Living in turmoil

What we are experiencing in Europe today is on everyone’s mind. No one knows how this will end, how many lifes will be affected or what will happen to our world. WWII is not that far away in the past, and even though my own generation did not have to live through it, our parents were born during or after the war, and the cold war that ensued influenced both them and us kids when we grew up.

When the Berlin wall came down, we could almost not believe it. The future in Europe lay ahead, bright and shiny and war could suddenly be envisaged as something in the past. But it was not to be. As I am writing this, the radio is on in the kitchen and I follow how escalation is happening by the hour. It’s impossible to know how this will end.

And what about those who went before us – who lived through several wars in their lifetimes? My great grandparents spent WWI in China, but were back in Sweden when WWII started. In 1939, my grandparents married and shortly after, my grandfather Rudolf volunteered in the Finnish Winter War, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The Soviet union had just defeated  Poland in cooperation with Germany (17 September – 6 October 1939), but was to meet unexpected resistance in the deep forests of Finland. Finally, Finland kept their independence, but had to abstain land areas to the Soviet.

My grandfather before he went to help in the Finnish Winter War in 1939

Challenges in China
Having spent many years in China already, the missionaries at the Hoyang station were used to a lot of turmoil, civil war, hostility towards foreigners, rouge soldiers and attacks of all sorts. Dagny and Robert, Rudolfs parents, had been in Sweden and Norway when many missionaries were killed around the turn of the century. When they returned to China in 1902, the situation had calmed down, but it was still very dangerous to move about in China, as their many recollections of armed robberies and shootings tell us. 

The year 1927 was to be another difficult year for the mission in China. For some time, a wave of suspicion against the foreign “devils” had swept over the country and reached far into the inland, where the missionary stations were subjected to many threats. This was leading up to the Chinese civil war, which started in August 1927.

In april 1927, an order to evacuate came to the Swedish mission and the missionaries who were still left started to pack their bags to go to the coast.

Dagny and Robert were stationed in Hoyang, where their son Martin stayed with them. He was also a missionary since a couple of years and so was his brother Morris, who worked with his wife in Yuncheng – a two-day ride in southeast direction. Of over 8 000 missionaries stationed in China in 1926, only 6% were still at their stations in the inland. Around 3 000 went to the coast to search for a secure haven, waiting to return to their fields. Many had already left China for their home countries. My great grandparents were still there.

My great grandmother Dagny was waiting for her daughter Dagny-Edla, to arrive back in Hoyang after having been away from the station since she was 8 years old. She had been sent back to Sweden to go to school and had missed her home in China ever since. She was now 27 years old and had gone through very much to finally be in China, where her heart lay. One of her arms had been amputated due to an inflammation in a finger that the doctors had not been able to stop. Dagny-Edla tried to get a posting as a missionary, but no society wanted to take responsibility for an amputee in a country like China, so she went ahead and organised it on her own. Today she is part of the mission’s history just as all the others, but at the time, she had to prove herself more than anyone.

Dagny and Robert had kept her room at the station, always hoping she would make it back one day. Together with her son Martin, Dagny did everything to decorate Dagny-Edla’s old room the way she would like it.
When they finally got word that she was on her way, Hoyang was under siege, and noone could leave their house without dodging bullets. The enemy tried again and again to attack the city, but so far they had not succeeded. During the time they hid out in their house, all they could do was to help fleeing Chinese who managed to get into the station’s courtyard. Dagny kept busy sewing curtains for Dagny-Edla’s room and holding meetings with refugees. After some time, the shooting and the turmoil subsided and Martin could take a donkey and begin the journey to Yuncheng, to escort Dagny-Edla back to Hoyang.

Martin walking along the cart, where his sister Dagny-Edla is sitting.

Only three days before Dagny-Edla and Martin got back, the Swedish minister Oscar Ewerlöf sent word that all missionaries had to leave inland China. Dagny and Robert were very sad to leave, but had signed an agreement to follow the minister’s advice, and thus they started packing for the long journey.

Martin and Dagny-Edla arrived shortly after and could only stay for three days before having to go back out to the coast again. As they fled the inland, they encountered both worried Chinese and those who believed the rumours about all foreigners being evil.

Fleeing to the coast
“The tension was palpable,” Dagny writes.
But Dagny was one to always try to keep the spirits up. She continues: “We passed many of the mission’s smaller stations, where we met our Christians in prayer and song. They followed us on our route for a long time. We reached Hancheng on Easter day, where we had a very strong meeting together with Christian friends. We prayed to find a place to stay along the coast, as the hotels for foreigners were too expensive for our small missionary means and at the time it was not safe to lodge in Chinese establishments. When we left this “outstation” a big crowd followed us a good part of the way. We continued to hear their tune for a long time: “He walks with us all the way.” That was a great consolation in these times of turmoil.”

When they reached Shanghai, Dagny was sad to have to sell her beautiful mules and the cart that had served them so well. She made sure the buyer would treat the animals well. Then, the group continued by rikshaw. Along the way they met other fleeing missionaries, that they knew well and were happy to get together with, even during these difficult circumstances.

Travelling by rikshaw in China

Finally, they could get on a train to Beijing and from there to Tientsin where the China Inland mission cramped them into an already full house. They moved several times before they got to spend the summer in Peitaiho, by the sea.

Family reunion
“We rented half a house from an English doctor’s family. This was the first and only time, we as a family spent time together by the sea. We were eight altogether – Morris and his wife and child, Dagny-Edla, Martin, Robert and I. Rudolf also came over from Japan, where the Swedish school had started over, after they had moved there due to the war,” Dagny writes.

It must have been a cherished time in the midst of it all for this family, who had spent so little time together over the years. Of course they missed their other children at home in Sweden, but they knew everyone was safe for now. Dagny even managed to focus on quite trivial things:

“It was a very hot summer and people used to go barefoot. I also wanted to try that one day. Suddenly, everybody disappeared and before me stood minister Ewerlöf. He was also spending some time in Peitaiho and had come over to pay us a visit. We had met him in Beijing before. Now, I had to welcome him on my own, and I understood why everbody had made themselves scarce. I felt ashamed over my bared legs and promised myself to never behave like that again.
When we had met the minister i Beijing, his servants had been dressed in beautiful blue and yellow silk gowns. Well, the minister got another kind of welcome in our house!”

Little did they know, it would take over a year until it was safe for them to return to Hoyang. My grandfather Rudolf had by then been sent back to Sweden to go to school in a safe environment. That is where he reconnected with my grandmother Edna, and eleven years later they married as WWII broke out.

They lived in unpredictable times, just as we do now.

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