Haaretz, 8 October 2010 **** Front Page

The Strange Story of Finnish Jews and WW2

In the annals of Finnish history lies the untold story of Jewish Finns who fought the Soviets in a string of wars that coincided with WWII. Almost seventy years later, these veterans still find themselves debunking to the world their unholy alliance with Nazi Germany.

By Hannu Reime

HELSINKI, Finland - Hietaniemi cemetery, the oldest graveyard in use in Finland's capital, is located downtown, close to the city's western waterfront. Many leading figures in the country's history have been laid to rest in this beautiful green park between the sea and one of the city's major thoroughfares.

Almost unnoticed within the confines of the large Hietaniemi area is the Helsinki Jewish cemetery. Surrounded by old moss-covered stone walls, it is separated from the predominant Christian Lutheran graves there, as are the graves of other minority religious denominations in Hietaniemi.

Passing through a gate into the Jewish cemetery, one immediately notices on the right-hand side a small area demarcated by a low fence made of heavy iron chains. Here lie Finnish-Jewish war heroes - young men who fought and died in the wars of 1939-44 between Finland and the Soviet Union. A large black stone slab with the dates 1939-1944, a Star of David and a picture of a hand brandishing a sword engraved in it, dominates the small plot where the graves are arranged in rows. Each grave is marked by a marble slab bearing the name and dates of birth and death of the person buried there.

On a beautiful day, in the sunlight of summer, the Jewish cemetery is quiet. An elderly man, a non-Jew (he tells me), is watering flowers on the grave of his Jewish wife, while an old couple is taking care of the plants on another grave.

A few kilometers away, on the slopes of what is called Observatory Hill, just across the southern harbor of Helsinki, there's another monument commemorating the Jews in Finland — a simple structure that was erected 10 years ago in memory of eight Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany, who were handed over by the Finns to the Gestapo in November 1942; all save one perished in the Holocaust. The German liner SS Hohenhorn, which carried the refugees from Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, set sail from the southern harbor right below the place where the monument now stands.

The names of the eight are engraved in the dark gray stone of the monument. Actually, there were 27 people who were forced onboard the Hohenhorn against their will. The Gestapo had received them from its Finnish counterpart, the Valpo state police, in the harbor of the capital of German-occupied Estonia. Nineteen of the deported were Soviet citizens, of whom five were Jews.

The Jewish war heroes' graves and the monument on the hill are emblematic of the fate of Jews in Finland during the years 1941-44, when the country was allied with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, their common enemy. The fact that Finnish Jews fought in an army allied with Hitler's Germany is very peculiar — not only in the history of Finland, but also in that of World War II, when the Nazis put their lunatic racial fantasies into practice and declared that Jews all over the world were enemies who had to be exterminated down to the last soul.

Four wars

There has been one civil war and three wars against external enemies in the 92-year-old history of independent Finland. The Finnish Civil War of 1918, which was more or less part of the revolutionary wave that swept over Europe after the Russian Revolution, was fought between indigenous Red and White armies in Finland. As in most domestic conflicts, there were also external actors involved. The defeated side — revolutionary social democratic organizations and their Red Guards — received help from radical Russian soldiers and sailors living in the country, while the victorious Whites were supported by the Baltic division of Imperial Germany, which landed in Hanko on the southern coast of Finland. In fact, the Germans defeated the Reds in Helsinki before the main forces of the Whites even reached the capital. The terrible "White Terror" that followed the civil war in 1918, characterized by mass imprisonment in concentration camps and summary executions, was just one item on the long list of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the 20th century.

Members of the small Jewish community of Finland were granted civil equality in late-1917. This important event actually took place between Finland's declaration of independence on December 6, 1917, and the outbreak of the civil war in January 1918. Practically no Jews took part in that war. It should be noted that it took five more years for the law on religious freedom to be enacted: Only after 1922 was it permissible for a Finnish citizen to define himself officially as not affiliated to any religion.

The Winter War (1939-40) between Finland and the Soviet Union broke out after the Finnish government rejected Stalin's territorial claims and demands for military bases to be built inside the country. In that war, Finland fought bravely, and alone, against the overwhelmingly more powerful enemy. It lost important areas to Russia, the Finnish Karelia among them, but was not occupied. Finnish Jews fought in the Winter War on equal footing with their countrymen; 15 were killed on the battlefield. Altogether about 25,000 Finns lost their lives in that war. Among them were 1,000 civilians who died in the bombardments of cities and towns.

