Despite sixty years’ intensive research and thousands of publications, certain aspects of the Second World War are still little known or remain to be discovered. It is only now, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, that we can reconstruct the full story of Finland’s participation in the war.
Consider the paradoxes. Finland fought on the German side (although it always refused to call itself an ally and insisted that it was only a co-belligerent). Yet it refused to deport, persecute or even discriminate against its Jewish population. And the country even behaved humanely towards Jewish prisoners of war.
Even stranger, Jewish soldiers fought in the Finnish ranks as equals – thereby, inevitably, helping the Germans achieve some of their war aims. Yet in doing so, I will argue, they also served Jewish interests. This article explains the background to these startling anomalies.
There was no Jewish population in Finland before 1809, when it became part of the Russian Empire. In 1827 Tsar Nicholas I issued an edict requiring Jewish boys from the age of 12 – who became known as cantonists - to undertake 25 years of compulsory military service. The main aim of this edict, abolished only in 1856, was to assimilate and eventually convert Jews to Christianity. Yet the soldiers who completed their military service were allowed to live anywhere in the Russian Empire, and many remained in the last place where they had been stationed. Hence some Jewish soldiers settled in Finland and, since there were no Jewish brides there, asked matchmakers from the Pale of Settlement to help them find wives. In the absence of railways unmarried girls and widows were transported by horse-driven cart. (When former cantonists were asked ‘How did you meet your wife?’ they would reply ‘I got her from a cart.’) This was the beginning of the Finnish Jewish community.
After the 1917 Revolution some more Jews emigrated from Russia and settled in Finland, increasing the numbers to 2,000 (Finland became independent in 1918). A further influx arrived after the Anschluss of 1938, when the leaders of the Finnish Jewish community asked the government to provide entry visas for Austrian Jews - whom they offered to provide for without requiring any public funds. Altogether, 300 Jewish refugees from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia came to Finland.
In December 1939, the Soviet Union started a war with Finland in order to gain territory. In the initial stages of the conflict (known in Finland as the Winter War) the Finnish army under Marshal Mannerheim successfully repelled the numerically superior Red Army. Then, in February 1940, Soviet troops managed to break the main defensive line (the so-called Mannerheim Line), although they continued to suffer heavy losses due to fierce resistance. The peace treaty of March 1940 forced Finland to cede parts of its territory.
From the Jewish point of view, this war was highly significant. It was the first time since the First World War that Jewish soldiers had fought on both sides of a front line. Many Jews served with distinction in the Finnish army, where they were treated as equals; 15 were killed in battle. But many also fought in the ranks of the Red Army. Lieutenant Leonid Buber, for example, was awarded the highest honour of Hero of the Soviet Union for his part in breaking the Mannerheim Line. In charge of a rifle company, he was wounded three times but did not leave the battlefield. He was later appointed a member of Jewish Antifascist Committee and was one of the few who miraculously survived after most were exterminated on Stalin’s orders in 1952.
In 1940 two Scandinavian countries - Denmark and Norway - were occupied by the Germans. Finland faced a stark choice: also being occupied or becoming another Soviet Republic like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Occupation was a very real danger since the German army could easily enter Finland from Norway, with a view to using its long frontier as a springboard for attacking the Soviet Union. Its substantial nickel deposits were also needed for military purposes.
In the event, the Finnish government chose to join forces with Germany in the hope of regaining the territory it had lost in the Winter War and so declared war on the Soviet Union on 25 June 1941, three days after Germany attacked the USSR. (This was the start of what is known in Finland as the Continuation War.) The German army was permitted to deploy in Lapland, in the north of the country, so to attack the Soviet Union from there. All this led Great Britain to declare war on Finland.
By August 1941 the Finnish troops under the command of Marshal Mannerheim had managed to regain the lost territories and almost reached the pre—Winter War border, securing positions on the shores of Lake Ladoga, on the Karelian Isthmus and on the Svir river. It was here the front stabilized until the summer of 1944 – something which allowed Finnish troops to play a crucial role in the further course of fighting between the Germans and Russians.
Despite the presence of German troops in Finland and the German command and Gestapo in Helsinki, Finland rejected Hitler’s demands to introduce anti—Jewish laws. Neither in Finland nor in the occupied parts of the USSR were Jews persecuted. Himmler twice came to Finland and tried in vain to persuade the Finnish authorities to deport the Jewish population. Only in a single case, near the start of the war, did the head of the Finnish police agree to extradite eight Jews without Finnish citizenship, seven of whom were immediately murdered. When the Finnish media reported on this, a huge scandal broke out and ministers resigned in protest. (In spring 1944, 160 Jewish refugees who did not have Finnish citizenship were transported to neutral Sweden to save their lives - on the orders of the Marshal Mannerheim, commander of the Finnish army.)
