By Rich Juro
Some time ago, Fran and I embarked on a Baltic Sea cruise. One of the stops was Helsinki, the capital of Finland. We’ve been to that charming city twice, first in 1966 when we stayed a week in a student dormitory. The second was the start of an early spring tour of Lapland, the beautiful snowy north part of the country. So, this time we decided on a different type of visit. We contacted Andre Zweig, who conducts a Jewish heritage tour in Helsinki. Who knew there was such a thing?
Mr. Zweig is an interesting character himself. Born in Lithuania, he emigrated to Finland long ago, became an entertainer, and the cantor of the Helsinki synagogue. Several years ago, he made Aliyah to Israel, but still returns to Helsinki in the summer to conduct tours and again be the cantor. Here’s the story of Finland’s Jews he animatedly told us, which I augmented by some research.
Finland is a good-sized northern European country above the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Russia. For several centuries, what is now Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden, but no Jews could live in that part of Sweden. In 1809, after the Napoleonic wars, the Grand Duchy of Finland became a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Empire; yet it was still closed to regular Jewish people. The first Jews to settle in Finland were Russian soldiers who had completed their long service in the Czar’s army and were allowed to remain there with their families. As long ago as 1830 there was a Jewish prayer room inside the military fortress near Helsinki. The Jewish soldiers shared the prayer room with Tatar Muslims (a preview of our own Tri-Faith Initiative?).
The first synagogue in Finland opened in 1870. The first permanent Jewish house of worship was dedicated in Helsinki in 1906 on land donated by the city. The curbs on meetings and free speech were stricter in Russia than in the Grand Duchy of Finland, so in 1906 the Russian Zionists held their convention in Helsinki. In 1909, the Finnish Parliament abolished all restrictions on Jews, but there was no real effect as Russia didn’t ratify it. Following the chaos of World War I and the Russian revolution, Finland became an independent nation in 1917. Late that year the Finnish Parliament approved an Act for “Mosaic Confessors”, and thereby Jews became Finnish nationals with full rights. Between WW I and WW II more Russian Jews emigrated to Finland, and the number of Jews in Finland increased from 1000 to 2000.
“Now the history of Finland and its Jews gets interesting,” said Mr. Zweig in his accented but understandable English. In the so-called Winter War, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939. The Finns, including over 200 Jewish soldiers, fought bravely against their huge neighbor. By March 1940, the Finns had stalemated the Russian offensive, but Finland had to cede a significant amount of territory. Many of its soldiers, including 27 Jews, were killed.
In 1941, Nazi Germany launched an invasion of the USSR called Operation Barbarossa. Finland took advantage of the circumstances to resume hostilities with the USSR. Called the Continuation War, about 300 Finnish Jews served in their homeland army. German troops were allowed in Finland to help in the war against Russia. “The enemy of your enemy is your friend”, as the old saying goes, so the answer to the question posed in the title is: YES, Finnish Jewish soldiers were allied with the German Nazi military during 1941-1944.
To Finland’s credit, it never signed a formal agreement with Germany. It also refused German calls for any kind of persecution of Finnish Jews. By September 1944, World War II had turned against Germany. The Finnish president signed a separate peace with the Allies, ceding 10% of Finnish territory to the USSR, and declaring war on Germany. In response, the German troops that were already in Finland burned every town in Lapland.
There were a several interesting incidents during the 1941-44 war that deserve retelling:
The Finnish Jewish soldiers had a field synagogue operating in the presence of Nazi troops.
A Jewish singer named Sissy Wein was the most popular vocalist in Finland. She entertained the Finnish soldiers but refused to sing for the Germans.
A Jewish Finnish officer, Captain Solomon Klass, led his troops to save a German company that had been surrounded by Russians. For his heroism, Captain Klass was awarded the German Iron Cross, but it’s unclear whether he ever wore it.
Two other Jewish Finns were awarded the Iron Cross: Major Leo Skurnik saved 600 German patients when he successfully evacuated a German field hospital that was under Russian shelling. And Dina Poljakoff was a nurse who gave German soldiers wonderful care. Both Ms. Poljakoff and Major Skurnik refused the Iron Cross.
The only shame on the otherwise exemplary Finnish actions towards the Jews occurred late in 1942 when the Finns handed over 8 Jewish Austrian refugees (along with 19 other refugees) to the Germans. The Jews were promptly sent to their death in concentration camps. The disgraceful action caused such an uproar in Finland that no other foreign Jewish refugees were deported during the war. As noted above, no Finnish Jews were ever given to the Nazis despite the pleas of Heinrich Himmler.
After WW II some Finnish Jews, well versed in military action, went to Israel to fight for Israeli independence. They were followed by 200 more who made Aliyah to Israel. Now there are only 1500-2000 Jews in Finland, mostly in Helsinki. There are 200-300 in Finland’s second city, Turku, which has its own synagogue.
The good news and the bad is that Finnish Jews are completely integrated into their Nordic society. Intermarriage is the norm, so combined with emigration to Israel, the Jewish community is struggling to maintain its population and cultural institutions.
Both synagogues are Modern Orthodox, with services and Siddurim in Hebrew and Finnish. The Finnish language itself is rather difficult, and is related only to Estonian and Hungarian. But in 2013 the Helsinki synagogue welcomed its first Finnish-speaking rabbi.
Among the prominent Jewish Finns is Max Jakobsen, the former Ambassador to the United Nations. Another, Ben Zyskowicz, was elected to the Finnish Parliament in 1979, and continues there to this day.
After the talk, Mr. Zweig gave us a brief multi-lingual concert with his guitar and excellent voice. Then we drove to a park in Helsinki where we saw a good-sized, somber memorial to the 8 Austrian Jews who were handed over to the Germans.
The Jewish community in Finland is small but thriving. Especially after learning of its unique history, we can hope it will survive and flourish.