The next war between Finland and the Soviet Union, fought in 1941-44, is called the "Continuation War" in Finnish historiography, because it was seen as being the direct continuation of the events of 1939-40. In it, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany, and whatever war aims Finland's own leadership may have had, Hitler saw the contribution of the Finns as an integral part of his Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, which was launched in June 1941. During that operation, the Nazis set in motion their war of extermination against European Jewry. Despite the enormous crimes perpetrated by Finland's waffenbruder, the country's Jews took part in the Continuation War in exactly the same way and with the same loyalty as they had in the Winter War; eight were killed on the battlefield between 1941 and 1944.

Of Finland's four wars, the last one was fought against the country's former German allies in the northernmost territory of the country — hence its name: the Lapland War. It started after the armistice with the Soviets in September 1944 and lasted until the following April. Finnish Jews also fought in the Lapland War together with other Finns.

In total, about 300 Finnish Jews took part in the three wars from 1939 to 1945. And when the first Israeli-Arab war broke out in Palestine in 1948, 28 Finnish Jews went to fight as volunteers, most of them veterans of wars in Finland.

There are almost 60,000 Finnish war veterans alive today, but only 22 are Jews. The Jewish community of Finland has always been very small, never reaching 2,000 and usually closer to about 1,000 souls.

Veterans reminisce

I meet Aron Livson in his beautiful terraced house in the lush area of Espoo, the Western satellite town of the greater Helsinki area. Livson is 94 years old but still in good shape both physically and mentally. He's the chairman of the Finnish-Jewish War Veterans' Association, which was established in 1979 and belongs to the national war veterans' organization.

Livson has made his living in private business. His father was originally a skilled artisan, who established a factory called Eastern Finland's Cap Factory, in Vyborg (in Finnish Viipuri), the main town of Finnish Karelia, during the early years of the country's independence. The younger Livson performed his military service in the infantry regiment of Vyborg's famous Karelian Guard. After completing his peacetime service and returning to civilian life, Livson was again called to arms in 1939 just before the Winter War broke out.

During that war, Livson fought in the Karelian Isthmus, defending this legendary and nostalgia-ridden area between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, which the country lost at the end of the war, reconquered during the first phase of the Continuation War in 1941, and finally lost again after heavy battles in the summer of 1944.

When the Continuation War broke out in June 1941, Aron Livson found himself fighting again in the Isthmus. After the Finnish forces had crossed the old border, with some disgruntlement among the ranks, they advanced, captured East Karelia's capital Petrozavodsk and reached the important river Svir, which flows from Lake Onega to Lake Ladoga.

Livson fought in various localities in East Karelia. In February 1942 he was wounded by shrapnel. After recovery in a military hospital he worked at the district offices of the Civil Guard in the southern port city of Kotka. He rose to the rank of warrant officer without ever going to any military school.

When Livson starts to speak, I immediately recognize his Vyborg-Karelian accent, which brings to mind cozy reminiscences from childhood. Like Livson, my own parents belonged to the 400,000 Finnish-Karelians who fled from the areas annexed by the Soviet Union; they had constituted about 10 percent of Finland's population.

Livson recalls that he was always the only Jew in the units where he fought, and he never saw any German officers at the front. The first Germans he came across during the war were in Kotka when he was doing office work. His father had established a shop in the same town. "My father never let German soldiers enter his boutique," Livson notes.

While at the front in both wars, Livson served from time to time as an interpreter when Soviet prisoners of war were interrogated. He knew Russian and Yiddish from his parents, although his native language is Finnish.

Once, during the Winter War, when stationed in a town southeast of Vyborg, he was in charge of two very young prisoners of war: "I gave them 100 marks each to buy something at the canteen. My superiors got angry and threatened me with unpleasant consequences. But the matter was left at that, and I was spared any further troubles."

Personally, Livson says he didn't experience any anti-Semitism in the military during the wars, although anti-Jewish prejudices had surely existed in pre-war Finland, especially in right-wing nationalist circles. But there had been a turning point in the Winter War, when Finnish Jews served just as loyally as their countrymen. The horrible scope of the Holocaust could not be totally grasped deep in the Karelian woods, although the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism was, of course, well known.

Finland's Jews were an integral part of the Finnish people — except, of course, in terms of their religion, Aron Livson says.

Harry Matso, seven years younger than Livson, also fought in the Continuation War, and served as an unarmed volunteer in the Civil Defense Corps during the Winter War. The secretary of the Finnish-Jewish War Veterans' Association, Matso also says he saw no German soldiers when fighting on the front line in the Karelian Isthmus. He did, however, come across German officers when on leave in Helsinki.

Matso: "I never saluted them as military discipline required. When I saw German officers approaching, I changed my route or turned away to look at a shop window, at a suitable distance from the gaze of the Germans ... The first rumors of systematic, industrial murder of European Jews started to circulate already around 1942-43. One major source of news was Swedish radio."

