20 January 2023

How Helsinki’s Jewish
community survived through
wars and the Holocaust

Helsinki Synagogue in the Kamppi district was designed by the architect Jac Ahrenberg and built in 1906 (Photograph: Sofia Ek/Wkipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Our visit to Helsinki last week was short and focussed with a packed and demanding programme. This, combined with the shortened daylight hours in mid-January and streets piled high with snow, left virtually no time to see any of places tourists expect to see in the Finnish capital.

I suppose we shall have to visit Helsinki again if I am going to visit Helsinki’s synagogue. But while I was there I learned a little more about the Jewish community in Finland and its history.

Finland is home to 1,300 to 1,900 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Scandinavia, following Sweden and Denmark. Finland’s Jewish community is largely integrated into Finnish society, and the World Jewish Congress says Jews in Finland enjoy a sense of stability and there has been relatively little antisemitism in Finland.

Most Jews in Finland live in the Greater Helsinki area, with a smaller community in Turku. The synagogue in Helsinki was built in 1906 and the synagogue in Turku was built in 1912. A synagogue in Wiborg built in 1910-1911 was destroyed by air bombings in 1939. The Jewish community in Tampere ceased functioning in 1981.

Jews first came to Finland as Russian soldiers who stayed in Finland in the 19th century after their military conscription came to an end.

Jacob Weikam, later Veikkanen, is said to be the first Jew to have settled on Finnish soil. He moved in 1782 to the town of Hamina, then under Russian rule, although at the time most of Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Swedish law allowed Jews to live in a only three towns – all of them outside what is now Finland.

Finland became part of the Russian Empire as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809. But Swedish laws remained in force, preventing Jews from settling in Finnish territory.

However, Russian Jews began arriving in Finland as tradesmen and craftsmen. Most were retired soldiers from the Imperial Russian army. They had been forced into the Russian army as children, and after their 25-year terms expired they had the right to remain in Finland regardless of legacy Swedish legislation.

However, it was only after Finland declared independence in 1917 that Jews were granted full rights as Finnish citizens.

Finland’s involvement in World War II began during the Winter War, from 30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Many Finnish Jews became refugees and the synagogue in Wiborg was destroyed by air bombings.

When Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, Finland resumed hostilities and was at war with the Soviet Union in 1941-1944. It is recorded 327 Finnish Jews fought for Finland during the war; 21 Jewish women served in the women’s auxiliary; and 15 Finnish Jews were killed in the Winter War and eight in the Continuation War.

The Finnish front had a field synagogue operating in the presence of Nazi troops, and Jewish soldiers were given leave on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

Eight Jewish Austrian refugees and 19 other people were deported to Nazi Germany in November 1942 at the behest of the head of the Finnish police. Seven of the Jews were murdered immediately. Their deportation caused a national scandal, ministers resigned in protest, and the Archbishop, many Lutheran ministers, and the Social Democratic Party protested.

About 500 Jewish refugees arrived in Finland during World War II, although about 350 moved on to other countries, including about 160 who were moved to Sweden on the orders of Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish Army and later President.

Although Himmler twice visited Finland trying to persuade the authorities to hand over the Jewish population, he was unsuccessful. Jews with Finnish citizenship were protected throughout that period, and Finland was the only Axis country where synagogues remained open throughout World War II. Three Finnish Jews were offered the Iron Cross for their wartime service, but all three refused the award.

Migration to Israel depleted Finland’s Jewish community after World War II, but numbers were boosted with the arrival of some Soviet Jews after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most Finnish Jews speak Finnish or Swedish as their first language. Yiddish, German, Russian, and Hebrew are also spoken in the community.

Helsinki Synagogue in the Kamppi (Kampen) district, nestled between the two big wings of the Radisson Hotel on Runeberginkatu Main Street was designed by the architect Jac Ahrenberg (1847-1914). The city of Helsinki gave the site on Malminkatu Street in Kamppi to the Jewish community in 1900. Construction began in the spring of 1905 and the building was finished in August 1906.

The synagogue is in an international, eclectic style common for 19th century synagogues in Central Europe and England. Its Byzantine-style cupola is a landmark in Helsinki. The façades are defined through the use of round arches. Its religious function is revealed only by Star of David motifs on three small round windows, the cupola and an inscription on the front wall: ‘For I give you good instruction; do not forsake my teaching’ (Proverbs 4: 2).

A memorial on Tähtitorninmäki (Observatory Hill) honours the eight Jewish refugees who were turned over to the Gestapo by Finnish authorities in 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.The memorial is made from a thick slab of granite. It was unveiled in November 2000 and includes a plaque with a relief depicting hands begging for mercy. It is inscribed in Hebrew, Finnish, and English:'‘Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a monument and a memorial’ (Isaiah 56: 5). At its unveiling, the Finnish Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, issued an official apology for the extradition of the eight Jewish Austrian refugees to Nazi Germany.

Shabat Shalom
Helsinki City Hall designed by Carl Ludvig Engel … the city of Helsinki gave the site for the synagogue to the Jewish community in 1900 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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