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Finland’s Jews – Some Reflections…

March 13, 2014
Esplanadi, Helsinki - Summer, 2011

Esplanadi, Helsinki – Summer, 2011

A “Facebook friend” – perhaps I should just call him a friend – posted an article about he just found on Finland’s Jews – many of whom fought in the Finnish Army during World War Two. As the Finns were, until after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, allied with Nazi Germany, Finland’s Jews are among of the few Jews in World War Two who found themselves fighting side by side on the side of the Nazis. 

In Finland it really isn’t a new story, but every once in a while some English-speaking researcher “discovers” the fact and writes it up as if it were news. This one is entitled “The Jews Who Fought For Hitler: ‘We Did Not Help The Germans, We Had A Common Enemy.” by Paul Kendall.

Quoted in the article is one John Simon. He notes ““I lived here for 25 years before I heard about it, and I’m Jewish,” says John Simon, a New Yorker who moved to Helsinki in 1982. “It’s not a story that’s told very much.” Perhaps Simon never heard of it, I don’t doubt that, but do find it a little odd, especially for some one who has long been interviewing Finnish war veterans from both the Winter War with the Soviet Union (1939-1940) and those who served in World War Two.

I find it odd because during the five years my family and I lived in the Helsinki suburb of Vantaa (Louhela and Kaivoksela) I had not only heard about it but in fact had gone, on a very cold December Saturday, to a public photo exhibition in downtown Helsinki with my wife and two young daughters which was dedicated to the Finnish Jews who served in the Finnish Army during World War Two.

After reading Kendall’s piece, I wrote a response (on Facebook), which was…

“This is true…one day in Helsinki – it was bitter cold – just before Christmas of 1986 I think, we went to an exhibit of the Jews who fought with the Finnish army (which was allied with the Nazis) during World War II. It was in downtown Helsinki on a broad avenue called “Esplanadi” a broad tree-lined boulevard with a park that leads to Helsinki’s port, a place that could not have been more public.  It was bizarre – there is a Jewish Finnish officer getting an Iron Cross pinned on his chest by a Nazi general. Finnish 20th century history (that which I know of it) is filled with bizarre twists and turns and this is only one of them. For a time, the Finns fought on the side of the Nazis and were involved in the siege of Leningrad…and it was here that Finnish Jewish soldiers/officers fought side by side with the Nazis…That said, keep in mind there was this “thing” called the Winter War in the winter of 1939-1940 in which Stalin used a flimsy excuse to invade Finland and the Finns, numerically overwhelmed, fought valiantly, but were eventuallydefeated. Also keep in mind that after the results of the Battle of Stalingrad that hard won victory which turned the momentum of the war around on the Eastern Front, Finland literally changed sides. Its political leaders, Paasikivi and Kerkkonen, hat in hand, went to Moscow, negotiated a treaty with Stalin, part of the deal of which was that the Finnish military had to turn on its Nazi allies and kick them out of Northern Finland (Lapland). So having earlier in the war having fought side by side with Hitler, after late 1943, the Finns were fighting against the Nazis in Northern Finland and managed to kick them out; they retreated to positions in the north of Norway. So if early in the war it was Nazis pinning medals on Finnish Jews, by the end of the war it was Soviets doing so… At that exhibit I spoke with several Jewish veterans of the Leningrad siege campaign, one of whom had gotten a medal. Weird…but in both politics and war (really the same thing) one sleeps with strange bedfellows, no?”

Later I added

“Ah… but there is more. Just across the Russian border from Finland, along the coast of the Gulf of Finland lies a town which the Russians call Viborg, but the Finns call Vipurri (I think it is spelled with two “r”s but I forget. The train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg stops there and just outside the train station is a Viking ship. Anyhow until WW2 Viborg was a part of Finland and the city was a dynamic, commercial and cultural center. It had an active Jewish community. As a part of the deal which led to Finnish-Soviet reconciliation during WW2, Viborg was incorporated into Russia…where it remains today. Viipuri/Viborg must have been a pretty neat place to be in the period between WWI and 2 and Jewish life was an integral part of it.”

A couple of comments need to be added here.

