Number of Soldiers: 260
Number of Fallen: 23
Jewish Soldiers in Finland’s Army in World War II
By Col. (Res.) Benny Michelsohn
The Finnish State’s involvement in World War II can be divided into three periods:
A. The “Winter War”, December 1939 – March 1940
Finland’s determined stand against the Soviet Union’s aggression ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty, in 1940, and with Finland conceding important and substantial parts of its territory to the U.S.S.R. but preserving its independence. In this war, the U.S.S.R. actually operated alongside Nazi Germany and attacked Finland, in order to fulfill the secret addendum of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that left Finland (who didn’t know a thing about this addendum) in the Soviet sphere of influence. A French-British Military Expedition had been prepared during this war, and was to depart to the aid of Finland.
B. The “Continuation War, June 1941 – September 1944
In this period Finland fought on the German side (although it insisted that it was not an ally of Germany, only fighting alongside it). The enemy, as before, was the U.S.S.R., and during the war Finland took back the territories that had been occupied by the Soviet Union in the “Winter War”, and, in addition to restoring the original border situation, it conquered more territories from the U.S.S.R. to improve its defensive positions.
Despite fighting alongside the Germans in these three years, Finland refused to deport, harm or discriminate against its Jews. This Country also (generally) treated the Russian Prisoners-of-war who fell in its hands in a humane manner.
Notwithstanding the strangeness of it, Jewish Soldiers fought within the ranks of the Finnish Army as equals – and therefore, unavoidably, assisted in the attainment of some of Germany’s objectives in the war. But in those acts they also served the interests of the Jewish People. In this essay we will try to explain this anomaly.
C. On the Allies side, September 1944 – May 1945
In this period, Finland switched sides, signed a (separate) Peace Treaty with the U.S.S.R., joined the Allies and went on the offensive against the German Army on its soil. By war’s end, Finland has succeeded in driving the German Army off its land. After the war the Soviet Union rewarded it for those actions, not only by continuing to acknowledge its independence but also by enabling it to be a democratic and neutral Country throughout the entire “Cold war” period, as opposed to the rest of the Countries of Eastern Europe which became Soviet Satellite States and part of the “Warsaw Pact”.
The Origins of Finland’s Jewry
There was no Jewish population in Finland until the year 1809, when it became part of the Russian Empire (after 500 years of Swedish rule in Finland). In the year 1827, Tsar Nikolai the 1st issued an Order of Conscription to the Army to all Jewish children over the age of 12 – they became known as the “Cantonists” – and they had to complete a compulsory service of 25 years. The Tsar’s main goal with this Order (abolished only in 1856) was, in effect, to convert the children’s religion from Jewish to Christian. However, Soldiers who have completed their compulsory service enjoyed the privilege of settling in every part of the Russian Empire – of their choosing. In most cases they remained and settled in the last district where they had served, and in this way a number of Jewish Soldiers settled in Finland. And since there were no Jewish Brides in this remote region, girls were brought to them from other places by match-makers – and this was the beginning of the Jewish population in Finland.
Between the Two World Wars
After the Revolution of 1917, more Jews emigrated from Russia and settled in Finland. The Jewish population grew during this period, reaching the extent of 2,000 persons (Finland got its independence at the end of World War I, in 1918). Another stream of Jewish immigrants reached Finland after the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 (the Anscluss). Leaders of the Jewish Community in Finland approached the Government in that period and appealed for visas for Jews without having to invest Government resources in their absorption. In this manner, 300 additional Jewish Refugees from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia entered Finland on the eve of World War II.
“The Winter War”
In December, 1939, the U.S.S.R. attacked Finland with the aim of conquering vast territories of the small Country. Early in the war (called the “Winter War” in Finland), the Finnish Army, under the command of Marshal Mannerheim, managed to ward off the Soviet offensive despite an obvious numerical inferiority. Thereafter, however, in February, 1940, the Soviet Army succeeded in penetrating the Finnish main defensive strip (which was known as the “Mannerheim Line”); this, although it continued to suffer heavy casualties due to the Finns’ brazen opposition. The Peace Treaty that was signed in March, 1940, forced Finland to give up substantial parts of its territory.
From a Jewish point of view, this was a landmark war. For the first time since World War I, Jewish Soldiers fought on both sides of a conflict. Many Jews served with distinction in the ranks of the Finnish Army, where they were treated as equals. Fifteen Jewish Finnish Soldiers have fallen in this war. But many more Jewish Soldiers fought within the ranks of the Red Army. For example – Lieutenant Leonid Buber was awarded with the highest decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union, for his part in the penetration of the Mannerheim Line. Charging at the head of his Company, he was wounded three times but refused to evacuate from the Battlefield. Later on, he was appointed as member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and was one of the few who miraculously survived Stalin’s Purges, in 1952.
