In the Winter War of 1939, Soviet armed forces attacked Finnish territory and annexed an eastern province of Finland. In a strategic move to regain this territory, Finland opted to join Nazi Germany as a co-belligerent – not an ally – after the Third Reich declared war against the Soviet Union in 1941.
At that time, the Jewish community in Finland numbered about 2,000, including some hundred foreign Jews who had escaped from Central Europe. Like all able-bodied Finnish males, the Finnish Jews were also subject to conscription, and as such, 200 Jewish men served in the Finnish armed forces. Several dozens of Jewish women served in the voluntary auxiliary organization for women, Lotta Svärd. In a strange twist of fate, Jews in the Finnish army fought on the same side as Nazi Germany. As the conflict was widely perceived in Finland to be between Finland and the Soviet Union only, these Jewish soldiers saw themselves as fighting for their homeland, not for Hitler.
History has produced no definitive answer as to whether there was ever an earnest discussion between German and Finnish leaders demanding the deportation and liquidation of Finnish Jews but German troops, including the Waffen-SS, were present throughout the country. Some say that Heinrich Himmler broached the subject directly with the Finnish Prime Minister Jukka W. Rangell, who replied that his country had “no Jewish question.” The Finnish government regarded its Jewish residents as fully integrated into the society. However, in November 1942, eight foreign Jews were arrested and handed over to the Gestapo; only one of them would survive Birkenau. A public outcry raised in both the Swedish and Finnish press in late 1942 seems to have ended the deportations of individual foreign Jews from Finland.
In 2000, Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen apologized to the Jewish community, as did the Lutheran Church. In recognizing Finland’s shortcomings in helping the Jews, Prime Minister Lipponen said: “The surrender of eight Jewish refugees to the Nazis in 1942 is a stain on Finland’s history. The wrongdoing cannot be undone nor can it be justified under any circumstances. Neither does the number of the extradited refugees give any grounds for writing off the issue. Every man has but one life and all lives are equally valuable.”
Today, the Jewish community in Finland numbers about 1,500 people. Jews in Finland are mainly settled around the capital, Helsinki, with a synagogue, a Jewish school and a lively social scene.
This brings me now to the question of why the Jews of Finland were able to survive, not only to survive, but to continue to live a normal life during those years. The answer to that is very simple: the reason was that Finland maintained a democratic system.
Personal Stories of Rescue
Ambassador Jakobson at the Embassy of Finland
I have been asked at least one hundred times about the situation of the Jews in Finland during World War II. I have been asked by what means were the Jews of Finland saved, who saved them, how was it possible that I as a Jew fought with the Germans. To answer these kinds of questions, we must examine the situation of Finland before, during and after World War II and it is only in that context that we can understand what happened or what did not happen.