Text size

Finland has always taken pride in its "clean past" pertaining to its treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Jewish citizens of Finland enjoyed equal rights and demonstrated loyalty to the country. During World War Two, Jewish citizens of the state were called upon to serve in the Finnish army, which fought alongside the Nazis against the Russians. 23 Finnish Jews were killed in battles against the Russians, while fighting alongside the Germans.

A 1979 study found that eight Jewish refugees, who held Austrian citizenship, were expelled from Finland to Germany during WWII. The Finnish government issued a formal apology on the affair, and erected a monument on a hill in Helsinki to honor the memory of the eight individuals. A new book published two weeks ago in Finland states that the expulsion of the eight individuals was just the tip of the iceberg. The Finns, according to the book, concentrated hundreds of Russian prisoners of war who were Jews, and sent them to their deaths in Germany.

The book, "Those Who Were Handed Over," was written by Elina Sana, a Finnish author and human rights activist. Sana first exposed the expulsion of the eight Jews. Her book also discusses the prisoner exchange between Finland and the Third Reich, in which Germany gave Finland some 3,000 individuals belonging to ethnic groups close to Finns, who were to have settled in areas conquered by the Russians. In exchange, Finland handed over to Germany 2,892 of the 64,000 Soviet POWs that it held. The few Finnish studies on the topic recognize the German request to receive as many Jewish POWs as possible, but chose to go along with the official Finnish version, according to which this demand was soundly rejected.

Sana's research refutes the official version. She believes that the Finns systematically concentrated the Jewish POWs in order to send them to the Nazis. Sana estimates that the number of Jewish POWs sent to Germany stands at over 500. At the time, the Finnish espionage agency knew that the Germans were systematically exterminating Jews.

Two weeks ago, the Simon Wiesenthal Center appealed to the Finnish government, and requested that it respond to Sana's findings. Three days later, Finnish President Tarja Halonen announced that he had decided to appoint a committee to investigate the incidents described in Sana's book. Once it completes its research, the committee will present its report to the Finnish government.

The episode was first brought to light in Jerusalem. Sana began work on the book two years ago, after contacting Sara Beiser, and Israeli of Finnish descent who works at the Jewish Agency's Pedagogical Center.

In the early 1990's, Beiser met Simion Yantovsky, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. Yantovsky said that he had been a soldier in the Red Army, and had been captured by Finnish troops. "I was very excited," Beiser said. "When I was a girl, my father told me how as a soldier in the Finnish army, he had met a Jewish POW from Russia. He especially remembered the shock that the POW experienced when he spoke to him in Yiddish, in an attempt to calm him down."

After the war, Yantovsky was released and returned to Russia. But there was one detail in his story that especially bothered Beiser. "He told me that while held by the Finns, he was housed in a separate area within the POW camp, together with all of the other Jewish soldiers in his unit. I didn't understand why the Finns concentrated all of the Jews together," Beiser said. Following their conversation, she decided to dedicate her spare time to uncovering the mystery. During her annual family vacations in Finland, she spent a few days searching the war archives in Helsinki. At a certain stage, Beiser located a file with the personal details of the Soviet POWs that were transferred to the Germans.

"Among the files that I saw, there were some 70 Jews," Beiser said. Three years ago, she published an article summarizing her findings. Following its publication in a Russian language newspaper in Israel, a number of relatives of POWs contacted her, after realizing what had happened to their loved ones.

Sana obtained the data gathered by Beiser, and used it in her book. "I'm happy that Sana's book was published," she said. "To date, historians and governments were dormant on the subject. I hope that now they'll learn that its preferable to publicize things rather than try to cover things up."

According to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, the Scandinavian states treated Jewish refugees differently than Jewish citizens of their countries. "The policies of Scandinavian countries, despite their liberal traditions, were to protect the citizens of their country, and ignore citizens of other countries," said Professor David Bankier, Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.

The Danes, for example, saved Jewish citizens of Denmark in a heroic operation immediately after the country was occupied by the Nazis. Prior to the occupation, though, they handed over to the Gestapo Jewish refugees who had come to the country.

It should be noted that during the war, Sweden agreed to give refuge to 8,000 Jewish residents of Denmark and 900 Jewish residents of Norway.