In the year 1940, Germany occupied the Countries of Denmark and Norway, two of Finland’s Scandinavian neighbors. Finland was faced with a tough dilemma: be also occupied or turn into another Soviet Republic as had happened to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Occupation became a clear and immediate danger, as the German Army could quite easily enter Finland’s northern territory from Norway in order to transform the long border with the U.S.S.R. in this area into a springboard within the framework of its planned aggression eastwards. Finland’s large Nickel mines and reserves also enticed the Germans for those were needed for the German war effort.
After the invasion of the U.S.S.R., the “Continuation War”
In the situation described above, the Finnish Government finally ended up choosing to join forces with the Germans for the purpose of taking back the territories it lost in the Winter War. Finland declared war on the Soviet Union, on 25 June 1941, 3 days after the German Army invaded the Soviet Union (this was the beginning of the war called the “Continuation War” in Finland). The Finns permitted the German Army to marshal in Lapland, in northern Finland, in order to attack the U.S.S.R. from there. These acts by the Finnish Government led to a British declaration of war on Finland in reaction.
By August, 1941, Finland’s Army Forces, under the command of Marshal Mannerheim, managed to recapture all the territories it had lost in the Winter War, to restore the original situation – from before the war – and even to occupy territories from the Soviet Union. In this Offensive, Finnish Troops reached the shores of Lake Ladoga, the Karelian Isthmus and the banks of the Svir River. The Finns halted their advance at this disposition, and the Front was fixed until the summer of 1944. Stopping the Finnish Army on this line became a position of paramount importance it its effect on the rest of the war between the Germans and the Russians.
The attitude towards the Jewish Community
Despite the German Army’s presence on Finnish soil during the “Continuation War” period and the existence of a German Command Headquarters in Helsinki that comprised the Army and the S.S., Finland firmly rejected Hitler’s repeated demands to enact anti-Semitic laws in the Country. Neither in Finland nor in Soviet Union territories occupied by Finland has there ever been persecution of Jews or discrimination against them. Himmler himself visited Finland Twice to persuade the Authorities to deport the Jews – to no avail. On only one occasion, early in the war, the Chief of Finland’s Police agreed to send away eight Jews who did not have Finnish Citizenship. Seven of them were immediately murdered by the Germans. The scandal that arose in Finland following the publication of this case in the press caused Finnish Cabinet Ministers to resign in protest, and never again did a similar incident occur (in the spring of 1944, by order of Army Commander Marshal Mannerheim, 160 Jews with no Finnish Citizenship were transferred to Sweden in order to save their lives).
During the course of the war, Jewish life in Finland continued to be conducted as usual, Synagogues and Community Institutions remained active and the Jewish Newspaper continued publication.
The Jewish Soldiers
Three hundred Jewish Officers and Soldiers (upwards of 13% of the Community) served within the ranks of the Finnish Army in the course of the “Continuation War”, and eight of them have fallen.
The Jewish Soldiers in the Finnish Army faced a heart-rending dilemma. Those who had fought in the Winter War knew they were fighting against aggression. Now they understood that, by serving in an Army which is fighting against the U.S.S.R., they were helping Hitler. In the course of the “Continuation War” they had to cooperate with the Germans. Several of them who had total command of the German language served in the Intelligence Corps, and therein, through direct contact with German Intelligence, they became aware of the annihilation of Europe’s Jewry. On the other hand, Jewish Soldiers remembered Marshal Mannerheim’s words to Himmler, when the latter attempted to persuade the leaders of Finland to deport Jews to the Concentration Camps: “As long as there Jews serving in my Army, I will not allow their deportation”. Jewish Soldiers hoped that, by serving in the Army, they were preventing persecution and deportation of the entire Jewish Community.
Observing Jewish tradition was of great importance to the Soldiers serving on the Finnish-Russian Front. In a certain place, 2 kilometers away from the German Army’s positions, a field-Synagogue was erected. This was the one and only Military Synagogue on the German side, along a 3,500 kilometer Front, from El Alamein in Egypt all the way up to Finland’s North Cape. The Finnish High Command made it possible for the Jewish Soldiers to observe the Sabbath and the Holidays, and even to go on leave during these times and maintain the commands with Jewish families in the Community. Many Jewish Soldiers came from near and from far to pray in the Military Synagogue, arriving on skis, on horseback and even on foot. The German Soldiers, nearby, who saw Jewish Soldiers fulfilling the commands of their Religion inside a field tent next to them, were astounded and felt frustrated. It is also interesting to note that the most popular singer in Finland during the war, who won the title of “The Soldiers’ Sweetheart” (or the Finnish Vera Lynn), was a Jew, and she performed in front of Finnish Soldiers but adamantly refused to perform in front of Germans.