1987 - 07 - Aland Islands - Graves of Russian Jewish Soldier in the early 1800s when Finland passed from being a Swedish to a Russian colony

1987 – 07 – Aland Islands – Graves of Russian Jewish Soldier in the early 1800s when Finland passed from being a Swedish to a Russian colony

First is that this was a major public exhibit in December of 1986 on Jews who served in the Finnish Army that was allied to the Nazis. John Simon might have missed it, but it happened and would be easily documented, ie – the role of Jews in the Finnish military was not kept a secret. It was a public event well publicized beforehand and covered by the Finnish media.

At that exhibit I remember talking to a man whose picture I saw on the wall. The picture was of him receiving an Iron Cross from a Nazi officer. I was startled and turned to my wife, Nancy, and said “look at this”. Turns out that the man in the picture was standing right behind me, and spoke English pretty well . “That is me,” he said. A conversation ensued in which I asked the usual question…But how could you! He explained that he was (as mentioned above) fighting for Finland, not Hitler. At the time I did not find this explanation particularly convincing.

Not long before I had just finished Harrison Salisbury’s 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, one of the most powerful and disturbing books I’d ever read. My Finnish-Jewish acquaintance admitted that he was a part of the Finnish contingent that helped seal Leningrad in those dark days. He could have been Aron Livson, mentioned in this article although I do not remember the man’s name, other that he was proud to have received an Iron Cross. But he appeared to me then in his mid sixties and that would be about right.

Secondly, I accept Kendall’s version of events concerning the meeting between the Nazi SS and the Finnish government. It wasn’t Goebbels who went to Finland but Himmler and he didn’t speak to Mannerheim but to then Finnish Prime Minister Jukka Rangell. Kendall is correct about the exact quote I heard, “When Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution, visited Finland in August 1942 and asked the prime minister Jukka Rangell about the “Jewish Question”, Rangell replied: “We do not have a Jewish Question.” OK…I was a little off, but then I’ve never written about it academically, remember much of what I am writing here anecdotally from Finns both Jewish and non and I think that in the main I did the story justice.

For the rest, the article is generally speaking accurate and quite good. I do think that it helps to understand Finnish history to understand the dilemma of the country’s Jews and how they dealt with their situation in 1939-1940. Kendall’s article does explain a good deal of that, the unfair caveat being that there is a suggestion that the place, Finland, has a history of anti-Semitism because of their alliance with Nazi Germany. This is not at all the case. Finland does not have such a tradition in the twentieth century or hardly. Compare it to the anti-Semitism of Russia, Germany, Lithuania (where my extended family was slaughtered during World War II), Poland from the last half of the 19th century to the end of WW 2 (or beyond) and the Finns essentially come off one heck of a lot better than their European neighbors. The Lithuania case stands out in my mind these days. 95% of Lithuanian Jews exterminated. While Nazi SS officers were the overseers, Lithuanian fascists were especially zealous in this dark mission. Nothing even near that happened in Finland. Not only were Jews not repressed nor sent to camps in Finland during the war (to my knowledge), they were pretty much of a protected community.

One has to also appreciate the dilemma’s of small countries everywhere, including Finland, wedged between great powers over which they have little control or influence, trying to figure out which way the political winds are blowing. The fate of the nation depends on guessing it right. It is not so much about ideology as people might think. All small countries – especially those in central Europe in the first half of the 20th century faced similar dilemmas. World War II was very cruel to Finland; no, it was not Poland nor Russia itself, but the war very nearly destroyed the place as a country.

The Finns paid a heavy lesson for their anti-Sovietism but they learned a lot from their suffering. That Finland survived as a nation (and then had one of the more spectacular economic growth spurts after the war) was by no means a certainty in those dark and confusing years of the early 1940s. The main political lesson learned was that Finland needed to have friendly relations with their Eastern and admittedly paranoid neighbor, thus their policy of neutrality and non-alignment during the Cold War. Finland followed that policy scrupulously. The peace that the Finn’s established with the USSR after the war was a model of mutual respect and economic advantage for the country. The architect of that policy, Urho Kekkonen, is in my mind,  one of the underrated great politicians of the twentieth century.

Now that the Cold War is over, somethings are clear: Finland never became “communist” and indeed, anyone who knows anything about the country knows how intensely entrepreneurial and “capitalist” (although with a regulated capitalism) the Finns are. Nor do Finns have particularly warm feelings towards their larger eastern neighbor. They simply learned to live with the Russians “in the same neighborhood.”Kekkonen’s was an extraordinarily politically mature policy that rejected the Cold War pressures to join NATO and maintained its political independence. That balancing act – the bridge that Finland maintained between East and West during the Cold War – is hardly appreciated today. I believe it should be carefully studied.

