13 March 2007

Finland's Jews - A revitalized community

Finland's Jewish history is, according to two recent JTA stories, "short and full of twists."

The Finnish Jewish community dates back only to 1858, when Russian soldiers who had completed their required service were granted the right to settle anywhere in the Russian Empire, which then included Finland.

In 1917, following Finland's independence from Russia, its Parliament granted these soldiers and their descendants full citizenship. By 1939, about 2,000 Jews lived there.

During the 1940 war between Finland and Russia, known here as the Winter War, Finnish Jews fought alongside their countrymen. But most surprising to those unfamiliar with this nation's Jewish community could be the fact that Finnish Jews fought in World War II alongside Germany on the Russian front, as their country allied itself with the Nazis.

Even more unusual, the Finnish government afforded Jews full civil rights throughout the war despite strong pressure from the Nazis. Today's community has a memory of a “field synagogue” built by Finnish soldiers in which they could conduct services alongside SS units.

Most interesting, perhaps, is another local story of a Jewish soldier who defied death to rescue a battalion of SS soldiers pinned down by enemy fire. Offered an Iron Cross he refused, in flawless German.

When a German officer asked where he learned to speak so well, the soldier reportedly answered that he was Jewish, and that since Yiddish was his mother language, it was easy for him to speak German. He then marched out of the deathly silent tent. The Finnish government supported his refusal of the award.

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In a related story, FSU immigrants are again arriving in Finland, reviving a community that was dying out.

The future wasn't looking very good because the number of community members had been declining all the time," recalls Dan Kantor, executive director of the Jewish Community of Helsinki, or JCH.

The JCH runs the city's 100-year-old synagogue, which houses Finland's only Jewish day school, and operates the only kosher deli in Finland.

"Today we have about 1,200 members; in the 1980s we had about 800 members," Kantor said. "And if you look at the background of the schoolchildren," some 75 percent have one immigrant parent. "There, in very clear numbers, is what has happened."

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