On December 22, 1917, the Finnish parliament passed an act that offered citizenship to “Mosaic Confessors” – that is, the country’s Jews. The act, which followed Finland’s declaration of December 6, went into effect several weeks later, on January 12, 1918. At the time, there were a little over 1,000 Jews living in the country.
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The presence of Jews in Finland goes back only two centuries, to the first half of the 19th century, when Russian cantonists, Jews from the Russian Empire who had been conscripted as children and served 25 years in the czar’s army, finished their service in Finland, and were permitted to remain there.
Until 1809, Finland had been part of the Swedish kingdom, which restricted Jews’ residence to three cities, none of which was in Finnish territory. In that year, following the so-called Finnish War, between Sweden and Russia, Finland became a semi-autonomous “grand duchy,” within Russia.
Nonetheless, most of the Swedish restrictions on Jews still applied. The exception applied only to the cantonists, and even they were subject to a number of different economic restrictions, which meant that most of them worked in the second-hand clothing business. Violation of the restrictions led to immediate deportation.
Citizens, yes, but restrictions remained
The question of citizenship for the Jews began to be discussed in the Finnish Diet in 1872, and continued for the next two decades. Even after 1889, when a statute formalizing the circumstances under which Jews could live in Finland was passed, many restrictions remained.
The two Russian revolutions, of February and November 1917, changed things. When it became clear, in the latter, that the Bolsheviks were going to take power, the right-wing government in Finland decided to declare independence. In January 1918, a short civil war ensued in Finland, between Reds and Whites (communists and non-communists), with the latter winning.
In the two decades that followed, the Jewish population roughly doubled, from 1,000 to 2,000, with most of the newcomers being emigrants from newly communist Russia. When the two countries fought their Winter War, in 1939-40, 204 Finnish Jews fought loyally against the Soviets, 27 of them giving up their lives.
The truly anomalous aspect to this is that, during the Continuation War (1941-44), after the non-aggression pact between the USSR and the Third Reich had ended, the Finns found themselves continuing their fight against the Soviets side-by-side with German forces. Among the Finns were some 300 Jewish soldiers.
The Nazis accepted this fact, and even famously tolerated the presence of a field synagogue in the Finnish camp, next to their own encampment. The Jewish soldiers are said to have had a fair amount of contact with the Germans, without any egregious incidents.
Some 500 Jewish refugees from Europe also arrived in Finland during the war, of whom some 150 remained. They lived in constant fear of being turned over to the Germans, although in the end, the number who suffered that fate was limited to eight, only of one of whom apparently survived the war. The Finnish prime minister, Paavo Lipponen, publicly apologized for that action in 2000.
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