Sunday, February 15, 2015

1944 - Finland... Saunaland!

Finland... Saunaland! A claim nobody can deny. But bizarre when it is the title of book, that was published in 1944 in The Netherlands. That leaves you with questions. And they will never be answered. So, I just had to buy this little book. Not only because I am a convinced advocate of the Finnish style sauna, but maybe more so since this is such a peculiar book on a very un-Dutch topic in that era. 

Author Sjoerd Brandsma was a Dutch journalist who spent a number of years in Finland. It was there where he got acquainted with this country's landmark culture and learned about the physical and mental benefits of sweating it all out at 90 degrees. The professor he asked to write the foreword was a bit skeptical about the possibilities of how sauna would conquer the Low Countries, but I suppose the author could not be picky here.
Especially not given the times he chose to publish the book. In hindsight the professor was completely right, because it would not be until the late 1960s and early 1970s before a commercial justifiable number of people were prepared to shed inhibitions, clothes and dignity just to open the pores. A problem the author did not close his eyes for either.
But that all still remained in the future. And we have a book here that is colored by what we now think of as a baroque way of writing, so characteristic for almost anything published decades ago. “In the harsh climate of the high North, where the battle against vast unruly nature, against the soil and the violence of the Nordic winter is a repetitive reality, nature gnaws on men.”
You'd almost be happy not to be Finnish. "Men can only win from the rampant forces of nature by strenghtening his resistance in any way possible." But be prepared what will wait for you when you take up this battle when you enter a sauna. “In the Finnish sauna, even in cities, nobody wears a bathing costume, not even trunks. The common dress code is Adam's costume...For young and old alike! Staff bathing ladies, wearing white bathrobes and a white cap, walk unprejudiced between naked men. Laying down on long benches the Adams talk animated with the bathing ladies and when witnessing this scene not one single moment one has the feeling that nudity is embarrassing or shameful.” Not sure if this would convince the prude Dutch about the benefits of sauna.

Photos are from the book Finland... Saunaland!

But let's not overlook what is actually the issue here. This book was published in June 1944, D-day month. The Netherlands suffered from the German occupation, and more than half of the country will have to endure another harsh winter, that would go in the history books as the Hunger Winter – Operation Market Garden aiming to defeat the Germans in northern and western Holland failed. Sir Richard Attenborough made a movie about this unfortunate event, A Bridge Too Far, based on Cornelius Ryan's novel. The Germans would continue with their suppression, atrocities and genocide for almost another year. Who could be interested in a book on sauna? Why did the German censor not object to publishing a book on a subject nobody would be interested in, and sacrifice scarce printing paper? You can think of several reasons here. Finland was sympathetic to the Germans in World War II, even though it did not actively participate in fighting and officially was a neutral country. In its foreword Professor Dr. J.G. Sleeswijk writes something that must have gone unnoticed by the censor: "The Finnish people, and justly so until recently, could enjoy the sympathy of other countries”. Was it part of the German occupiers' policy to pretend that daily life for the Dutch was business as usual? Or was it cleverly hidden propaganda for the Aryan race, since the book showed photos of healthy blond, young naked boys, men, girls and women? Just as the Nazis loved to see them. We will never know.

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