I keep thinking of how the Ukraine – a much bigger country with a larger population, yet one whose geography vis-a-vis Russia resembles Finland. The Ukraine would do well to study the Finnish post World War Two example. It is not a case of capitulation to Moscow, but one of mutual respect for two countries that share a long common border and one heck of a lot of history. I found Finland’s Jews infused with the same practical idealism as its non-Jews, on the question of relations with the then Soviet Union, on the Middle East question, pretty much everything. They were an overwhelmingly politically moderate community, respected and integrated into Finnish life. And during World War Two, they had, proven without a shadow of a doubt their love of country. Why make more of their military service than that?


A follow-up entry is “Finland – WW2 – More”

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Commins permalink
    March 14, 2014 8:52 am

    Rob, Bobby G forwarded this to me. I very much enjoyed reading it and it parallels much of what I learned during my year in Finland (2011- 2012). There is a small synagogue in Turku – the city where I lived and will keep returning to for the next few years at least. I never felt that this was a hidden reality. The fact that WWII is called the continuation war in Finnish is quite telling and I think provides an important insight into people’s motivations for fighting. Would love to talk more about life in Finland sometime. Nancy

    • March 14, 2014 12:08 pm

      WWII is not called the Continuation War in Finland. When speaking about the WWII in Finnish Finns tend to refer it as “the second world war” (when talking about it as a whole) or “wars” (when talking about Finland specifically). The reason is that Finland fought three wars during the WWII (1939-45) and it’s much easier when each of them has a name because they were all different and sometimes it’s important to know which one we are talking about. Even the Interim Peace is considered to be a part of WWII in Finland (more or less anyway) because “every” Finn realized it wouldn’t last, especially because of the Soviet pressure (shooting down a civilian airplane, occupying neighbouring countries and making all kinds of demands). Technically it even wasn’t an interim peace but a real one, it’s just called that.

      I have never understood why Americans(?) don’t consider the Winter War to be a part of the WWII. It was a direct result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, just like the occupation of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. WWII is usually said to have started in Europe on September 1, 1939 and the Winter War started three months after that. I suppose it’s again a matter of victors writing history. Of course I understand why the Soviet Union/Russia doesn’t want people to know about it or other events that happened before the Operation Barbarossa. That would seriously messed up their “victim status”.

      • March 14, 2014 12:17 pm

        Interesting comments Ms. Tytti…I would think you are correct – it’s all a part of one war, World War II; and again, of course the Russians don’t like to talk much about that part of it that is called the Winter War because it was nothing less than a war of aggression. In the same manner, as I recall, Finns weren’t particularly enthusiastic or forthcoming about their role in the siege of Leningrad… But to argue such matters seems to me not very fruitful. War puts nations and peoples in awful positions…that is my main point about Finland’s flipflopping in WW2. I remain rather amazed that at the end of the war Finland was “still standing” “on its feet” – a far cry from the fate of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and not only on its feet but at the edge of a dramatic, impressive growth spurt. Best wishes, RJP

        • March 14, 2014 12:37 pm

          Well Finns stopped at the old border near Leningrad but didn’t go further. It’s not our fault that Peter the Great decided to build the town there. I don’t really see how standing on your own land is considered to be participating in a siege. Finland didn’t even attack Leningrad even though it was in a seeing distance.

          Also Finland never “flipflopped”. Our enemy before, during (even during the Lapland War) and after WWII was always the Soviet Union and Stalin, who had already had thousands of Finnish speaking people executed and sent tens of thousands of them to die in Gulag forced labour camps already during the 1930s, especially in 1937-38. It was the rest of the world that did the flipflopping. Finns knew what was at stake and the fate of the Baltic countries and their population confirmed it.

      • March 14, 2014 12:25 pm

        (Oh, I forgot to add…) There were some mistakes in the blog post itself but some of them are too complicated to explain and I am feeling lazy at the moment. Most of it is online anyway. Btw it’s Kekkonen, Viipuri..

        But Finns certainly didn’t go to Moscow “hat in hand” after having just stopped (with help from Germany) the major Soviet attack(s) during the summer of 1944 and Soviets were pulling their troops from the Finnish front. Kekkonen wasn’t even involved in the negotiations.