Matso has taken part in various international gatherings of Jewish war veterans in Israel and elsewhere. He says the fact that Finnish Jews fought in an army that was allied with Hitler's forces does surprise people every now and then. "At times we've been called 'fascist,' which is a lie and therefore extremely insulting," Matso tells me.

"Once, an American war veteran called me 'fascist,'" he recalls. "I asked him what could one do, when one receives a letter ordering him to arms. After that he kept quiet and never again returned to the subject. Finnish Jews fought for Finland's independence like other citizens of Finland — not for Germany's war aims.

Semi-official interpretation

Anti-war feelings in Finland were confined to pockets on the political left, which also felt deep sympathy for European Jews in their horrible fate. There was, for example, a group of parliamentarians who were thrown out of the Social Democratic Party and condemned to harsh prison sentences simply because they opposed the war and the alliance with Nazi Germany. The SDP officially participated in the wartime cabinets and fully supported the country's war effort, but some influencial social democratic politicians took a firm stand in favor not only of Finnish Jews, but also of foreign Jewish refugees in the country. The general mood in Finland, of course, changed after Stalingrad, when people began to consider ways to disconnect Finland from Germany's doomed war.

Had the Germans won the war, Finland's Jews would have met the same fate as millions of their coreligionists in other sectors of the Eastern front and in areas controlled by the Third Reich; indeed, Finnish Jews were marked for destruction at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, like Jews and Gypsies everywhere in Europe.

As Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg states, however, in his major study, "The Destruction of the European Jews" (1961), the long arm of Nazi brutality never reached faraway, independent Finland. One of the reasons for this was that the country never truly became a satellite of Germany, remaining "only" an important ally, and its government never yielded to demands by Heinrich Himmler to hand over the country's Jewish citizens. But, as said, the sensitivity of the Finnish government didn't extend to the foreign Jewish refugees, nor to POWs, whether Jewish or not. The total number of Jewish refugees during the Continuation War was about 150 (many left before it broke out in mid-1941, mainly going to Sweden), and they were forced to do compulsory labor service, sometimes in very harsh conditions.

If, on the other hand, the Soviet Union had occupied Finland, the fate of Finnish Jews would have been similar to that of other Finns: horrific political repression and Stalinist tyranny. The Jews in Finland were ostensibly caught between Auschwitz and the gulag, but neither of those scenarios came true. This can be contrasted with the fate of Jews living just across the narrow Gulf of Finland: Estonia was the only country in the world that the Nazis could declare as judenrein.

There's no doubt that during the years 1941-44, Jews in Finland frequently asked themselves the question of what would happen if "their" side won the war. They were, on the one hand, Finnish citizens, who fought with other Finns, but they were also Jews, marked to be exterminated down to the last man, woman and child by Hitler and his henchmen.

What did they know?

Probably the Finnish Jew best known in the world today is Max Jakobson, a journalist, writer and former diplomat. In 1971, when serving as Finland's UN ambassador, Jakobson was a candidate for the post of UN secretary general. His election was torpedoed by the Soviet Union in favor of Austrian Kurt Waldheim, whose wartime service in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia later caused an international outcry.

Max Jakobson was born in Vyborg in 1923 and, like his contemporaries, participated in the Continuation War. He served with the field artillery in the Karelian Isthmus; he rose to the rank of senior lieutenant by the end of the war.

Jakobson stresses that the participation of the Finnish Jews in the Continuation War is difficult to understand without its historical context, which involved the complete integration of Jews into Finnish society. Like many, Jakobson thinks that the final, decisive event in that integration process was the Winter War.

"There was no formal decision by the Jewish community in Finland to participate in the Continuation War in 1941," he notes. "The Jews reacted to events in exactly the same way as other Finns."

It's clear, he says, that his coreligionists in Finland generally didn't grasp the real extent of Hitler's war against Jews, but there were some exceptions. One was his brother, Leo Jakobson, a translator at the General Headquarters of the armed forces of Finland.

"Leo saw reports which revealed everything that took place in Eastern Europe. He said that being informed about the extent of the Nazi genocide was like a nightmare during the war years," his brother remembers.

Max Jakobson, known as a conservative in terms of his politics, says that the greatest crime of his compatriots was handing over to the Germans hundreds of Soviet prisoners of war, among them many Jews. More than 70, as mentioned.

Dealing with Germans

There were no specifically Jewish units in the Finnish military during the country's wars, although one company of Infantry Regiment 24 is said to have had a Jewish majority for some time. The reason was that it was composed mainly of men from the southern coast of Finland, many of them Swedish-speaking; indeed, the mother tongue of most Helsinki Jews at the time was Swedish.

The Jewish soldiers of Regiment 24 felt they had the right to practice their religion even at war, and they built a field synagogue at the front, on the Svir River, deep in Eastern Karelia (the area that Finland occupied during the war). The synagogue was actually an army tent, supported by cardboard and plywood. There was a Tora scroll, and services were held on the Sabbath, drawing Jewish soldiers from distant units.

