Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s new book, Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, is an exploration of Jewish communities around the world, including Sweden, Cuba, Iran, and Uzbekistan. In this exclusive excerpt, she visits Finland, where the Jews describe themselves as intensely Zionist, intensively traditional, and intensely Finnish.
Finland is different.
That much is clear to me almost immediately as I arrive for my first-ever visit to my neighbor in the North. Even though Stockholm and Helsinki are just an hour’s flight apart, it has always felt like a separate world to me. Finnish Jews were said to be tougher, taller, and even quieter than their Swedish counterparts, and much like our languages, our lives and history exist side by side with little crossover or similarities.
Strangers and Neighbors
They used to be the same country, Finland and Sweden—for almost six hundred years, until Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia in 1809. Because of the common history, Swedish is still acknowledged as an official language alongside Finnish, and the Finnish legal and social systems are heavily influenced by the Swedish model. Apart from these similarities, Finland is considered an outlier among the Nordic countries, its society being so heavily influenced by Russia, the threatening neighbor to the east. After declaring independence from its Russian masters in 1917, Finland had to fight the Red Army again in World War II, losing precious territory to the Soviets in the process, but despite being forced to sue for peace in the face of an overwhelming Soviet offense, Finland remained sovereign throughout the ordeal. That sovereignty is something no Finn takes for granted, and they work actively to uphold it. At age eighteen, all Finnish men enter army service, and up until the age of sixty they can be called up for reserve duty and training whenever tensions rise around the Baltics. The constant preparedness sets Finland apart from its Nordic neighbors and has created a sort of Russian-Swedish amalgam where toughness and nationalism meet center-liberal values with an inclusive social contract at their core.
It may seem like a simplistic statement, to call this a different kind of place, but it perfectly fits the no-nonsense ways of the Finnish. Their warmth, hidden behind ardent practicality, has made this Nordic country an unexpected haven for Jews since 1809. To understand the life of Finnish Jews today, one must understand Finland’s history as well as its relationship to its imposing neighbor.
The military was a way of integration and equality for Jews even before Finland’s independence from Russia. Under Tsar Nicholas I, any Jewish boy from age twelveand up was required to enlist in twenty-five years of compulsory military service. This harsh conscription was put in place not merely for military purposes, but in order to assimilate the Jewish population and eventually convert them to Christianity. The Jewish soldiers who resisted these methods of religious intimidation and remained Jews were allowed, after finishing their twenty-five years, to settle anywhere within the Russian empire, and many of the Jews stationed in Finland decided to stay and to settle. The Grand Duchy of Finland was otherwise off-limits to Jews, so the opportunity to advance and gain a level of freedom was instrumental to the Jews and laid the foundation for what is now the Finnish Jewish community.
Even early on, the Finnish Jewish minority enjoyed an unusual level of respect and self-determination, and they shared these rights with other minorities living in the Grand Duchy. Beginning in the 1830s, there was a Jewish prayer room inside the Suomenlinna military base, and Jewish soldiers would share the space with their Muslim counterparts until the first synagogue opened in Helsinki in 1870.
Even though Finland was under Russian rule until 1917, it had some autonomy to make rules that restricted the lives of its Jewish inhabitants, such as where they lived or what types of work they were allowed to do. Jews supported themselves by dealing in second-hand clothes, businesses that eventually became the foundation of Finland’s textile industry. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several Jewish merchants set up shop in the city’s Narynka Market—a cluster of Russian stalls that, after Finnish independence, became a predominantly Jewish market.
In 1909, the Finnish Parliament abolished all restrictions on Jews, but interestingly enough, the Helsinki Jewish community was given a plot of land for a permanent home three years before that, in 1906. The government’s voluntary decision to give the Finnish Jews a home was indicative of something in the Finnish mentality and spirit, something that would help both groups as the next Great War was at their door.