        • March 14, 2014 1:13 pm

          more to Ms.Tytti… When we lived in Finland there were articles that appeared in the Finnish press about the treatment of the Finnish speaking peoples of the USSR and how they were herded into concentration camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s – and that their numbers were in the tens of thousands or maybe more – and how so many were never heard of again. Perhaps ironically, this was first told to me by Finnish leftists who were extremely bitter about it, and understandably, unforgiving. Afterwards I head many stories, read reports from all over the political spectrum. I was deeply upset, shaken even by those revelations and never doubted their veracity. It became the subject of many, many discussions at the time.

          It opened up a whole new disturbing “avenue of understanding” of the Stalin years…and of how many ethnic groups in the USSR suffered such awful fates. There were a number of articles on this subject from different Finnish publications that were translated to me at the time and as I recall, the Finnish government was still pressing Moscow for some answers. Did they get them from Gorbachev? I don’t recall. I would add here, that while from a practical point of view Finland had good economic and political relations with what was then the U.S.S.R. that during our Finnish years, anti-Russian sentiment in the country – from all sectors of the political spectrum – was much, much stronger than anti-U.S. (or generally anti-Western) feeling. Our family visited many Finnish graveyards with the graves of Finnish soldiers who died in the Winter War…and did so again a few years ago (2011) when we went back.

          On the other hand…your “defense” if on can call it that – of Finnish participation in the blockade and siege of Leningrad – is rather unconvincing. Certainly the major toxic element in that was the Nazis.. and the Finnish role was more limited, but still…

          And if this (generally all your comments) is how you write “when you are feeling lazy”…wow.. you should know a couple of things. I really enjoy these exchanges with you. There are so few people with whom I can discuss Finland – its history, its achievements…so if you want to continue these discussions it’s fine with me…but let’s move beyond WW2! Best, RJP

  2. March 14, 2014 12:49 pm

    Thanks for the corrections…(I mean that)…I will make them. Maybe it wasn’t Kekkonen who went to Moscow, but he was the political beneficiary of those negotiations. And while I generally agree with what you write…After Stalingrad, the Finnish delegation to Moscow which negotiated with Stalin not exactly go from a position of strength. Whatever, I think those negotiations were key to Finnish post war position. As for your comments on Leningrad, cannot agree with you. Not exactly Finland’s finest moment. Of course I am not an expert on Finnish history in WW2 and welcome your comments and corrections…but nor am I particularly ignorant of that history even if I spell a few names wrong.

    • March 14, 2014 1:11 pm

      Well, unless you can tell what Finns should have done on the Karelian Isthmus that wouldn’t have been considered taking part of the siege it doesn’t really matter. Because I surely can’t, simply because of the geography. Even Russians seem to respect Mannerheim for what he didn’t do.

      Also Stalingrad happened in 1943, Finland refused the peace (that practically would have meant an unconditional surrender) in the spring of 1944. In the fall, after major battles, the situation had changed and Stalin didn’t demand surrendering anymore. I suppose Stalin realized that Finland was ready to continue fighting and he was busy elsewhere.

      • March 14, 2014 1:27 pm

        Ms. Tytti – So you think Stalingrad had nothing to do with the Finnish turn around – flip-flop as I called it and will continue to call it? Finland changed sides during the That’s a flip flop. For part of the war – they were allied with Nazi Germany – that is a fact. As the war turned against Hitler the Finns changed sides. I’m glad they did. The most important turning point was Stalingrad. No? It was a politically and historically smart move. But if you think I’m going to defend the Finnish alliance with Hitler, you are mistaken. Will read your link later in the day. Again, thanks for comments (really).

        • March 14, 2014 2:36 pm

          No, Finland never did change sides, we were always on our own side, and that was against the Soviet Union. The fact that only Germany bothered to help us changes nothing. USA was helping Stalin at the same time, Stalin who had already killed millions. For some reason nobody critizes that but then expects that a poor country of 3.6 million people would fight alone against the Soviet Union. UK and US were first against USSR, then on the same side (after Stalin had occupied the Baltic countries, deported and killed their population and executed Polish officers in Katyn), and then again against it. That’s flipflopping in my opinion.

