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Finnish Strong

Finnish strong

By Nick Sortal
Staff Writer

November 28, 2004

Aarne Aaltonen coaxes war veterans to assemble at a 7,000-pound rock from a key era of Finland's history. Riitta Rinttila brings an entrepreneurial spirit and a determination to expose her children to the diversity of South Florida. And Aune Kaanto, for 28 years a baker in Lake Worth, writes her first novel.

All are examples of the word that Finns use to describe the quiet fortitude that is vital for life's journeys: Sisu.

Kaanto keeps copies of a definition of sisu at the Scandia Bakery in Lake Worth, which she and her husband own.

"Sisu is much more than fortitude," it begins. "It's an old characterization used by the Finnish people for the last ten thousand years."

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius once likened sisu to a metaphysical shot in the arm "which makes a man [or woman] do the impossible," the definition continues.

South Florida Finns will mark their 87th anniversary since their homeland's parliament declared independence from Russia -- their ultimate act of sisu -- with a veterans ceremony, church service and dinner-dance commemorating Finland's Independence Day on Dec. 6. The activities will be conducted in Lake Worth, where most of South Florida's 5,792 Finns reside.

Aaltonen fought in the final months of World War II as Finland beat back Russia's attempt to retake control of the country. He is now commander of the Finnish War Veterans Support Foundation and organizes the veterans ceremony at Bryant Park in Lake Worth, where two memorials stand.

The first is a 7,000-pound granite rock that was among those used by the Finns as a border barrier against enemy tanks.

"It's for all freedom-loving people in the world who fought for independence," Aaltonen said. The second monument recognizes immigrants from all countries.

The Finns began arriving in South Florida in the 1910s, working as winter servants and maids for the elite rich who had second homes in Palm Beach.

"Then they saw all the land, and bought some for themselves," Aaltonen said. From there, they established their own community and word spread back to Finland of the warm climate and available land.

In the 1950s and 1960s, veterans came, and the Finnish population approached 20,000.

Aaltonen, 78, came to Worcester, Mass., from Finland in 1967 at age 40 to work in a Swedish bakery.

He moved to Lake Worth in 1984 to enjoy the warmer weather and publish a newspaper for Finns.

When Aaltonen first arrived in South Florida, up to 300 veterans would gather in Bryant Park. Now there will be about 50 for the independence day ceremony. And the Finns once operated 17 motels in Lake Worth; now it's one or two.

Many of the veterans have either moved or died -- the average war veteran is 83, Aaltonen said -- and South Florida's Finnish population has declined.

"We also were hurt because there are fewer tourists from Finland," he said, noting that many prefer to visit other places now, including China and Spain.

Meanwhile, Rinttila, of Coral Springs, works in network marketing, while her husband commutes to Finland in an attempt to open a golf course back home.

Rinttila also shuttles her sons Ville Valimaa, 15, and Verneri, 11, to their activities.

"Finland is very uni-cultural, and here, it is very multi-cultural," she said. Verneri's best friend, for example, is from Jamaica, and because Verneri plays in competitive soccer leagues, the sport's international nature exposes him to a variety of cultures.

The family arrived in Coral Springs in 1998, although they weren't committed to staying. They still own a home in Finland and spend summers there, but South Florida is continuing to feel more like home, Rinttila said.

Kaanto has lived sisu in a variety of ways. She and her husband, Taisto, lived in the Providenciales in the West Indies from 1970-73, where they, their daughter and son were the only white family. Taisto Kaanto helped build houses on the islands.

They returned to Finland for three years, then moved to Lake Worth and bought the Scandia Bakery, where they have survived the declining Finnish population and the Atkins diet craze.

"But the low-carb hoopla is fading, and we make mostly dark bread, so we'll make it fine," Taisto Kaanto said.

Aune Kaanto had kept notes of her island experiences, but they burned in a fire. But in the past five years she has reconstructed her notes, and has written a novel, called A Scandinavian Girl's Journey into the West Indies, to be published by Infinity. She goes by the pen name Anjuska Kiriloff, taking her father's surname.

The story, of course, is fact-based fiction, and is packed with sisu. The final portion of the sisu definition that she keeps in her store especially speaks for her:

"[Sisu is] an extraordinary endurance, a kind of inner fire or superhuman nerve force that includes courage, tenacity, stubborn determination, energy and a will and ability to get things done."

Our Community's Many Faces periodically spotlights one of the dozens of nationalities conducting South Florida celebrations of cultural and historic milestones.

Nick Sortal can be reached at nsortal@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7906.

Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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