During the war, the lives of the Finnish Jews continued as before: synagogues and communal institutions functioned and the Jewish newspaper was published. Three hundred Jewish officers and soldiers served in the Finnish army during the Continuation War (eight were killed in battle).
Yet they faced an agonizing dilemma. Those who took part in the Winter War knew that they were fighting against an aggressor. Now Jewish soldiers understood that, by serving in an army fighting the USSR, they were also helping Hitler. Throughout the Continuation War, they had to collaborate with the Germans. Some who were fluent in German served in the Intelligence Service and so, throughout constant liaison with German Intelligence, acquired information about the extermination of European Jewry. On the other hand, Jewish soldiers remembered the words of Marshal Mannerheim when Himmler tried to persuade Finnish leaders to deport the Jews to concentration camps: ‘While Jews serve in my army I will not allow their deportation.’ By serving in the Finnish army Jewish soldiers hoped to prevent the community from being persecuted.
The maintenance of Jewish religious tradition was of paramount importance to soldiers fighting on the Finnish—Soviet front. A field synagogue was established a mere 2 kilometres from the German troops. This was the only field synagogue on the German side of the 2,000-mile front line which in 1942 stretched all the way from the North Cape in Norway to El Alamein in Egypt. The Finnish High Command granted leave to Jewish soldiers on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Worshippers came to pray from near and far, some on skis, some on horseback, most on foot. The Germans were astonished and frustrated to see Jewish soldiers holding religious services in an army tent. It is also interesting to note that the most popular Finnish singer, the ‘soldier’s sweetheart’ (or Finnish Vera Lynn), was Jewish. Yet she entertained only Finnish soldiers and refused to do the same for the Germans.
Three Jews serving in the Finnish army were awarded Iron Crosses by the German command for their bravery (Hannu Rautkallio, ‘Cast into the Lion’s Den’, Journal of Contemporary History 29, 1994). Major Leo Skurnik was a descendant of one of the oldest cantonist Jewish families. He served as a doctor, organized the evacuation of a German field hospital and thereby saved the lives of more than 600 German officers and soldiers. He refused to accept the decoration on the grounds of being a Jew. Captain Solomon Klass saved a German company that had been surrounded by Soviet forces. Two days later, German officers came to offer him the Iron Cross. He refused to stand up and told them contemptuously that he was Jewish and did not want their medal. The officers repeated their ‘Heil Hitler’ salute and left. A third Jew, a nurse, also refused the Iron Cross.
Information about Soviet Jewish prisoners of war captured by Finnish troops only became available recently. Some very interesting reminiscences by one such prisoner, Lazar Raskin, appeared in a special issue of the Jewish journal Lechaim (published in Russian in Moscow) devoted to the sixtieth anniversary of victory in Europe in May 2005. Raskin served as a soldier in the Red Army and, after being wounded, was taken prisoner by Finnish soldiers and sent to hospital. Later, along with over a hundred other Soviet Jewish prisoners, he was transferred to a special camp where the conditions were marginally better than in other prisoner-of-war camps.
They were assigned to a factory producing fertilizers. Raskin spent two and a half years there, as he later recalled:
In spring 1943 we were informed that several Finnish Jews were coming to our camp. We were extremely surprised because we did not think that there were Jews in Finland and that they were free to come and go. Three elderly men came and introduced themselves as representatives of the Helsinki Jewish community. They brought boxes with matzoth and told us that Passover was imminent . . . They also brought books, including stories by Shalom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz and The History of the Jews by the famous historian S. Dubnov (all in Yiddish).
In the evening after work we spent time with our visitors. We felt at ease with them and had a friendly chat in Yiddish. Just the fact that we saw Jews before us, safe and prosperous, made it a festive occasion. We knew what the Nazis were doing to European Jewry. The visitors told us that the Finnish authorities, despite the demands of the Germans, not only did not persecute the Jews but even defended their interests. Later we sang Jewish songs together. Surprisingly, the Finnish Jews knew the same songs as we did.
The prisoners also realized that the representatives of the Jewish community had spoken to the manager of the factory. After their visit the food we were given got better and the regime less strict.
The visit left a pleasant impression and we remembered it for a long time. The most precious presents were the books. Because very few people could read Yiddish I read aloud the stories of Shalom Aleichem and everybody laughed. I studied The History of the Jews very thoroughly and later gave several lectures on this theme. Everybody listened very attentively because for most of us the history of our people was absolutely unknown.
After the peace treaty between the Soviet Union and Finland was signed in 1944, Soviet prisoners of war were sent back to the USSR. It is interesting that Lazar Raskin (like most of his fellow prisoners) was not allowed to go home to his family but sent to work in the coal mines on Stalin’s orders. He was released only after Stalin’s death in 1953.
