The big story of a small Nordic Jewish community
By Rony Smolar
Lay of the Land has over the months published many articles on the systematic mass murder of the Jews in Eastern Europe, particularly exposing the wide collaboration of the local populations of many of these countries and the coverup of their governments today. When one learns that the Jewish community of Lithuania was virtually wiped out wile at the most, there were only 1000 German soldiers at any one-time during WWII in this Baltic republic, one then begins to question:
Who helped the Nazis do all the killing?
A surprising twist in the Scandinavian tale is the experience of the Jews of Finland, a country that participated in WWII initially in a defensive war against the Soviet Union, followed by another battle against the Soviet Union acting in concert with Nazi Germany and then finally fighting alongside the Allies against Germany.
So how the Jews in this Nordic state escaped the fate of their co-religionists elsewhere in all of Europe, Rony Smolar, Chairman of the Helsinki Jewish Congregation and Central Council of the Jewish Communities in Finland provides surprising answers and insights.
David E. Kaplan, Editor – Lay of the Land
What you may be surprised to learn is that during 1941-1944, the comradeship-in-arms between Finland and Germany led to an almost surreal situation, such as when German soldiers solemnly attended prayer services in a Finnish synagogue on the front line, just some miles from the battles. There they sat and listened when the Jewish soldiers of Finland read their prayers and portions of the Bible from the Torah scrolls that were donated by the Helsinki Jewish congregation. The German soldiers that were sent to the eastern front to reinforce the Finnish positions never interfered with the sermons.
I learned this from my late father, Isaac – Sholka‖ Smolar, who founded this unique synagogue called – ‘Sholkas shul’, almost as a challenge to the German soldiers.
My father also told me that the Jewish soldiers in the synagogue were confused, even afraid, when they saw German soldiers sitting shoulder to shoulder with praying Jewish men. The Jewish worshipers noticed that some of the Germans even showed a certain respect for the service.
This surprising experience took place while elsewhere in Europe, Jews were persecuted, as synagogues were burned and desecrated. However, this peculiar paradox – of Jewish soldiers in the Finnish army fighting alongside German soldiers against a common enemy – the Russians, did not stop here.
Where else in wartime Europe did German soldiers, whose own country had sworn to free Europe from all Jews, would salute Jewish officers or that Jewish medical officers would treat German SS-men whose lives were literally placed in Jewish hands? On one occasion, a Jewish major in the Finnish medical corps – risking his own life and under heavy enemy fire – managed to transfer a whole German field hospital to a safer location!
Where else did it happen that German army officers awarded Jews the Iron Cross for bravery that they defiantly declined to accept?
The field synagogue – Sholka ́s shul‖ – stood out as a beacon literally reflecting the wartime attitude of the Finnish authorities towards its small Jewish population of some 2,000 souls. While priests provided important counseling on the battlefield and were supplied with portable altars and pulpits for prayer services, Jews, due to their small numbers, had to provide for their own. The military authorities showed understanding toward the religious needs of Jewish soldiers, and whenever possible, they were granted leave on religious holidays and were permitted to set up and pray in their field synagogues.
The synagogue functioned as a meeting place for the Jewish soldiers. They would travel over long distances on skis and on horseback for the Sabbath prayers. Many wanted to meet friends; and so the synagogue became a place where they could share experiences and enjoy traditional food from Jewish delicatessens sent from home.
The attitude of the German army command toward the Jews and the synagogue in Finland was exceptional. They considered the field synagogue to be an internal Finnish affair, something that demanded respect and a matter in which they had no right to interfere. Not even the German diplomatic corps, or military staff in Finland, tried to have the synagogue closed.
The Jewish soldiers in the Finnish army certainly did not feel comfortable fighting alongside the Germans, but some documents show that the Germans also found it extremely difficult to believe that they would be fighting side-by-side with Jewish soldiers in the Finnish war. Many had never met a Jew and were heavily influenced by Nazi propaganda.
The fact that many of the Jewish soldiers spoke Yiddish, a language that resembles German, helped them to communicate, though this caused friction in some situations between the Jewish and non-Jewish Finnish soldiers that could not find a common language with the Germans.
