After a visit to peripatetic St.Petersburg, one welcomes the quiet and calm of Helsinki.
Ah, the quiet Finns.
One reason the city is so peaceful is that 10 percent of Finland’s land is water, and 69% is forested.
Helsinki is a city with 315 islands, a peninsula surrounded by sea.
Bounded on the north by Norway, on the east by Russia, on the south by the Baltic Sea and on the west by the Gulf of Bothnia and Sweden, Finland is as beautiful as a picture postcard, with 187,888 lakes – one lake for every 26 persons.
The Finns like to say there are part of south Scandinavia, for Finland is associated more with Scandinavia than its neighbors to the south, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Very independent people in a very independent country.
A Finnish travel professional told me of a popular saying in her homeland: “We don’t want to be Swedes, we don’t want to be Russians, let us just be Finns.” To put it bluntly, their history is racked with pain caused by neighbors.
Russia and Sweden fought numerous wars on Finnish soil from the 1500s through the 1700s. Helsinki was twice nearly destroyed in the fighting. The city passed from Sweden to Russian rule in 1809. In 1812, Czar Alexander I made Helsinki the capital of Finland and ordered a large-scale program of city planning and reconstruction, including many impressive buildings around Senate Square.
Finnish Jews were granted full civil rights when the country became independent in 1917 Russia still conjures up bad memories with those Finns who actually fought the Soviets to a standstill in the 105-day winter war in 1939-1940. Many Jews served in the Finnish Army in that war, as well as during the Continuation War of 1941-1944. In the latter conflict against the USSR, losses suffered by Finnish Jews were substantial: of the country’s Jewish population no less than a fifth had served in the Finnish armed forces (more than 300 men, of whom 23 were killed).
Unbelievable was the fact that Jewish soldiers fought in units that were alongside German soldiers in World War II. During that war, the Finnish government, despite the fact that it fought on the German side against the USSR and despite strong German pressure, refused to enforce anti-Jewish legislation, though 27 persons, including eight Jews, were handed over to the Nazis for deportation. That incident caused an uproar in the government and deportations were halted.
Twenty-nine boys from Finland joined as volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence, proportionately the highest number in the Diaspora, it is claimed. Finland was the third nation, after the US and the USSR, to recognize the State of Israel.
Twenty-three Finnish Jews volunteered in the Six Day War.
CITY SITES Walk around Market Square and watch the people. Look out to the water buses in the south harbor.
Stroll along Esplanade Park surrounded by shopping streets. Attend concerts at the bandstand. Buy fruit in the market near the water.
After a boat ride, tour Kamppi, the shopping center with 129 shops and 21 restaurants. Or admire the goods in the wonderful Stockmann Department Store in downtown Helsinki. Stand in nearby Senate Square and view the neoclassic architecture in this “land of the sauna.” The Jean Sibelius Memorial in Sibelius Park and Finlandia Hall remain sites not to be missed.
JEWISH SITES About 1,200 Jews live in Finland, most of them in and around Helsinki.
There are a number of Israelis in the Finnish capital. Over the years, a number of Israeli men met Finnish women in Israel and relocated to Helsinki.
As for Finnish Jews, most of the older generation are independent businesspeople or shopkeepers, while the younger generation enter the professions. Most of Helsinki’s Jews are upper and middle class.
The Helsinki Synagogue and Jewish Community Center is located at Malminkatu 26. (www.Jchelsinki.
fl). Services at the synagogue are at 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. on Friday, depending on the season. On Saturday services begin at 9 a.m. All religious services are conducted in the synagogue, which is about to celebrate its 110th anniversary.
Simon Livson is the rabbi at the synagogue/community center.
This house of worship/center hosts a Jewish day school with an attendance of nearly 100 pupils.
Preserved in the synagogue is a wreath presented by Field Marshall Carl G. Mannerheim when he made a visit to synagogue services in 1944. The wreath memorialized the 23 Jewish soldiers who died in the Russo-Finnish War. Mannerheim was president of Finland from 1944 to 1946. His statue stands tall in several places, including near the Parliament Building in Helsinki.
His former house is now The Mannerheim Museum. To the Finns, Mannerheim is George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill all rolled into one.
Jewish senior citizens say it was Mannerheim who saved the Jews.
Chabad is very active in Helsinki and is located at Mariankatu 3, (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.lubavitch.
fl, Tel: 358-9-444-770). Tourists are invited to Chabad’s Shabbat dinner, time depending on the week during the various seasons.
Rabbi Wolff, who is from Morristown, New Jersey, welcomes visitors.
“Wherever a Yid is, he knows he always has a home here when traveling,” he declares. His main task he feels is education, “what it means to be Jewish.”
While there is assimilation, Rabbi Wolff believes the high rate has been checked.
One comes away from talking to Rabbi Wolff with the knowledge that Chabad conducts a wide range of activities for young people. Trips to Israel as well as Purim carnival, matzah baking, trips and sojourns with other Jews in Tallinn, Estonia.
As in other lands, Chabad sponsors a huge Hanukka-lighting ceremony near the city’s central railway station. A childcare center has been set up by Chabad for ages one through four.
Kosher food can be obtained at the synagogue/community center (www.avicatering.com). Next door to the synagogue, at Malminkatu 24, is Zaafran & Co., Finland’s only kosher deli, café and market (358- 442-564-032, www.zaafranco.fl, www.zaafranco.com/v1/).
Across the street from the synagogue stands the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, at Runeberginkatu 2.
Finns insist the Finnish are neither Scandinavian nor Slavic. They are descended, they say, from wandering tribes who probably came from west of Russia’s Ural Mountains and settled on the swampy shores of the Gulf of Finland before the Christian era. The Finnish tongue belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group and is related to Estonian and very distantly, Hungarian.
Finns are trying to keep their national identity.
Jews voice their happiness living in Finland. Why not? Finland’s economy generally is good. A very homogeneous society, Finland is attempting to keep its national identity.The writer is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition (Pelican Publishing Company) and A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, (Pelican Publishing Company).Follow him on twitter @bengfrank , www.bengfrank.blogspot.com.