Three Jews who had served in the Finnish Army received the German “Iron Cross” Decoration. Major Leo Skurnik was a descendant of one of the oldest “Cantonist” families. He served as a Doctor and organized the evacuation of a German field hospital that was in danger of a Soviet attack, thereby saving the lives of more than 600 German Officers and Soldiers. He refused to accept the German Decoration, asserting that he was a Jew. Captain Salomon Klass saved an entire German Company that had been surrounded by the Soviets. Two days later, German Officers came to offer him the “Iron Cross”. He refused to stand up at their presence and proclaimed the he was a Jew and did not want their Medal. Embarrassed, they responded with a pale “Heil Hitler” salute and left. A third Jew, a medic, also refused to take the “Iron Cross”.
Jewish-Russian Prisoners-of-War in Finland
Finland captured 64,000 Russian Soldiers in the “Continuation War”. In the course of the war, about 2,500 of them were transferred to the hands of the Germans in exchange for a similar number of Russian Soldiers of Finnish descent who had been captured by the German Army. The Finns claimed that most of the Prisoners they got had a political (Bolshevik) background and that this was the criterion for their transfer. There is difficulty in assessing the number of Jewish Prisoners because many of them did not declare their Jewishness, either on ideological (Communist-Atheist) grounds, or in order to hide their Religion out of fear for their lives. Research that has been done recently identified at least 500 Jewish Prisoners among those who had fallen in Finnish hands, but if we consider the total percentage of Jews in the Soviet Army – 1.78% - it can be assumed that this was also the percentage of Soviet Jewish Soldiers who had been captured by the Finns, namely, a little more than 1,100 Soldiers. Of those men, 70 were given to the Germans in the framework of the transfer mentioned above. But most of the Jewish Soldiers who had fallen in Finnish captivity survived the war, and at times even awarded preferential treatment and visitations by representatives of the Finnish Jewish Community who endeavored on their behalf. The majority of them were housed in a special Prisoner-of-War Camp, located inland, for their protection (especially since Marshal Mannerheim had assessed, already in the year 1942, that the Germans were going to lose the war).
It is interesting that a large number of the Prisoners who were returned to the U.S.S.R. after the signing of the Peace treaty between the two Countries, in 1944, were sent to Labor Camps in Siberia and released only after Stalin’s death, in the year 1953.
The attitude towards the Jews in Finland compared to other Countries
It is obvious to all that the policy of the Finnish Authorities towards the Jews was contrary to and radically different from the Jews’ situation not only in Germany but also in Countries that were Germany’s allies, or were occupied by or fighting alongside it. In France, for example, the Vichy Authorities helped the Germans deport Jews to Concentration and Extermination Camps. In Romania, Hungary and Norway the Authorities’ assistance was partial. In occupied Countries, such as Poland, Hungary and Belgium, the Germans enjoyed sweeping collaboration by the local population. One of the main reasons for Finland’s policy towards its Jews can be found in the personality of Marshal Mannerheim.
Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951)
Mannerheim was a General in the Russian Army during the Tsar period. For some time he served as the Tsarina’s Military Adjutant, and accompanied the Imperial Couple to its coronation in Moscow, in the year 1896. He was also a scientist and a tireless tourist of Asia and the Far East.
After the Bolshevik Revolution he stood at the head of Finland’s Army that succeeded in crushing a Bolshevik rebellion in its region of responsibility. As a result, Finland became an independent State. Between the years 1927-1939 he personally oversaw the construction of a fortified defensive strip on the border with the U.S.S.R., known as the “Mannerheim Line”, one for which the Soviets paid a dear price in blood to break through in the “Winter War”. Stalin learned well the lesson he had been taught by Mannerheim: it was the brazen resistance of the Finns that preserved this little Country’s independence and prevented it from becoming a Soviet Republic.
Mannerheim’s war goals were completely different from those of Nazi Germany, alongside which he was fighting. He aspired to recover the territories Finland had lost in the “Winter War” and to preserve its independence. He had no intention to destroy the U.S.S.R., and he was even heard saying that, “Russia will forever remain our close neighbor”. Furthermore, he was never dragged after Hitler’s racial policy and indeed he made sure that the Jews of Finland received equal rights just like the Christian majority in the Country.
In August, 1944, Mannerheim was elected as the Country’s President and he immediately set forth an initiative for peace negotiations with the Soviet Union. The Armistice Agreement between the two Countries was signed in September, 1944. In accordance with that Agreement, the Finnish Army launched an Offensive against the German Forces stationed in Lapland – an Operation in which Jewish Soldiers also took part.
