Finland Investigating Involvement of 1,400 Citizens in SS War Crimes

Government-appointed historians are examining documents at Yad Vashem, including from Eichmann's trial

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Finnish SS volunteers in Gross Born Truppenlager, 1941.
Finnish SS volunteers in Gross Born Truppenlager, 1941.Credit: No credit
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Finnish historians have begun a research project on the involvement of Finnish soldiers in war crimes carried out by the SS during World War II. They are examining documents at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial archives, including a testimony from the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The research started in May and will end in February with the publication of the full report.

In addition to the Yad Vashem archives, the delegation of scholars, from the National Archives of Finland, are also studying archival documents in Finland, Russia, Germany and other countries. These include thousands of diaries written by Finnish soldiers during the war as well as letters, newspaper clippings and official documents by various agencies. The study also found photographs documenting actions by Finnish soldiers at the front, among other places at Lwow.

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Prof. Jussi Nuorteva, director of the National Archives of Finland, said Thursday at a conference at the Finnish Embassy in Tel Aviv that 1,400 Finns volunteered to serve in the SS during World War II, and were part of the SS Fifth Panzer Division (Wiking). Eight of them are still alive.

When Haaretz asked Nuorteva how many Jews were murdered due to involvement of Finnish soldiers, Nuorteva said he could not answer precisely at this point, but that in areas where these soldiers were stationed, including the city of Lwow, in Ukraine, tens of thousands of civilians were murdered, many of them Jewish.

Finland began the new study following a letter sent in January by Wiesenthal Center's Nazi-hunter Prof. Efraim Zuroff to the Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. The request came after new findings came to light about the involvement of Finnish soldiers in the Waffen SS Wiking unit's murder of Jews in Ukraine. Zuroff wrote that "while beginning such a study is painful for Finnish society, it is the only way to courageously face the mistakes of the past and to prevent such crimes in the future."

Zuroff praised Finland’s willingness to deal with its past and noted that "Finland is a ray of light in a world where governments are attempting to falsify the history of the Holocaust." Zuroff also criticized Finland’s neighbors, Sweden and Norway, which he said had established no investigative panels to examine crimes carried out by thousands of their citizens.

In response to whether Finland would trial the SS volunteers who are still alive, Zuroff said that local law did not allow this without concrete information about involvement in war crimes, and the full report must be published to check if such information exists.

When World War II broke out, there were about 2,000 Jews living in Finland. During the war, Finland fought in the Axis against the Soviet Union, but the Jews also served in the Finnish Army. Hence, an extraordinary phenomenon: Jews and Germans fought together side by side. Meanwhile, hundreds of Jewish refugees reached Finland during the war, and Finland only turned eight of them over the Nazi Germany. In fact, the Israeli community of Yad Hashmonah (“memorial to the eight”), near Jerusalem, was established in their memory by Finnish volunteers.

During the Holocaust, Finland waged four wars of its own: Three against the Soviet Union and one against Nazi Germany, its former ally. The last war was waged in the northern part of the country, after Finland signed an armistice with the Soviet Union in 1944. Finnish-Jewish soldiers also participated in that war.

This is not the first time Finland has dealt with a troubled past. In 1979, the Finnish journalist Elina Sana wrote a book about the eight Finnish refugees to Germany. In the 1990s, a Finnish historian living in Israel, Serah Beizer, discovered evidence that tens of thousands of Russian prisoners of war died in prison camps in Finland during the war. At least 100 of them were Jewish. In 2003, Sana uncovered collaboration between the Gestapo and the Finnish secret service in which Soviet prisoners of war, among them a few dozen Jews, were handed over to the Germans. It also came to light that Finland was involved in the murder of Jewish POWs from the Soviet Union. An investigative committee was established in the wake of these discoveries.

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