Finland fought three major battles during World War II: the Finnish Winter War (1939–40), the Continuation War (41–44), and the Lapland War (44–45). After holding off the Russians in the Winter War, Finland found itself under renewed threat and facing difficult choices—having to choose between German occupation or cooperation with the Germans. They chose the latter, allowing German soldiers onto Finnish territory to fight a common enemy in The Continuation War. Despite fighting side by side, there was never a formal agreement of alliance signed between Finland and Germany, nor did the Finns agree to follow the Nazi dogma of anti-Semitism. Himmler even visited Finland twice in order to make the Finnish government give up their Jews for deportation, but he was sent home, unsuccessful. The approximately three hundredJews serving in Mannerheim’s army did so as equals and were protected from any forms of discrimination and persecution. Three Jewish soldiers serving under Captain Salomon Klass were awarded the Iron Cross for rescuing German soldiers, but all three of them refused to accept the curious honor after war’s end.
A Jewish Warrior
One of the three hundred Jewish soldiers in the Finnish army during World War II was Salomon Altschuler. I meet with him in his apartment, just on the outskirts of Helsinki, to talk about his service in the Finnish army and the road that led him there. Salomon was twenty-six when he was first drafted for the Winter War, and he left his home in Vyborg to serve alongside a hundred other Jewish soldiers—their mission being to hold off the Russians, come what may.
Salomon greets us at the door, and even though he moves slowly, using a walker to make his way from the living room, he still has the posture and gravitas of a soldier: straight spine, clear eyes and a firm but brief handshake. Salomon is 104 years old, but he doesn’t look a day older than eighty. When I tell him as much,he smiles in a way that tells me he’s actually twenty years old at heart. There’s a woman in the kitchen, quietly peeling potatoes and preparing fillets of fish, and when I pop my head in to say hello, she tells me she’s the daughter, coming here every day to make sure her father gets a proper lunch. It seems as if she has had more than a hand in the upkeep of Salomon’s three-bedroom apartment; there’s a female touch:perfectly placed throw pillows and a faint smell of Finnish pine soap, hinting at newly scrubbed floors.
Salomon walks up to the big, padded chair in the middle of the living room, and I take a seat in the sofa next to it, almost breathless with an anxious mix of respect and anticipation, very well aware of the fact that I’m lucky to be here hearing this living legend’s story. Ariel, one of the heads of the Finnish Jewish community, is with me to assist with translation, but as soon as I start speaking Swedish I can tell by Salomon’s reactions that he can understand me perfectly. I start off by thanking him profusely for seeing me, expressing my admiration for all that he has done, and after Ariel needlessly translates my gushing, Salomon answers in Finnish that I should wait until he tells his story to be more honestly impressed.
It’s hard to imagine what that would be like, a Jewish soldier fighting alongside the Nazi Germans, and while I try to broach the subject lightly with Salomon, asking how he dealt with the obvious conflict of interest, his answers are clear as day:
“I was there as a Finnish patriot, not as a Jew, and I was an equal to anyone in that field.”
This, I soon realize, is not to be construed as Salomon hiding his Jewishness or even downgrading it to survive the army; he simply did not feel different or less than anyone else. His confidence is evident in an anecdote he relays to me just as Salomon’s daughter walks in to serve us our tea.
Salomon oversaw supplies and materials in the army,and a few months in, he noticed that his fellow Finnish soldiers were not wearing their standard-issue boots and hats. When confronting them, he learned that the Germans—who had severely underestimated the cold and were suffering in the harsh climate—had bought the boots and hats off the Finnish soldiers for a few bottles of cognac.
“I went to the Germans and told them this trade was unacceptable and demanded our things back. One of them asked me what I was, because I did not look Finnish. ‘I am a Jew,’ I said, ‘perhaps this is why I look different.’ And the man pulled a gun on me. My command stepped in and made sure everyone knew I was a soldier in his army. Nothing more was said of it.”
Salomon and I sit quietly for a moment; he seems to be reminiscing, and I’m honestly not sure quite what to say. Then Salomon smiles, chuckles, and says, “He asked me for the cognac back, you know—the soldier. I told him it had all been drunk and that he should see it as a lesson.”
Salomon Altschuler speaks with no small amount of gravitas, and in a way, I am surprised at how very Finnish he is, in wording and delivery. He tells me matter-of-factly that the wars he went through never got in the way of his Jewish observance or his faith, even when the circumstances of the trenches made him break the rules of kashrut or the horrors of war tested his religious convictions.
