developed opposite coping strategies in order to be able to come to terms with the vague sense of placelessness in their daily life. Along with the rejectors of place, a small group of children became what is here called conformers to place.

The children who conformed to place created tight and durable relationships with the new socio-spatial context. In a way, these children rejected part of their existential spatiality because they began to deny their past ties of belonging. Conformers adjusted to or rather absorbed themselves into the host society, family, and spatial context. After the war, the conformers in particular wished to stay in their host families and countries. Even when sent back to their country of origin, several former war children returned to their countries of evacuation as adults. There are no exact statistics of the Finnish children who remained in their evacuation countries. It is estimated that 7000 to 15,000 children stayed in Sweden and about 400 in Denmark directly after the war (Korppi-Tommola 2008, p. 449; Kavén 1994/2003). About 1300 of these children were formally adopted in Sweden and 200 in Denmark, but many private foster agreements were also made and some children returned after having first been sent back to Finland (Korppi-Tommola 2008). In the empirical data of this research, a few statements on staying or returning were found. A couple of Finnish interviewees claimed that they had wished to stay in Sweden, but this was not possible. One Finnish child recalls that her host family had tried to hide her for 2 weeks after the arrival of the letter asking for all Finnish children to be returned home. After those 2 weeks, however, she and her host family jointly decided that she should travel home. In one case of two siblings, the Swedish host family adopted the brother while the biological parents wanted the younger sister to be sent back home to Finland. This meant that the siblings were separated for the rest of their childhood.

There are no statistics available about adoptions of British war children. Fethney (1990/2000, p. 263) argues that some British children never returned from overseas, and in some occasions after the war, the biological parents even moved to the Commonwealth host country in order to be with their children. In addition, several British war children returned to their host country later in their life. These decisions illustrate how effectively some war children adopted the context of their host families and societies. In the accounts of these war children, the most confusing moments were lived not during the years of evacuation but after returning to their home countries. This belated sense of placelessness resulted in plans for return and often their realization.

The great majority of overseas child evacuees tried to hold on and nurture emotional ties to home and at the same time adjust to their new environment. This dispersed spatiality was exercised through several practices: through language differences (dialectal differences or instances of switching back to their native language in difficult emotional situations), drawings, stories of home, playing, etc. (Kuusisto-Arponen 2011b). Past and present spatialities were mixed but neither was fully lived. This created confusion in daily encounters because children did not know what was expected of them, how much they could speak about their homesickness, and how much they could trust and emotionally invest in the relationships with the new adults and peers. Among the Finnish war children, the challenge was even greater at the beginning because the common language was lacking. Former war children recalled the occurrence of several psychological symptoms in the early weeks and months of evacuation, such as bed-wetting and muting. Gradually, when the children and adults started to understand one another, their life began to normalize and a new daily rhythm was found. Yet, the language barrier continued to affect the life of Finnish war children: if any letters were sent or received between the host and biological family, the adults could not understand them and children’s translating skills were insufficient. British overseas evacuees shared the same language and so at least had a possibility to lean on adult host parents for explanations, even if the confusion of being in a completely new environment was overwhelming.

Interestingly, most children with a dispersed sense of place claim very directly that their experiences and time spent abroad were a mainly positive period in their lives. They also insist that they coped well considering the overall social and political seriousness of the situation. These “yes, I had a happy childhood” and “everything went fine” arguments bring to mind overgeneralized memories (see Schönfeld et al. 2007). Sometimes, especially in the Finnish interview data, oral narrations and bodily reactions were not in line. For example, laughter and sarcasm were used as a coping mechanism when describing emotionally difficult moments. Thus, implicitly, war children’s recollections also unveil very different tones behind gratitude discourse.

After the war was over and children returned home, many of them still continued to feel a certain sense of placelessness which was not easily put into words, but somehow started to define their lives. They missed their evacuation families but had to be loyal to their biological parents, as one of the Finnish interviewees argued. Many visited their host families during summer and school holidays, and some visited their former evacuation places when adults.

Fethney (1990/2000, p. 264) talks about divided loyalties among the war children. It is argued here that this divided loyalty is one implication of spatial trauma that continued to affect some war children’s later life. These traces and fractions in spatial belonging are still witnessed even several decades after the war. As the Manchester-born Geraldine Robb argues: “I feel always that my childhood roots are in New Zealand, and always have a great longing there” (Geraldine Robb, 11 years old, Fethney 1990/2000, p. 265). In a similar manner, one Finnish war child recalls her brother’s placelessness that troubled him to the end of his life.

He [brother] died in Denmark. He went back there when he was a grown-up. Well, he said that he felt that he had been abandoned twice when he was a child. For the first time when he left Finland for Denmark and had no apprehension of why it was happening. And for the second time when returning to Finland. The only place where he felt good was the journey between these two places.

It seems that the ties and sights of belonging became an extremely complicated matter for many children who tried to cope with forced displacement by dispersing their sense of place. At the time of the war, they did not have the necessary linguistic and social skills nor enough support from the adult caretakers – and they had experienced a traumatic event of being forcibly displaced. This created social, cultural, and psychological conditions for spatial trauma, and for some former war children, this trauma still continues.

9 Conclusions

Spatial trauma is simultaneously a transcultural, contextual, and subjective phenomenon. War childhood leaves marks on people. Oral history recollections illustrate that war children felt a sense of placelessness not only during the evacuation but sometimes also several years and decades afterward. Spatial trauma refers to drastic psychophysical experiences resulting from forced displacement which the individual tries to, but cannot quite, come to terms with. As illustrated in this chapter, several war children developed spatial trauma. The nationally contextual factors of World War II and several displacements and adjustment attempts created conditions for spatial trauma among the war children. It is concluded here that the depth and the duration of spatial trauma depended at least on four factors: (1) support from familial co-travelers and the chance to uphold some social relations, (2) the child’s own abilities to develop emotive-spatial coping strategies, (3) the child’s age and social and linguistic skills, and (4) possible dysfunctions in neuropsychological memory structures due to the traumatic event of being forcibly displaced. While the latter is only indicated in the psychological literature cited in this chapter, it is credibly present in many oral accounts used in this research.

The multidisciplinary approach employed in this chapter creates new understanding of war children’s fragmented and partly effaced autobiographical memories. This directs attention to long-standing effects of forced displacement among children. Utilizing the concept of trauma enabled the nuanced analysis of the dynamics of remembering, forgetting, and involuntary recalling. Further, analysis of war children’s experiences clearly verifies that the existential ties between self and place do matter not only in people’s personal life course but have implications on the sociocultural and communal level. It is therefore suggested here that more attention should urgently be paid to emotive-spatial memories and coping strategies used by people in contemporary forced displacement. This, however, needs to be done by acknowledging the particularities of autobiographical memories of forcibly displaced people. Rather than looking for coherent narratives, research and psychological interventions should focus on the fragments and disjunctions, which seem to be ontologically and epistemologically crucial indicators of spatial trauma.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Management, Space and Political Agency Research GroupUniversity of TampereTampereFinland

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