Finland’s Jewish dilemma

Despite the anti-Semitism of some members of the establishment during WWII, the phenomenon was never institutionalized there.

Finland_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Finland’s commitment to protecting its Jewish citizens during World War II has been well documented, but the arrival prior to the war of some 300 foreign Jewish refugees exposed the presence of a small cabal of Nazi sympathizers inside the establishment.
The survival of Finnish Jewry has become a popular topic in recent years, particularly because of the paradox in which Jewish soldiers in the Finnish army fought alongside their country’s German cobelligerents in the Continuation War against the Soviet Union from 1941-44.
Germany’s SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler attempted to win their deportation when he visited Finland in the summer of 1942, but he was firmly rebuffed by prime minister J.W. Rangell, who told him: “We do not have a Jewish question.”
This special protection afforded the Jews of Finland was featured in a recent exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum, and plans are in the works for a Hebrew-language play set around the Sholkas shul, the field synagogue established near the German troops on the eastern front with the support of the Finnish military.
However, the story of the refugees, eight of whom were eventually handed over to the Gestapo, highlights the dilemmas that arose from Finland’s brief alliance with Nazi Germany.
Retired journalist Rony Smolar, whose father Isak founded the field synagogue, is the author of a Finnish-language book on Abraham Stiller, an influential Helsinki Jew who used his contacts in the government to defend and represent the refugees.
Smolar says the refugees began arriving from Austria and Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938 via the German port of Stettin. Around 150 continued their journey to neutral Sweden, but the other half were forcibly enlisted into labor camps as Finland prepared for the Winter War, the first of the two wars it would fight against the USSR during World War II.
Due to possible repercussions resulting from Finnish-German camaraderie and for fear of incidents, the authorities transported many of the refugees to remote camps beyond the Arctic Circle. Although that decision was ostensibly made to protect the refugees, Smolar says they weren’t given many tools for survival, adding: “They were allowed to enter Finland only on the condition that the Finnish Jewish community look after them.”
In harsh conditions, the refugees were treated poorly by their labor camp commanders and were forced to perform tasks such as making barbed wire with their bare hands. They all knew Stiller through the Jewish community, and it was to him that they wrote their complaints.
Stiller was a wealthy businessman by this time, but his impoverished childhood helped shape his worldview, Smolar says. Accordingly, Stiller took it upon himself to become a mouthpiece not only for the refugees but also for Jewish and even Tatar Muslim prisoners of war from the Red Army, to whom he distributed Korans provided by the Helsinki Islamic congregation.
AT THE same time, Stiller’s reputation was so strong that the government even sent him to Stockholm to meet the Soviet ambassador in an attempt to find a solution to the war.
Then, one day in October 1942, Stiller received a tipoff that the Valpo (secret police) was planning to hand nine refugees over to the Germans, so he began contacting his friends, including Social Democrat cabinet ministers Väinö Tanner and Karl August Fagerholm, who tried to convince Rangell to prevent the deportation.
Throughout the next week the drama unfolded, even making it into the local press, with Stiller and his allies pitted against a group led by Valpo chief Aarno Anthoni and interior minister Toivo Horelli, both of whom saw a place for themselves in a German-occupied Europe and both believed sympathetic to Nazi ideology.
Taking full advantage of the country’s precarious wartime position, Horelli caused the cabinet to split on November 4 when he demanded that Rangell allow him the final decision on the deportation or he would leave the wartime national unity government. Faced with the ultimatum, the cabinet voted 4-3 in favor of letting Horelli decide – with Tanner, Fagerholm and one other opposing.
On November 6, 1942, the steamship Hohenhorn left for Nazi-occupied Estonia with eight Jewish refugees aboard. Seven were to become victims of the Holocaust, while one, Georg Kollman, was to survive.
According to Smolar, the ninth refugee, Dr. Walter Cohen, earned a reprieve because he was so popular in the small town of Pietarsaari – where authorities had sent him – that 5,000 people signed a petition protesting his deportation.
The deportation of the eight was played out in public, but later studies claim that more Jews may have been deported in secrecy. It is also known that 79 Jewish Soviet POWs were handed to the Nazis, although it is unproven whether their Jewishness played a part in that decision.
Toward the end of the war, Anthoni and Horelli were replaced, creating what Smolar calls an “improved” atmosphere and making it possible for most of the remaining Jewish refugees to be shipped to Sweden.
However, even that journey was not without its complications. As the nervous Finnish authorities waited for the last passenger to arrive at the port in Turku, Stiller told them to be patient, saying: “For 2,000 years you have been waiting for one Jew, so now you can wait a couple of hours more for this Jew.”
On November 6, 2000, the 58th anniversary of the deportation, prime minister Paavo Lipponen asked for forgiveness from the Jewish community. Today a memorial stands on a hill overlooking Helsinki’s South Port, from where the Hohenhorn had set sail.
Despite the anti-Semitism of some members of the establishment, Smolar says that the phenomenon was never institutionalized in Finland. “We Finnish Jews couldn’t have supported the refugee Jews if we hadn’t been so well established here and if we hadn’t had the full support of the authorities,” he says. “Jews have always had a good name, a good reputation as citizens of Finland.”
Smolar emphasizes that 300 Jewish men and women participated in the war, almost 20 percent of the community’s total population at the time, adding that Stiller, as all Jews, believed it was important to defend Finnish independence.
“Whether Hitler or Stalin had won the war, the Jews of Finland would have been the victims,” he says.