In Finland, Jews bridged East and West


Monday’s summit in Finland between Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin recast the Scandinavian nation in a role it had not occupied in decades: that of a political bridge between Russia and the West.

An EU democracy whose border with Russia is longer than the distance between New York and Chicago, Finland during the Cold War relied on centuries of experience to chart a cautious independent course before aligning with the West following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

To Jews, though, Finland continues to serve as a portal between worlds. With all eyes on Finland, JTA collected five anecdotes connected to the country’s extraordinary Jewish history.

Finnish Jewry was born in sin

Whereas most European Jewish communities began with merchants seeking new horizons, Finnish Jewry is rooted in a barbaric crime against society’s most vulnerable: impoverished children. The earliest Jewish settlers in Finland were Cantonists, Jewish children who until 1856 were forcefully conscripted into the army of czarist Russia for as long as 29 years.

Finland was a scarcely populated Russian protectorate — it declared independence in 1918 — but its relative independence as a frontier zone appealed to returning soldiers. They wanted to get as far away as possible from the government that had torn them from their families because they were Jews.

There, they “had finally overcome the system and found a safe haven,” Andre Swanström, chairman of the Finnish Society of Church History, wrote in a 2012 essay, “Nicholas I and the Jewish Cantonist Soldiers in Finland.”

Finnish Jews fought (and prayed)

alongside Hitler’s soldiers

Finland, always straining under Russian domination, fought in World War II against the Soviet Union. Staving off Russian invasion, Finns stabilized the front around the forests in the country’s south, where German soldiers deployed to fight alongside Finns – including Jews.

Finland’s Field Marshal Karl Gustav Mannerheim refused to hand over any of Finland’s 2,700 Jewish residents to the Nazis. As a precaution, he ordered that no Finnish Jewish soldiers serve under the command of his German allies. The Jewish troops even had a field synagogue, where dozens of them prayed regularly, less than a mile away from the German army’s main deployment in their native country.

The situation created plenty of awkward interaction, according to Gideon Bolotowsky, a former leader of Finnish Jewry. His late father Sholom served in the Finnish army as an interpreter.

“When the Germans asked my father how come he speaks such good German, he would tell them ‘It’s important to know your enemy’s language,’” Bolotowsky recalled, laughing. “They didn’t like his answer very much.”

He has an old photograph showing his father wearing a gray Wehrmacht uniform and toting a Finnish machine gun.

“He felt awkward doing it,” Bolotowsky said of his father. “But you’re in the army. You follow orders.” Sholom and his brother Haim both served alongside the Nazis for three years until 1944. Bolotowsky’s other uncle fought with Russia against Finland and Germany.

Last of the unjust?

More than seven decades after the Holocaust, Finland this year became the latest European nation to announce an official inquiry into the complicity of its troops in genocide.

President Sauli Niinistö announced the first committee of inquiry in January, following the discovery of written testimony by a Finnish Waffen SS officer who said he actively participated in the mass murder of Jews in Ukraine.

It was a major blow to a nation that prides itself on being one of a handful to stand up to the Nazi policy of genocide. Until the discovery, it was believed that Finnish officials saved all but seven of the country’s 2,700 Jews, including 300 who weren’t even citizens.

But last year, Andre Swanström, the chairman of the Finnish Society of Church History, flagged to the Simon Wiesenthal Center the incriminating letters of Finnish volunteers serving in the Nazi SS unit, setting the inquiry in motion.

In one letter, Finnish SS soldier Olavi Kustaa Aadolf Karpo complains to chaplain Ensio Pihkala about having to shoot Jews —but not for moral reasons. Rather, he cites his desire to fight the Russians. “For the execution of Jews,” he wrote, “less skilled personnel would have sufficed.” Following World War II, Karpo immigrated to Venezuela, where he died in 1988. At least five other Finns participated in war crimes against Jews, Swanström wrote.

Finish route to freedom

Even before the 1991dissolution of the USSR, Christian Zionists used Finland as a pipeline for Soviet Jews. In 1990 Ulla Järvilehto, a Finnish activist, coordinated from Helsinki the very first aliyah flight of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, or ICEJ. By the end of thee decade, ICEJ had sponsored 54 full airplanes and brought more than 15,000 olim through what became known as the “Finnish Route.” Helsinki became a major portal for the Jewish communities of northeastern Europe, including Riga and St. Petersburg. In many of these flights, Russian immigrants to Israel flew with Christian Zionists, leading to emotional encounters, according to Howard Flower, ICEJ’s aliyah director.

Today, leaving Russia is far less chaotic. But the Finnish Route is still popular with Russian olim (there were 7,224 of them in 2017, making Russia Israel’s largest provider of new immigrants that year). Finnish Christian Zionists host Israel-bound families in their homes for a few days of rest before they take the plunge.

“The hosts basically give the families a Finnish spa experience, but in a family setting,” Flower said. “Think long saunas and delicious Scandinavian meals.”

Safe haven

Sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, Finland is perhaps the only European country where Jews have had uninterrupted safety. The country has seen no assault on a Jew in decades and anti-Semitic hate speech is rare. Neo-Nazism is a fringe phenomenon and jihadism isn’t a major issue: Unlike its Nordic neighbors, Finland has not opened its doors to Muslim immigration. It is believed to have about 40,000 Muslims and 1,400 Jews. In 2013, the community named a new chief rabbi, Simon Livson, who was 30 — one of the world’s youngest bearing the title.

Of course, Jewish life in Finland isn’t perfect. The production of kosher and halal meat is illegal, and the ritual slaughter is deemed cruel. And there’s the challenge of fasting for 19 hours — the amount of daylight Helsinki gets in summer. But being pro-Israel is easier in Finland than in any other Nordic country.

In recent years, Finland and Denmark have emerged as Israel’s closest allies in the region, where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has soured the Jewish state’s reputation and diplomatic relations with Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Earlier this month, the Finnish media reported that Finland, a high-tech and communications innovator with few natural resources, will purchase Israel’s Gabriel naval missiles, a huge deal estimated at $500 million.

Such relations would have been unthinkable when Finland’s foreign policy was still designed to mollify its neighbor to the east, the famously anti-Israel Soviet Union. Back then, Finland aligned itself in the United Nations with Moscow when it came to the Middle East, according to Bolotowsky, the former communal leader.

“It was a cheap gesture to curry favor with Russia,” he said of Finland’s anti-Israel voting record. “But those days are long gone.”