1910-1946, Finland and Sweden

1946-1984, Ethiopia

Merit list


1910-1946, Finland and Sweden

On the 27th of November 1987, 3 years and 8 months after his death, Onni Herman Niskanen posthumously received Henri Dunant’s medal and diploma (the highest honour of the International Red Cross) for his outstanding achievements during almost 40 years in Ethiopia.

He died on 20th March 1984, and is buried in the family grave in Solna cemetery. Marianne Sautermeister, Onni’s niece who was one of the first female priests in Sweden, performed the memorial service.

Here lies Onni, in Solna, where he arrived in 1913, only three years old …

Onni was born on August 31st, 1910, in Finland and the family lived in Helsinki. The Niskanen family, consisting of father Herman, mother Hulda, big brother Wäinö, Onni and little brother Erik, were very busy gathering all furniture and luggage that was to be loaded onto the boat to Stockholm. When everyone was on the boat and it had left the quay, they discovered that three weeks old little Erik was missing … He had been left, sleeping in his basket, on the sink in the old flat. The boat turned back and Erik was reunited with his family.

Another brother was born in 1915 and was given the name Arne. In later life, he became a confectioner and was the person who introduced the Black Forest Gateau to Sweden.

Upon arrival in Solna, the family moved to Råsundavägen. The flat had a view over Råsunda Stadium and the brothers used to sit on the roof and watch football in the stadium. Then they moved to Tottvägen 1 in the corner of Råsundavägen and after that, they moved to Vintervägen.

Onni: “I was a boy like any other. We were four brothers in the family. I was always alert, never sad. When school was over for the day, I was always out getting different jobs to earn some money. This was in the 20s and the economy was not so good, even if my father always had work. Since I had many different interests and hobbies that I wanted to spend time on, I had to find money for it myself. I collected stamps. I built a radio. When radio was still a new thing, I built a crystal receiver. I always had surprises for the family for weekends and Christmas. I could buy some extra food or cigarettes or such things. I thought that was fun.

Onni’s interest in sport and Scouting started early. In 1928, he joined Huvudsta IS (Huvudsta Sports Associations) but soon left, since the club invested mainly in boxing at that time. He joined the club in neighbouring Sundbyberg instead, Duvbo IK. (Duvbo Sports Club). There was, according to Onni himself, a fine camaraderie in the club and they were good runners, who travelled around the country to participate in cross-country races and often won.

Onni was a rather good mid distance runner but his best sports were probably cross-country running and orienteering. He stayed loyal to Duvbo IK his whole life and kept writing to his old club friends up until his death.

In 1936, Sweden as well as 22 other countries, sent participants to Olimpiada Popular in Barcelona. Many countries boycotted Hitler’s Olympic Games in Berlin and so sent their athletes to Spain instead. There were 12 athletes leaving the Central Station in Stockholm. Onni was one of them and he was chosen to run mid distance races. When the group arrived in Paris, the news reached them that the civil war had broken out in Spain, so, unfortunately, they had to turn back home.

In 1936, Onni married Britta Björk. The marriage lasted only one year, and ended when Britta gave him the ultimatum to choose between her and his sports.

In 1937, Onni became the President of Duvbo IK.

He had been working as a typographer but now considered a military career. In 1939, Onni and his brothers signed up with the Voluntary Army forces to help Finland during the war. None of the brothers has been keen to talk about this period.

In Duvbo IK’s annual magazine from 1940, the following story was written.

“Pools rascals at work.”
The evening that Onni left as a volunteer in the Finnish army, the platform at the Central Station was full with people. They were friends from the areas of sports and work, who had gathered around the compartment where Onni sat. There was a considerably large group of the fair sex, wandering around with their more or less wrinkled faces, looking worried. Onni was hardly visible, almost completely buried under parcels with stomach-warmers, biscuit packets, crisp rolls, pocketknives and so on. (The gifts that the volunteers did not consume were reserved for our neutrality guards, rumour has it).
In the midst of the chaos, there seemed to be a census going on. The explanation came later. A pool had been started in the club, betting on how many of Onni Bluebeard’s old flames would dare to show up. The winner had the number 12. Enough said.

On the 5th of November 1941, Onni was injured by splinters from a Russian anti-tank grenade. This is what he told Aftonbladet’s (Swedish evening paper) reporter on the 25th of January 1942.
Onni: I had just finished an inspection of my second machinegun group and was on my way to the first group, the one opposite Ekön, when without warning, a Russian anti-tanks gun started “playing”. On hearing the characteristic sound from the firing, I threw myself headlong on the ground. A single thought went through my head. It was “get away from this dangerous place before the next shot is fired”. Only when I was getting up to run, I noticed that I could not put weight on the leg. At the same time, I felt pain in my back and I was bleeding from my right hand. The splinters had done their job. I was wounded.

Onni had to return to Sweden to recover. This was the end of his career as an active athlete.

On Christmas Eve 1943, he married Mary Jakobsson.

Together with his brothers Wäinö and Erik, he started an advertising agency, “The Niskanen Brothers”. It was situated on Erik Sandbergsgatan in Solna.

He was appointed Major in the Army on 1st November 1946 when he recieved a phone call: "Do you want to go to Ethiopia?"