The Jews of Finland: A short, convoluted history

Jewish roots in Finland go back only a century and a half.

helsinki kosher deli 298 (photo credit: Matt Siegel )
helsinki kosher deli 298
(photo credit: Matt Siegel )
For any forthcoming edition of Jewish Trivial Pursuit, the Jewish community of Finland might become a source of inspiration. Consider just these two stumpers: Which Diaspora community contributed the most volunteers per capita during the Israeli War of Independence? In which front did Jews fight alongside Nazi soldiers in World War II? Jewish roots in Finland go back only a century and a half. The first Jews to settle permanently in this northern land were retired czarist Russian soldiers granted the right of settlement anywhere in the empire regardless of religion. Local tradition says this was in 1858. Sixty years later, in December 1917 - following Finland's independence from Russia - the country's Parliament granted their descendants full citizenship. Finland's Jewish population rose between the two world wars, reaching approximately 2,000 in 1939. During the 1940 war between Finland and Russia, known here as the Winter War, Finnish Jews fought alongside their countrymen. But most surprising to those unfamiliar with this nation's Jewish community could be the fact that Finnish Jews fought in World War II alongside Germany on the Russian front, as their country allied itself with the Nazis. Even more unusual, the Finnish government afforded Jews full civil rights throughout the war despite strong pressure from the Nazis. Today's community has a memory of a "field synagogue" built by Finnish soldiers in which they could conduct services alongside SS units. Most interesting, perhaps, is another local story of a Jewish soldier who defied death to rescue a battalion of SS soldiers pinned down by enemy fire. Offered an Iron Cross he refused, in flawless German. When a German officer asked where he learned to speak so well, the soldier reportedly answered that he was Jewish, and that since Yiddish was his mother language, it was easy for him to speak German. He then marched out of the deathly silent tent. The Finnish government supported his refusal of the award. The question of the Finnish government's wartime alliance with the Nazis - the country was never occupied in World War II - is often misunderstood outside of Finland, says Dan Kantor, executive director of the Jewish Community of Helsinki. "We allied with the Germans because they were the only ones who could help us, who came to help us against Russia," Kantor said. Far from betraying the country's Jews, the death of 23 Jewish soldiers fighting for independence "was really, in a way, some kind of emancipation," he said. That perspective is supported by the fact that no Finnish Jew was turned over to the Nazis during the war. Eight Austrian Jewish refugees who fled to Finland during the Holocaust were deported. During Israel's War of Independence, the 29 Finnish volunteers constituted the highest per capita contribution from any Diaspora community, according to Finland's office of the Jewish Agency for Israel. After the State of Israel was born, Finland had a high rate of aliyah, which reduced Finland's Jewish population considerably. As a result, the country's third-largest Jewish community, in the city of Tampere, ceased operations in 1981. An influx of Russian Jews since the collapse of the Soviet Union has helped revitalize the community while again linking it to its Russian roots. The Jewish day school in Helsinki now serves more than 110 students, up from about 60 in the 1980s. Kantor estimates that at least 75 percent of students have at least one immigrant in their immediate family, primarily Russians and Israelis who live and work in Finland. Besides Finnish and Hebrew, Russian is now the most prevalent language at the school. The country's 1,500 or so Jews continue to have a strong influence on Finnish life. From Max Jakobson, the former Finnish ambassador to the United Nations and candidate for secretary general in 1971, to Ben Zyskowicz - who in 1979 became the first Jewish member of Parliament - the Jews of Finland are part of a unique and accepting culture.