CULTURE History of Chile

Tapani and Lysa Brotherus: The Finnish Couple Who Saved 2,500 Chileans

SANTIAGO – Tapani and Lysa Brotherus were a Finnish couple in Chile during the 1973 military coup and used their resources to help those persecuted flee the country. Thanks to their efforts, over 2,500 people escaped to freedom. The story of the Brotheruses was recently brought to the small screen by a Chilean-Finnish co-production.

After the 1973 Military coup, many Chileans tried but were unable to leave the country and became victims of Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s brutal crackdown on supporters of ousted president Salvador Allende. Thanks to the actions of a Finnish couple, Tapani Brotherus (Tapani) and Lysa Brotherus (Lysa), over 2,500 Chileans escaped this fate.

Now, 47 years later, the Brotheruses’ story has been adapted to the small screen in a joint co-production between Chile and Finland. Titled, Invisible Heroes (Héroes Invisibles, in Spanish), the series premiered in Finland in  April 2019, and in Chile in September 2020. Currently, all episodes are free to watch on Chilevision’s YouTube channel.

Finland had no official embassy in Chile until 1991. Before that, it was represented by its embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the early 1970s, Finland wanted to improve diplomatic relations with Chile, so it sent diplomat Tapani to Chile.

Tapani brought his wife, Lysa, and their two children with him, and the family settled in a house in Vitacura. In the residence, Finnish and Chilean politicians mingled; on one occasion, for example, the Brotheruses hosted an event between Hortensia Bussi, Salvador Allende’s wife, and Finnish Communist politician Hertta Kuusinen.

The Military Coup

On Sep. 11, 1973, the Chilean army led a military coup and overthrew the government of Allende, the first democratically-elected socialist president. That same night, Guillermo Pavez, the economic director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs , rang the doorbell of the Brotherus house asking for them to hide him from authorities. Ignoring strict orders from his superiors to remain neutral, Tapani allowed him to enter his house, which legally was Finnish territory.

As the days went by, more people showed up at the Brotherus house, including notable leftist politicians and one of Allende’s personal bodyguards, many of whom knew their way having previously attended events at the venue.

Unsure of how long their guests would remain, the Brotheruses made sure to keep everyone well-fed. Lysa went to the central market every week to buy potatoes and onions, while Tapani ordered meat from Argentina via diplomatic pouch. Inside the house, Lysa would also organize the refugees to do chores around the house, while at night she would participate in sing-alongs to keep their spirits up.

Eventually, the military junta learned of the refugees and placed military patrols outside the Brotherus residence. To make matters worse, the East German government severed all ties with Chile, and made Tapani the sole representative of the country, putting him in charge of the refugees that the East German government was hiding.

Watch this interview with Tapani on national television:

The situation at the house became untenable so the Brotheruses had to arrange for all 250 refugees to be moved to the German school which had been part of the East German diplomatic mission. In time, more refugees arrived at the school, which was under constant surveillance by the DINA, Pinochet’s secret police.

As 1973 came to a close, the Brotheruses sent their children back to Helsinki, Finland, while Tapani Brotherus toured the prisons in search of acquaintances to help, even venturing into the Estadio Nacional, which was being used as a concentration camp at the time. He also negotiated safe passages with the military junta, who were reluctant to allow non-Latin American countries to accept refugees.

By year’s end, the Brotheruses had managed to secure safe passage for over 2,500 refugees, 2,000 of whom landed in East Germany, while nearly 200 arrived in Finland, which, for the first time in history, accepted foreign refugees.

During a 2018 interview with La Tercera, Tapani assured that neither his wife nor himself ever hesitated to do what they did. Tapani said, “The decision to receive them was a natural decision from our part. We never had a conversation about it.” He and his wife remained in Chile until 1976.

Invisible Heroes

Co-produced by Chilean production company Parox and its Finnish counterpart Kahio, the series consists of six episodes. It first premiered in Finland in April 2019, while Chile premiered it in September 2020, receiving critical acclaim in both countries.

During a recent interview with Radio Bío-Bío, Tapani said “A lot of people in Finland had no idea of what had happened, and now I realize that the same thing happens in Chile. My thanks go to the Chilean and Finnish companies that made this possible.” He also said that the series perfectly captured the events although they got the color of the car wrong, he joked.

Edited by Claudio Moraga

Watch the trailer here:

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