An independent state in Scandinavia since 1917, Finland was under Swedish rule until 1809, during which time Jews were banned from living there. When Finland became a grand duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809, Jews who had served in the Russian army and been stationed in Finnish territory were allowed to settle with their families in the place of their service. Thus a small Jewish community was established in Finland, consisting in 1870 of about 400 Jews originating from areas that today are part of Russia and Lithuania. The means by which they could earn a living in Finland were severely restricted. Starting in 1872 the Finnish Diet discussed the legal status of Jews several times.
Three Jewish weightlifters, winners of the Maccabi competition, Finland, 1939. YIVO (YIVO)
Jews were finally granted civil rights immediately after Finland became an independent country. In the interwar period, the Jewish population rose to its highest level ever—about 2,000. Emancipation opened new possibilities; many young Jews studied at university and entered the professions. During World World II, Finland twice fought against the Soviet Union; the second time (1941–1944) Finland was a cobelligerent of Nazi Germany. German soldiers were stationed in Finland, which gave rise to the paradoxical situation of Jews and Germans fighting side by side. Jews fought together with their non-Jewish counterparts in both wars, and the Jewish losses (8%) were conspicuously heavy. The Finnish government refused to enact anti-Jewish legislation and protected its Jewish citizens, but eight Jewish refugees were handed over to the Germans.
After the war, the integration of the Jewish population into Finnish society was completed. Having fought for their country, Jews were widely accepted even by those who earlier had been suspicious of them. However, the Jewish population now slowly decreased because of emigration, mainly to Israel, and assimilation. At the end of the twentieth century, the number of Jews started to grow again, albeit very slowly. At the turn of the twenty-first century there were 1,585 members of the two Finnish Jewish communities (360 lived abroad). It is further estimated that there are 250–350 Jews in the country who are not affiliated with the Jewish community.
Memorial ceremony for Jewish soldiers who fell in World War II, Helsinki, 1945. (Front, center) Finnish president Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim. (YIVO)
Today 85 percent of Finnish Jews belong to the community in Helsinki, whereas the community in Turku is very small (194 members in 2000). Turku has a synagogue and a community center, and despite its small size still manages to gather a quorum for prayer almost every Sabbath. Helsinki offers an impressive range of communal activities including a kindergarten, a school, a hospital, a library, a choir, and a great number of organizations, including a Maccabi sports club, WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), and the Jewish National Fund. Jewish organizations work under the auspices of the synagogue community. Both synagogues in the country follow Orthodox ritual, and there is a rabbi in Helsinki, but not in Turku. The Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland is a consultative body dealing with general matters and is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress and the European Council of Jewish Communities. The two communities have good relations with the state and municipal authorities as well as with the dominant Lutheran church. The Jewish community has legal status and the right to levy taxes on its members.
The Jewish community in Finland is Ashkenazic. Most of its members are descended from the Jewish soldiers who settled in the country in the nineteenth century. They have thus lived in Finland for several generations, are educated, and have been integrated into the upper-middle and middle class. The originally Yiddish-speaking Jews of Finland gave up their language quite quickly. Finland is a highly secular country, and Jews are influenced by modern trends. A majority does not attend synagogue regularly and does not follow Jewish dietary laws. There is, on the other hand, quite strong support for the official policy of the synagogue, that is, for keeping it Orthodox, and Jewish festivals are widely celebrated. Intermarriages are extremely frequent. Most converts to Judaism are persons who have married a Jew, and it is quite common for children of mixed marriages to become Jewish.
Antisemitism has never been very strong in Finland. The Jewish community was early influenced by Zionism, and 29 Finnish Jews fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, a figure proportionally greater than that of any other Diaspora community. Today most Finnish Jews have relatives or close friends in Israel and a strong sense of affinity with the Jewish state.
Tapani Harviainen, “The Jews in Finland and World War II,” Nordisk Judaistik 21.1–2 (2000): 157–166; Adina Weiss Liberles, “The Jewish Community in Finland,” in The Jewish Communities of Scandinavia: Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, ed. Daniel J. Elazar, Adina Weiss Liberles, and Simcha Werner (Lanham, Md., 1984); Robert D. Rachlin, “How Were They Saved? Finland, the Second World War, and the Jews,” Bulletin of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont 3.2 (Spring 1999): 7–14.