It is obvious that the policy of the Finnish authorities towards the Jews was in striking contrast with the situation not only in Germany but in its allies and in occupied countries such as France where the Vichy government actively helped to round up the Jews. One of the main reasons for this was the personality of the great Finnish leader Carl Gustav Mannerheim (1867—1951). He was a general of the Imperial Russian Army, served as a Garde du Chevalier officer to the Tsarina and accompanied Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina during their coronation in Moscow in 1896. He was also a scientist and explorer of Asia and the Far East.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917 he became a leader of the Finnish army which suppressed a rebellion by Bolshevik forces. It was as a result of this that Finland became an independent state. During the period from 1927 to 1939 he built the system of fortifications along the border with the USSR known as ‘the Mannerheim Line’ – which the Soviet Union in 1939 paid a heavy price in breaking through. Stalin long remembered the lesson he had been taught by Mannerheim: fierce Finnish resistance saved the country from becoming a Soviet Republic.
Mannerheim’s war aims were quite different from those of the Germans he fought alongside. He merely wanted to recover Finnish territory lost in the Winter War and to preserve the country’s independence. He had no desire to destroy the USSR because, as he once put it, ‘Russia will always be our neighbour.’ And he never pursued Hitler’s racial policies. Indeed he helped ensure that Finnish Jews had equal rights with the Christian majority.
One of the decisive battles of the Second World War was the siege of Leningrad. At the end of August 1941 the city was completely surrounded by German and Finnish troops, with the latter holding positions almost all round Lake Ladoga. The Russians controlled only part of its south-eastern shore. Because food stocks were destroyed by German bombers, a million inhabitants of Leningrad died of hunger and cold during the unusually harsh winter of 1941-2.
The only way in and out of the city was over Lake Ladoga. Hence, under the most difficult conditions, a road – known as ‘the road of life’ - was built from Leningrad to unoccupied Soviet territory via the frozen lake. It was along this road that hundreds of thousands of children, sick and wounded were evacuated from Leningrad during 1941-2, and food, armaments and ammunition brought into the city.
If it had not been for this road, Leningrad would never have been able to survive and fight on against the Germans. Yet the Finnish troops positioned around the lake could easily have destroyed ‘the road of life’. Hitler proclaimed at the beginning of the war that he would raze Leningrad to the ground. This did not happen purely because Mannerheim did not want it to happen and so refused to order his troops to attack ‘the road of life’.
If Finland had not occupied the Karelian Isthmus and the shores of Lake Ladoga, the Germans would have been there - and Leningrad would have been doomed. Mannerheim’s decision saved an important city and the 150,000 Jews (including my father) who lived and worked there during the siege.
Equally significant were the two naval ports which had not frozen over, Murmansk and Archangelsk, in the north of the USSR. Since Britain and the USA organized Arctic convoys to deliver armaments, ammunition, vehicles and food, the Germans often asked Mannerheim to bomb the railways to the ports and to cut off communications with the north. At the beginning of 1943, Hitler came to Finland for a day to congratulate Mannerheim on his 75th birthday. According to standard Soviet historians, Mannerheim assured Hitler that the Finnish army would undertake these operations after the fall of Leningrad (History of the Great Patriotic War 1941—1945, vol. 2, [Moscow, 1961]).Yet this was just a ruse to gain time - he did not want Hitler to defeat the Soviet Union.
In August 1944 Mannerheim was elected President of Finland and initiated peace negotiations with the USSR. The armistice agreement was signed in September 1944. According to this agreement Finland started military actions against German troops deployed in Lapland – an action in which some Finnish Jewish soldiers also took part.
On 6 December (Independence Day) 1944 President Mannerheim visited the Helsinki synagogue, took part in a commemorative service for the Jewish soldiers who had died in the Winter and Continuation Wars and presented the Jewish community with a medal.
It was because of Mannerheim that Finland remained an independent state, unlike the many East European countries which became satellites of the Soviet Union. Finnish Jews continued to have every opportunity to live as a vibrant community or to emigrate to Israel. Twenty-seven Jews with battle experience went there in 1948 to take part in the War of Independence.
In 2005 an exhibition dedicated to Marshal Mannerheim was held at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, and Finnish historians had an opportunity to show for the first time Mannerheim’s role in saving Leningrad. It is here, perhaps, that the Finnish Jewish soldiers who took part in the Second World War on the German side can take consolation. By fighting alongside the Germans, paradoxically, they helped to save not only the Finnish Jewish community but the Jewish community of Leningrad as well.
I would like to express my gratitude to Boris Ben-Ari (London) and Gideon Bolotowsky (Helsinki) for valuable information about the participation of Finnish Jewish soldiers in the Second World War.
Rachel Bayvel has a Masters degree from the University of Design and Technology in Leningrad. She has lived in London since 1978 and researches Eastern European history.