When the Winter War broke out in November 1939, the small Jewish community was fully prepared to offer their sons in the defense of Finland.
One hundred ten Jewish men participated in the war, fifteen of whom were killed in action. The Winter War was, for Finnish Jews, considered to be a war of independence, where it could be said that Jews had ultimately fought for the the right to be called Finns. Two hundred sixty-seven men participated in the Continuation War of 1941-1944, in addition to the many Jewish women who served in the Finnish women’s auxiliary defense services, called Lotta Svärd‖, and other civilian works. Eight Jewish men were killed in that war.
From the Jewish perspective, the situation during the Continuation War was unique. The Jewish soldiers of Finland were fighting on the same side as Germany, a country that sought the extermination of Jews in Europe. From the Jewish soldiers’ perspective, it was strange for them to fight their Russian brothers of the same faith who were amongst the enemy forces. Finnish Jews have their roots deep in Russia; in some cases, cousin fought a cousin and uncle fought his nephew.
Jewish soldiers fulfilled their duties concerned and uncertain about their future. Afterall, Jews thought differently from the majority of the Finnish population, who believed that if Germany lost the war, Finland would also lose; but if the Germans were to win, so would Finland. Regardless of whether the Soviet Union or Germany won the war, the Jews saw themselves as always being on the losing side. It is important to stress that the fear of Germany was overshadowed by a passion to preserve Finnish independence and retake the lands taken by Stalin in the Winter War.
However, FEAR dogged the footsteps of Jewish soldiers as they went about their duties. As reports of the horrible fates of Jews in other parts of Europe spread, doubts entered their minds. They wondered would they and their families meet a similar fate? There were incidents of threats aimed at the Jewish soldiers, especially in the far northern sector of the battles in the Finnish Lapland, where an SS northern division operated. The fears were sometimes exaggerated, though not unfounded.
Finnish Jews were also in a difficult position in the eyes of the Jewish refugees, who in the late 1930s had escaped from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They questioned how it was that Jews could serve defending Finland alongside Germans? Being allied with Germany was a major moral question that every Jewish soldier would face for years to come.
After the war it was uneasy for Finnish Jews when questions were asked from Jews from other parts of the world.
- How was it possible that Finnish Jews fought side by side with German soldiers?
- Didn’t Finnish Jews know what was happening in the Third Reich and Nazi occupied areas?
- Hadn’t anyone told them that the annihilation of the Jews in Europe was in full speed?
- Why were Jewish soldiers fighting against the Soviet Union knowing that this could lengthen Hitler’s time in power?
- Were Finland’s Jews traitors?
The reputation of Jewish soldiers as Germany’s allies was questioned years later at the Congress of World Jewish War Veterans in Jerusalem. Veterans from other countries refused to have anything to do with the representatives from Finland.
Needless to say, the full wartime picture needed urgent enlightening. The big question remained:
Could Finland’s Jewish men have refused to participate alongside Germany during the Continuation War?
The answer is definitely no. That would have been a dereliction of duty from a Finnish perspective and would have risked the lives of all Jews in Finland.
Veteran Jewish soldiers later explained their actions by saying that Finland was fighting its own, separate war against its eastern neighbor, an enemy which it shared with Germany, and that Jewish soldiers defended neither Germany’s interests nor the expansion of Nazi Germany’s rule. Like other Finns, they fought for the independence of Finland.
It was only after the war ended that reports began to circulate about demands by Nazi Germany for the liquidation of the Jewish community in Finland. The fate of the Jews in Finland could have been similar to that of the Jews of Hungary, Norway, or Estonia, since they were also included in the Wannsee Protocol of January 1942, known as Endlösung, the Final Solution, that listed 11 million Jews of Europe that were to be destroyed by the Nazi regime. The document listed the 2,300 Finnish Jews, one of the smallest communities. Did this small number save the Jews of Finland? That connection has not been proven. In other words, Finland’s Jews did not have numbers to warrant German attention.