          Of course I understand that the Allies couldn’t care less about Finland and the Finnish people (they didn’t care about Estonians etc. either) but we were allowed to do our own decisions in order to survive because Allies certainly were not going to help us. And frankly, I don’t think any country is in a position to criticize the Finnish leaders, Roosevelt even gave us to Stalin and to a certain death.

          Mannerheim and others realized early, probably in 1942 at the latest, that Germany was going to lose the war. Mannerheim himself talked about this with one officer who had accompanied him on a visit to Germany in the summer of 1942. After that it was only a question of getting out of the war without getting occupied by either side. The first chance for that was after the summer of 1944.

        • March 14, 2014 3:20 pm

          Ms. Tytti – In the sense that neither the Allies nor the Germans cared less about Finland…true enough…the fate of Finland and more generally small (in size or population) countries in Europe (and elsewhere). My sense also is that the political tightrope on which Finland walked during WW2 was quite fragile and that politically the Finns played their cards as well as they could (which was quite well). Then, there is also the longer, deeper history – first Swedish and then Russian colonial rule.
          Of course you are a Finn (I think – the way you write makes me think that) and one that knows the country’s history well – well enough to get me to review some of the details of WW 2 (ie, precisely just what Finland’s role in the siege of Leningrad, etc)..but really I was hearing very different attitude towards the USSR (and now Russia) when I lived there and in my connections with Finns since: the lesson seemed to be the opposite of what you are saying – ie, that Finland needs to have good relations with Russia – if not `friendly’ at least proper economic and political ties – and not find itself in any anti-Russian alliance. That was a policy of what I would call `practical idealism’. It is not so much to forget the sins of the past – and Russian/Soviet sins against the Finns (and Estonians) are indeed great – but how to move into the future. I thought Finland did a fine job in the post WW2 era…in fact it was a model, a kind of alternative to the Cold War logic of the day. If France which got it stuffings kicked out three times by Germany could reconcile with Germany…why not Finland with Russia. It is not a case of forgetting – I am not one frankly whom either forgives or forgets very much…but one has to move on, doesn’t one? You seem almost pickled in anti-Russian/anti-Soviet hatred. It’s not that I blame you, I just don’t see it as that productive to keep that grudge burning so brightly. Funny, it feels like from what you write anyway, that you will never forgive the Russians…ok.. and maybe you can correct me on this or that little detail concerning Finland in World War II – some of which I accept although other than I should review precisely the Finnish role at Leningrad, and a few other minor errors in fact and in spelling, you haven’t convinced me of very much. Anyhow…take care. I hope that your logic doesn’t drive you into supporting Finnish entry into NATO…

  3. March 14, 2014 3:04 pm

    I am too young to remember the Gorbachev era but Finns have always known that the majority of Finnish Communists in Russian Karelia were shot in 1937-38 and that most of the Karelians and Ingrians were deported and sent to camps. After the fall of the Soviet Union some archives were opened but now they are closed again. So we probably will never know how many Finns perished in the 1930s.

    And about that siege: as I said the Finnish troops stopped on the old border and didn’t participate in the siege as they could have. That’s the fact and even one Russian Jew seems to agree with me: “If Finland had not occupied the Karelian Isthmus and the shores of Lake Ladoga, the Germans would have been there – and Leningrad would have been doomed. Mannerheim’s decision saved an important city and the 150,000 Jews (including my father) who lived and worked there during the siege.”

  4. Gene Fitzpatrick permalink
    March 20, 2014 4:53 pm

    I find this article and the back and forth of the interlocutors Prince and Tytti to be of high interest and thank them for it. There may be a personal Freudian component to this. One of the last memories I have of my father, who died in September 1940, was his bringing home after work one frigid night in early 1940, three or four metal soldiers, about three or four inches high, painted almost completely white and fitted with rifles across their backs and with tiny removable skis. And though only 6 years old, I clearly appreciated, from the ensuing conversation, that the figures were those of Finnish troops who at that very point in time were fighting the good fight against the mean Russian bully in a land very cold and very white. I like to think that, had I got to know him, my father would surely be a guy who threw his lot in with the underdog.

    A good feeling towards the Finns has stayed with me ever since and whenever I hear by chance “The Karelia Suite” my mind’s eye once again sees the little white-clad mountain soldiers my father so admired 75 years ago.


  1. Finland – WW2 – More… | Rob Prince's Blog

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