The nearest German units from the Engelbrecht Division were stationed only a couple of kilometers away from "Sholke's shul" as the synagogue was jokingly called, referring to the nickname of its initiator, Isak Smolar. The Germans were surprised by it, but apparently had to accept the fact that their Finnish Waffenbruder had a synagogue at the front.

Three Finnish Jews were awarded the German Iron Cross for their courage in battle, but all of them quite demonstratively refused to accept it. One of them was Captain Salomon Klass, who saved a German unit from a siege in one of his military exploits. Klass, whose family came from the Baltic countries, had been active in the right-wing Civil Guard in Finland before the war. In the late 1930s, he lived for four years in Palestine, where he was a member of the Etzel underground. Klass was still in Palestine in 1939 when he got the call to serve in Finland's army, before the outbreak of the Winter War.

Major Leo Skurnik was a medical officer who performed surgery under difficult field conditions. In accordance with accepted medical ethics, he also saved many wounded Germans, and was thus awarded the Iron Cross, which he refused to take. "I'll wipe your asses with your medal," Skurnik is said to have told the Germans.

The third Finnish Jew who received the German medal was a woman, Dina Poljakoff, who served in the women's voluntary organization, Lotta Svard. The Lottas, as they were called, didn't carry arms but served in various auxiliary roles, such as nurses, observers in air-raid warning posts and so on. Poljakoff went to look at her Iron Cross at headquarters, but she turned around without accepting it. She later immigrated to Israel.

After September 1944, the end of the Continuation War, the Allied Control Commission suppressed the Civil Guard and Lotta Svard, condemning them for being "fascist" organizations. Both were right-wing nationalist in their ideology, of course, but whether they were fascist is debatable. However, a third, major organization that was disbanded after the war — the Patriotic People's Movement, or IKL — was indeed fascist, and had quite a number of anti-Semites among its ranks.

Young community

The Jewish community in Finland has always been very small, and historically also quite young. For centuries Finland constituted the eastern part of the kingdom of Sweden. When the Swedes ceded Finland to the Russian Empire after the Napoleonic wars, there were almost no Jews in Finland. In Sweden, the Jews had been allowed to live in only a few cities, none of which was situated in the Finnish provinces of the kingdom.

Finland became an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian Empire, and its first Jews arrived in the country as Russian soldiers. After their long military service, they were allowed to settle in the garrison towns where they had served. They married and raised families there. Later, during the early years of independence in Finland, there was some Jewish immigration from the Baltic countries.

As elsewhere in the region at the time, Jews in Finland were restricted as to residence; also their professions were limited to small-scale commercial ventures, mainly selling old clothes. In towns where they lived (Helsinki, Turku, Vyborg), small marketplaces called narinkka in Finnish (from the Russian "na rynke" — "at the market") sprang up, where extremely poor Jews peddled their meager goods. Today in downtown Helsinki, one square is reminiscent of those times, almost a century ago: The open space in front of the new bus terminal is called Narinkka Square because the Jewish market was situated there.

When Finland became independent and Jews were given full civil rights, they quickly integrated into the society and economy. Many became successful in business and the free professions. Yiddish and Russian were replaced by local languages: Swedish in Helsinki and Turku, and Finnish in Vyborg. Nowadays, the mother tongue of practically all Finnish Jews is Finnish.

There has never been a Jewish working class in Finland such as, for example, in Poland. Consequently, such radical left-wing Jewish parties as the anti-Zionist workers' movement — the Bund — have been nonexistent on the Finnish political scene. Even the Zionist labor movement was not supported by Finnish Jews, and likewise very few have been active in the social democratic or communist parties in Finland.

In terms of domestic politics, the Jewish community is quite conservative. In communal terms, it is moderately Zionist, with some notable exceptions tending toward right-wing Revisionism. In fact, Vladimir [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky visited Finland in 1939 after being invited by his ardent Finnish supporter, Jonas Jakobson — Max Jakobson's father. But Revisionist sympathizers have been an exception, and local Jews have usually been centrist, which might be one factor that enabled them to survive the early 1940s. Had the Finnish Jews refused en masse to serve in the Continuation War, they would surely have been interned in camps in Finland, and, in the worst case scenario, handed over to the Nazis. What might have seemed like opportunism then may have saved the whole community.


Hannu Reime is a veteran journalist at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and is a free-lance columnist and writer. His book "Israel/Palestine, the Promised Land of Two Peoples" (in Finnish ) was published in 2003.


Visit the archive: Hannu Reime (mostly in Finnish), Moshé Machover, Ramzy Baroud, Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, Edward Said


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