Surviving Stutthof

9780994918390 (1)As the first Russian bombs drop on Oulu, Finland, in early 1940 during the Winter War, Aarne Kovala is a young boy with a great love of the sea. While the war rages, Aarne takes fate into his own hands and joins the Finnish merchant marines. He spends his days delivering war materials between Finland, Poland, and Germany.

But when Finland’s ties with Germany are severed after the signing of the Moscow Armistice in 1944, Aarne and his fellow sailors are arrested by the Nazis and sent by cattle car to the infamous Stutthof concentration camp deep in the Polish forest. And thus begins Aarne’s horrific struggle to survive amid dreadful living conditions, scarce food, and grueling work details. In the only letter he is allowed to send home, he prays, “I hope the day soon dawns that we again may meet.”  But after months of dark nights and even darker days, how long can his hope survive?

Based on actual events, Surviving Stutthof is a tale of survival, hope, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

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Photo: Gerry Kingsley

“Liisa Kovala’s Surviving Stutthof is an act of true love. By telling her father’s story so eloquently, Liisa bears witness to an experience that holds within its nucleus the lives of thousands of the victims of Stutthof Concentration Camp. The book’s direct, straightforward language puts the reader in the middle of history and how it can devastate good, ordinary people who are forced to face atrocities that are difficult to fathom. Read this. It will make you a better person.”                   — Marina Nemat, author, Prisoner of Tehran & After Tehran

“Liisa Kovala has achieved something extraordinary in telling her father’s remarkable story: she has turned living history into living art. Survivng Stutthof reads like a novel, but there is never any question that it is delivering a universal truth.”              — Wayne Grady, author of Emancipation Day.

Aarne Kovala Aged 17 1945Liisa Kovala’s Surviving Stutthof is a poignant, lyrical and atmospheric memoir. The book opens by immediately pulling the reader in to a strong and grounded sense of setting and place, and, as the narrative draws us back to her father’s childhood, that same three dimensional rendering of Aarne Kovala’s home town, his travels and his impending arrest by Nazi soldiers keeps the reader held in rapt fascination.

From the earliest childhood memories of bombs, planes and Russian soldiers falling from the sky, through a youthful trip to Helsinki to find work to becoming a sailor and his crew’s arrest in the fall of 1944, the book is not only filled with tension and vivid imagery, but also with the complexity and unique layers of humanity.

This compelling book isn’t afraid to follow Aarne Kovala through his darkest days and seemingly endless nightmarish nights. But, in a reflection of the complexity of life itself, the book also has moments of wonderful raw humanity; like the generosity of a water pump operator whose unexpected gift of a single potato is among the best things Kovala has ever tasted, or the odd bathing and floor cleaning in the wine cellar of the old submarine school.

In the same manner that I continually felt peckish while reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, there were moments, while reading this novel that I could actually feel the ticklish pangs of hunger. That’s the power that Liisa Kovala wields in drawing the reader into this story which she so poetically describes as “travelling to the river of his childhood.”   — Mark Leslie, author & editor

“Kovala’s writing is laconic yet evocative. She offers readers a sensorial exploration of the camp, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. The suffering is palpable, yet readers will rejoice in each of the minor victories. In this personal labor of love, the care Kovala takes in recounting her father’s experience is evident on every page.

A valuable, unique addition to the canon of survivor stories.”   Kirkus Reviews

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Photo: Gerry Kingsley


“. . . the straightforward prose never sensationalizes, never gets in the way of the facts. It’s a story worth telling and worth reading.” — Scott Overton, author of Dead Air

“It’s beautifully written and well worth the read!”   — Kelly Rodriguez

“I read your book in a weekend and thought it was outstanding. You have really retold a story with honesty and you should be proud – an FYI – I am not much of a reader and I could not put it down.” —John Purdon



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