Germany placed greater weight on maintaining a good working relationship with Finland than on pursuing anti-Jewish initiatives that would have risked disrupting the military collaboration by provoking public and official Finnish opposition. Furthermore, the Nazi propaganda trumpeting allegations of Jewish economic influence would have had little resonance in wartime Finland, where Jews were mostly involved in small businesses having little effect on the Finnish economy.
Also, while Finland was not immune to antisemitism, the sentiment was never widespread or violent.
It is worth mentioning that during World War II, Finnish attitudes toward minorities in general, and Jews in particular, stemmed from the Nazi ideology identifying Jews with Bolshevists. A number of Soviet leaders and well-known Bolsheviks were Jews. This fact easily led people to conclude that when a person is Jew, he must be a Bolshevik – and an enemy of Finland. In the light of Nazi Germany’s race doctrine, Finland and the Scandinavian countries were viewed as members of the superior, northern race. The achievements of Finland’s Winter War were so impressive that the Germans felt inclined to elevate the Finns racially to almost Germanic in comparison.
In certain circles in Finland, this raised questionable interest.
An example of this took place in a classroom in Helsinki when a teacher, during a biology class, called a Jewish student to the front of the class. He measured his skull to demonstrate that the boy belonged to an inferior race. The Jews of Finland were on edge when Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler came to visit just half a year after the crucial Wannsee Conference. Then, Prime Minister of Finland Johan Rangell revealed after the war that his German guest had asked him about the question of the Jews in Finland, to which he replied
similar to those of King Christian X of Denmark, “Wir haben keine Judenfrage‖”, meaning:
“We don’t have any Jewish question.”
Documents show that this topic was dropped and never raised again, even though there is evidence that Himmler was interested in the Jews of Finland. In an unguarded moment during Himmler’s visit, the Finnish Army’s intelligence managed to photograph the documents in the Nazi leader’s briefcase. In addition to containing military plans, as expected, it also included a copy of the Wannsee Conference ́s protocols that listed the number of Finnish Jews with their names and addresses.
In the archives, there is a transcript of the meeting between Himmler and his host, Marshal Mannerheim. It shows that the German guest tried to initiate discussion about the Jews. “Not even one single Jewish soldier will be taken from my army to be turned over to Germany. That cannot happen except over my dead body”, stated Mannerheim. It appears that Mannerheim’s resolute response made an overpowering impression on Himmler. There is evidence that Hitler was reportedly awed by Mannerheim as well. Hitler flew to Finland in June 1942 to congratulate Mannerheim on his seventy-fifth birthday. Whatever the words spoken on that occasion, Mannerheim’s part in shielding Finland’s Jews from Germany is widely acknowledged.
Jews in Helsinki lived in fear, even though they continued to enjoy full civil rights throughout the war. Democracy and rule of law prevailed in the country and anti-Jewish laws were non-existent. Many secretly followed the movements of German troops in the streets of Helsinki with horror. Swastika banners were everywhere. Jews kept their distance from German soldiers and avoided all kinds of contact with them.
In other parts of Finland as well, Jews avoided German soldiers. In a restaurant in the city of Turku, a few drunken German soldiers demanded that a Jewish man leave the premises or they would rearrange his nose. The manager of the restaurant advised his Jewish customer to leave, and so he did.
There was also an incident where a famous Jewish soprano who in a concert for German troops, turned down a request by the audience to sing the Horst Wessel Song, the song that had become the Nazi Party anthem and Germany’s official co-national anthem from 1933 to 1945. This was an act of bravery.
During the war, there were about 150 Jewish refugees in Finland, mainly from Germany and Austria. Entrance had been rather easy, for Finland had existing agreements with Germany and Austria for traveling without a visa. Due to possible repercussions resulting from joint Finnish-German relations and for fear of incidents, officials (especially the Interior Ministry of Finland and its subordinate, the feared state police, Valpo), took care to keep the Jewish refugees away from Helsinki. The authorities did not want the German soldiers to come face-to-face with any Jewish refugees in the capital, so they were transferred to small villages to fend for themselves.
