THE JEWS IN FINLAND

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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The history of Jews in Finland is highly unusual. Despite it being a small community, only around one and a half century old, it has a fascinating past, filled with seeming contradictions.

Nowadays most Jews live in Helsinki, and the populations numbers around 1500.

There is also a tiny Jewish community in Turku, which has a 200 members. There are  two synagogues , one in each community, both  Ashkenazi /Orthodox, and Helsinki also has a Jewish Day School with about 120  students.(many of them the children of Israelis working in Finland), and the Chabad Lubavitz rabbi is based there.

 Both the Turku and Helsinki synagogues were built in the beginning of the 20th century, magnificent and impeccable over a hundred years later. The communities are members of the Central Jewish/Finnish Council, and the Finnish Jews, refer to it in all matters concerning Aliyah, religion,the rare case of Anti Semitism or Jewish immigration  from  Russia, after the collapse of the Sovet Union.

The Jews in 20th century Finland have enjoyed a relatively safe existence, and antisemitic crimes have been very rare. However, in the last few years, an increase  in anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias has been reported, the most famous of which in 2011,  directed against Ben Zykovicz, the first Finnish-Jewish parliamentarian,who was assaulted by a man shouting anti-semitic slurs. Generally though, Jews are highly integrated into Finnish society and are represented in nearly all sectors.

Ever since 1917, after the Soviet/Russian revolution, upon which Finland became an independent country (beforehand they were part of the Czarist Russian Empire), the Finnish Jews have been declared full citizens of Finland, with equal rights to all other Finns.

In fact an act approved by the local Parliament, allowed Jew for the first time to become Finnish Nationals.


Starting in the period between the two World Wars, population increased to 2000, mainly as a result of migration from Soviet Russia.and later from England.  
With this full integration, many young Jews studied at universities,many becoming physicians, engineers and lawyers. Some continued in the textile and clothing business, while others turned to industry and forestry.

The Jewish community in Finland took a fascinating turn, which is still often misunderstood outside of Finland. 

In 1941, the Soviet Union invaded Finland and conquered Karelia during the Winter War, during which 27 Jewish soldiers were killed out of the 204 Finnish Jews who fought n the Finnish Army. National anger rose within Finland, a country long involved in hardship from their Russian neighbors. When they joined forces with Nazi Germany during the Continuation War (1941-44),   
Finnish Jews in democratically ruled Finland dutifully fought alongside their non Jewish countrymen against Russia, their common enemy.  

 

There are many interesting anecdotes regarding this era,  such as a special Jewish prayer tent right under the Nazi&rsquos noses, food and assistance  given to Russian-Jewish POWS and other interesting stories of courage by Jewish officers, one of whom defied death to rescue a battalion of SS soldiers and then  refusing to accept &ldquoThe Iron Cross&rdquo from the Germans, to maintain his integrity.

Despite strong German pressure, the Finnish Government refused to take action against citizens of Jewish origin. They continued to enjoyed the same civil right as all Finnish Nationals, respected and protected. 

 The following  years saw a fair amount of Aliyah of Finnish Jews which depleted the already small community,  and the third largest community in the city of Tampere ceased operations in 1981., 

During  Israel&rsquos War of Independence, Finnish -Jewish volunteers constituted the highest per capita contribution from any community in the Diaspora. They also contributed  weapons to the new state of Israel.


Starting in the period between the two World Wars, population increased to 2000, mainly as a result of migration from Soviet Russia.
With this full integration, many young Jews studied at universities,many becoming physicians, engineers and lawyers. Some continued in the textile and clothing business, while others turned to industry and forestry.
These days most Finnish Jews are corporate employees and professionals , some 
even occupied important Government positions in the Parliament, and produced a great number of intellectuals, scientists, musicians painters and artists.
The present is a great contrast to the past. Finland was under Swedish rule, in which the Jews living in Scandinavia were relegated to 3 town, none of which were on finnish territory. The Swedes ruled the region for half a millenium until they lost the region to the Russian Empire, during the Napoleonic wars. In 1817 the Russsian Czarist Empire, endowed autonomy to at he Grand Duchy of Finland. Rusian soldiers were granted temporary refuge but the decrees of 1869 relegated the Jewish-Russian soldiers and their families to specific towns, and they were allowed only to trade in second hand clothes. Children could stay in the country as long as they lived with their retired soldier parents and any deviation from the rules was grounds for deportation.

In 1917 Finland got it's independence from Russia and Jews were granted the same rights that every other Finnish citizen enjoyed.
The spirit of Nationalism with their countrymen, created a mutually empowering relationship, fighting alongside their Finnish bretheren, w/o sacrificing their principles, human rights and values.

Speaking to a 90 yr old Finnish Jew, with sparkly eyes and a demeanor of a man far younger  who fought alongside the Finns and the Nazi&rsquos, we got a clear  impression of a man who consciously and proudly did what his country needed him to, and in return was protected and his values respected.
Visiting the lovely old synagogue, which he visits regularly (and where we had our meeting)he said&ldquo
My grandfather was drafted to the Russian army when he was ten years old, like most Jewish boys. We suffered Pogroms and were strangers in a hostile land. Finland gave us back our dignity and treated us with respect and equal rights. We were no longer just foreigners but Finnish citizens, whose religious pursuits were and are respected. 

Of course we fought against Russiaand allied with the Germans, because they were the only ones who could help us&rdquo

And so, with his yarmulka, he went to join the minyan and daven Maariv.

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