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)

Praying through the Week of
Christian Unity and with USPG:
20 January 2023

‘Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’ (Mark 10: 21) … a collection of old Greek banknotes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I have been reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

However, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began two days ago (18 January 2023), and between now and next Wednesday my morning reflections look at this year’s readings and prayers.

Churches Together in Milton Keynes continues to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this evening with ‘We Sing!’ at 7:30 in Saint Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church in Shenley Church End.

The Catholic community in Milton Keynes is rich in diversity with members from every corner of the World. This is planned as an evening of words and music reflecting the multicultural nature of the parishioners. With refreshments celebrating the breadth and depth of this community, it is expected to be an engaging and reflective evening.

Seeking justice … a painting by Una Heaton in a pub in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Day 3: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly


Micah 6: 6-8

And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Mark 10: 17-31

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?


We – not me. The prophet warns the people what faithfulness to God’s covenant means: “…and what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” In Biblical Hebrew justice and kindness (mercy) are not different or opposite from each other. They are in fact bonded together in a single word, mishpat. God has shown us what is good, asking us to do justice by loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Walking humbly with God means walking alongside others and therefore it is not just about the individual: my walk, my love.

The love that God invites us into is always a love which gathers us into communion: we – not me. This insight makes all the difference in how we “do justice”. As Christians we act justly to manifest something of God’s kingdom in the world, and therefore to invite others into this place of God’s loving kindness. Within God’s kingdom we are all loved equally as God’s children, and as God’s Church we are called to love one another as brothers and sisters and to invite others into that love.

To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God, calls Christians to act together in bearing a united witness to God’s kingdom within our communities: we – not me.

Christian Unity:

“Walking humbly” was challenging for the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He had obeyed all the commandments from his youth, but he could not take the further step to join Jesus’ disciples because of his wealth; he was beholden to his possessions. How difficult it is for Christians to let go of that which we perceive as riches, but which keep us from the greater wealth on joining Jesus’s disciples in Christian unity.


How can our churches better respond to the needs of our most vulnerable neighbours? How can we honour every voice in our communities?


Gracious and loving God,

Expand our vision that we might see the mission we share with all of our Christian brothers and sisters, to show forth the justice and loving kindness of your kingdom.

Help us to welcome our neighbours as your Son welcomed us.

Help us to be more generous as we witness to the grace that you freely give us. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

The statue of Justice by John Van Nost (1721) in Dublin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began two days ago (18 January), and the theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Week of Prayer For Christian Unity.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a reflection from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the grace to live with difference. May we seek right relationships in our desire to do good and our search for justice.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Prophet Micah portrays God’s people on trial for oppression and injustice (see Micah 6: 6-8) … a courtroom scene in a tableau in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)