Language difficulties and lack of funds meant that refugees faced a very difficult situation in their isolation. In cooperation with the authorities, Jewish congregations around Finland came to their aid and they were provided with funds, employment and clothing. For the Jewish holidays; they also received traditional provisions, religious books and so on.
A Finnish Jewish businessman by the name of Abraham Stiller (the brother of the famous film producer from the 1920s and 1930s, Mauritz Stiller, who made the Swede Greta Garbo a prominent movie star in Hollywood) became both a defender and a mouthpiece of his Jewish brethren. His humanitarian efforts were felt by Jewish prisoners of war (POWs) from the Red Army and even Muslim Tatars who were captured by Finland. Stiller visited most POW camps where Red Army Jews were imprisoned.
By the end of the war, Abraham Stiller had saved the lives of 150 Jews who had sought for refuge in Finland. In later years, he would become known as the “Schindler of Finland”.
A dramatic turn took place in November 1942, when Finnish security personnel, operating in secrecy, handed eight foreign Jews into the hands of Gestapo in occupied Estonia, the southern neighbor of Finland. Press censorship could not stop the news of these deportations from reaching both Finnish Jews and the 150 refugees.
Abraham Stiller was one of the first people to receive a written message about impending deportations. Stiller was furious and made the information public. He contacted his good friend, then Minister Väinö Tanner, who in turn contacted other members of the government. This created a government crisis. In order to solve the crisis, Prime Minister Rangell had to give in to the pro-German Minister of Interiors ́ claims that those to be deported were spies and criminals. Members of the Finnish and Swedish press promoted public awareness of the deportations, and the changed atmosphere in Finland toward the end of 1942 helped to improve the situation for Jewish refugees.
Jews at the time were afraid that this small deportation might be part of a much larger one. Some were even convinced that the German cargo ships that frequently were in the port of Helsinki were ready to transport them out of Finland. In fact, the cargo ships were arriving frequently because the Germans brought in arms, ammunition, equipment, and food.
Fifty-eight years later, at the unveiling ceremony of a monument in the memory of these eight deportees, the Finnish Prime Minister asked for forgiveness from the Jewish community on behalf of Finland and Finnish people. It was “a moment of shame” in the country’s history, he said. The Church of Finland, which during the war had kept quiet about the fate of the Jews in Finland, asked for forgiveness.
Jews have been living in Finland for the past 150 years. Many of them had fled from Czarist Russia, avoiding the sons being conscripted into the Russian Army for up to 25 years. Both my grandfathers came to Finland before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Jews of those times were observant, spoke only Russian and Yiddish, and were skilled mainly in manual work and in dealing with secondhand clothing.
One of the first tasks was to build prayer rooms close to their residences or workplaces. In 1906, they had collected money to build the main synagogue in Helsinki that still exists and is now a tourist attraction. Our forefathers founded burial societies, various social aid organizations, and the Sport Club Maccabi, the oldest (uninterrupted) existing Jewish sports club in the world. Then came the Yiddish theater groups, literature clubs, the Jewish choir, and many other cultural activities that are a large part of modern Jewish Finnish life.
Since Jews were granted full civil rights immediately after the independence of Finland in 1917, they have been an essential part of the Finnish society. Jews are active in politics; in culture; and in various professions, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants. Today, there are only about 1,300 Jews in Finland, but the main congregation in Helsinki is able to provide all the services that the community requires.
In multicultural Finland today, we see ourselves as Finns of Jewish faith. Outsiders – among them the prime minister of Finland – have described the Finnish Jews as “the soul of Finnish society”. What a striking description about a small community that has managed to survive and provide hope and guidance to newcomers!
About the Writer:
Born in Helsinki, Rony Smolar is an editor, news correspondent, author, lecturer and historian who has worked as a correspondent covering the Middle East for the Broadcasting Company of Finland as well as for Finnish newspapers. He has authored a number of books on Finland’s Jewish community and is currently working on a folklore history about Finnish Jewry. He also host a weekly radio program “Newsweek in Israel”. He is a past President of the Jewish congregation in Helsinki, a past President of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland and a past Vice-President of the European Jewish Congress.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).