On 6 December 1944 (Independence Day in Finland), President Mannerheim visited the main Synagogue in Helsinki, participated in a memorial service for Jewish Soldiers who had fallen in the war and presented a special Medal to the Jewish Community for its contribution to the Finnish People in the course of the war.
The Siege of Leningrad
One of the decisive Campaigns of the war, from the U.S.S.R.’s perspective, was the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). In late August, 1941, the City was completely encircled by German and Finnish Forces, with the latter set in positions almost entirely around Lake Ladoga while the Russians continued to maintain control only on the south-eastern shore of the lake. About a million of the City’s residents perished in the course of the Siege as a result of the destruction of the food stockpiles by the German bombings, especially during the harsh winter of 1941-1942.
The only way into and out of the besieged City was through Lake Ladoga. In this area, and under horrible conditions, the “Road of Life” was sustained, a lifeline that had been built between the City and the unoccupied territory of the U.S.S.R. over the frozen Lake in winter and using boats and other small vessels in summer. Through this route the sick and the wounded were evacuated out of the City, while supplies of food and ammunition were run into it.
Without that pathway, Leningrad would not have been able to hold on and continue fighting the Germans. The Finnish Forces positioned around the Lake could have cut off the “Road of Life” with relative ease and thus doom the City. Early in the war Hitler had proclaimed that he would destroy Leningrad, but this never happened because Mannerheim (and the Finns) did not want it to happen and so he refused to order the Forces of the Finnish Army to disrupt the “Road of Life”.
If Finland had not occupied the Karelian (ground) Isthmus and the shores of Lake Ladoga, the Germans would have most likely done it themselves and Leningrad’s fate would have been sealed. Mannerheim (who was walking a tightrope here) made a decision that saved this important City and the 150,000 Jews who lived and worked in it during the Siege.
Murmansk and Archangelsk
These two important Port Cities in the Soviet Union’s far north (especially Murmansk Port, which did not freeze over even in the dead of winter) were of great significance in that they constituted the gateway for the arrival of goods from the west. Throughout the entire war Britain and the U.S.A. have conducted naval convoys of provisions by way of the Arctic Circle, bringing in enormous quantities of arms, ammunition, motor vehicles and food to the Russian Front. The Germans turned to Mannerheim numerous times asking him to bomb the Russian railways leading to these Ports and to cut them off completely from the center of the Soviet Union. Early in 1943, on Marshal Mannerheim’s 75th Birthday, Hitler came to Helsinki to personally congratulate him and once again he asked him to sever the transportation paths to these Ports. According to Russian historians, Mannerheim replied that this will be done after the completion of Leningrad’s occupation. It was just an excuse to gain time, of course, as the Finns did not want a defeat of the Soviet Union.
After the War
Unlike many Eastern European States that became Satellites of the U.S.S.R., Finland’s survival as an independent State in the course of World War II and thereafter stemmed, in no small measure, from the balanced and shrewd policies of its leaders. Finland’s Jews continued to enjoy the opportunity to live a community life and even to immigrate to Israel. Twenty seven Jews who had fought in the war within the framework of the Finnish Army went to Israel and contributed from their combat experience in the War of Independence.
In 2005, an extraordinary exhibition dedicated to Marshal Mannerheim was presented at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and for the first time Finnish historians were given a chance to display his role in saving Leningrad. It is possible that this was an opportunity for the Jewish Soldiers who had fought within the ranks of the Finnish Army in World War II to take comfort in the idea that, paradoxically, by fighting alongside the Germans they helped save not only the Jewish Community of Finland but also the Community of the City of Leningrad.
1. [Hebrew] Yitzhak Arad, In the Shadow of the red Banner, Israeli Ministry of Defense Publications, Tel-Aviv, 2008.
2. [Hebrew] Yohanan Cohen, Testing of Nations, Finland – “Winter War”, Ma’arachot Publications (IDF), 1985.
3. Rachel Bayvel, Jewish Quarterly, No. 202, Summer 2006.
4. Larry Domnitch, The Cantonists – The Jewish Children’s Army of the Tsar, Tel-Aviv, 2003.
5. History of the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945, vol. 2, Moscow, 1961.
6. Jewish Journal Lechaim (published in Russian in Moscow), devoted to the sixtieth anniversary of victory in Europe, May 2005.
7. Hannu Rautkallio, Cast into the Lion’s Den, Journal of Contemporary History, 29, 1994.
8. Finland’s Tarnished Holocaust Record, JCPA No. 54, 1 March 2007.