“We prayed in the field and we were Jews in the field, no matter the day or year. I did not serve my country because I am a Jew or despite of it. I was a patriot among patriots, while remaining a proud Jew.”
There were two major heartbreaks for Salomon over the course of the six years he spent in active warfare:Finland losing Vyborg—the only place he had ever known as home—to the Russians, and witnessing eight Jews without Finnish citizenship be deported and sent to Nazi death camps. The Altschuler family was, like many others, forced to leave their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs and relocate to central Finland, where they had to make do with little-to-no rations and a life in wartime hardship. As for the eight Jews who were deported, the decision to do so caused massive protests in Finland, and this apparent attempt to appease the Germans was never repeated.
Salomon had more contact with the German soldiers than most, given that he knew enough German to function as a liaison translator, yet he tells me that he himself neither feared nor hated them.
“Perhaps it was because we were equal,” he tells me, “there were Jewish officers in our army outranking their non-Jewish soldiers, and that helped us feel assertive and secure.”
By the time The Continuation War started, the number of Jewish soldiers had risen from one hundred to three hundred, but they did not necessarily stick together, Salomon says.
“My best friends were non-Jews, before the war and after, and in Finland we just don’t judge people by religion like others do.”
And others I have spoken to echo that, saying that in Finland there is a culture of never speaking about one’s faith or cultural heritage, but also a tradition of judging a man by what he does. This explains much of how and why the Jews have found a safe home in Finland and why they have reached every level of society despite having settled so recently in that land. They arrived as soldiers and have served ever since, taking equal responsibility for the country and its many threats and challenges.
Salomon met his wife during the war, and they married in what he describes as the lull before the final battles over Lapland. They didn’t speak the same language;she spoke Swedish and he only Finnish and Yiddish, so they learned each other’s mother tongue through the letters sent to and from the base. He shows me a picture of them just after the wedding. She is remarkably beautiful, and he is smiling, proudly, wearing his finest dress uniform.
“She was much younger than me, but I didn’t know. Not until we were about to marry.”
Salomon shrugs and smiles.
“Not that I’m sorry.”
Peace and War
By 1944, Gustaf Emil Mannerheim became president of Finland and signed a peace agreement that awarded the Soviet Union ten percent of the Finnish territory. The agreement meant that Finland ended up in direct conflict with Germany while German troops were still on Finnish soil, and in November of that year, German troops burned down every city in Lapland as they retreated. Not long after, in 1948, twenty-nine Finnish Jews went to Israel to fight in the War of Independence,and during the next two decades, some two hundredmore immigrated to the Jewish state.
In the past decades, Finland has had to reckon with some of the more complicated elements of its involvement in the war. It was recently revealed that soldiers from the Finnish army were involved in killing Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust, prompting a major national probe, and this is just one of many examples of the dual identity that Finland held during those times of turmoil. As previously mentioned, Finland distinguished itself by refusing to deport its Jewish citizens while also working with the Nazis to fight Russia within and outside its borders, and its army, including its numerous Jewish soldiers, fought side by side with Nazi soldiers before turning on them in the Winter War. But Finland has dealt with its complicated history with transparency and openness, making every probe and its results part of public record. Holocaust remembrance and education are a part of the national school curriculum.
The Finns’ welcoming attitude toward Jews has survived the test of time, and today, the relatively small community is surprisingly sturdy. In fact, when comparing Diaspora communities’ relationships to Israel, the Finnish community stands out. The Finnish Jews are building their return to orthodoxy in part on the connection to Israel, and through that, a very clear and unabashed Zionism is expressed.
Finland and Israel share many similarities, both being small countries with large and powerful neighborsliving under an ever-present military threat, resulting in both a strong sense of patriotism and a common responsibility for military service and social preparedness. Beyond the military, they share an ingenuity that has resulted in modern tech-wonders; both Finland and Israel have become start-up nations that are admired and modeled after around the world.
There is a natural brotherhood between the two nations and the Jews of Finland face little to no threat when openly expressing their allegiance to the Jewish State. The open and clear link between the Diaspora and Israel has strengthened the Jewish community of Finland and helped it grow, as Jews now are drawn to Finland—from Israel and elsewhere. Beyond offering a safe environment for Jews, Finland’s economy, low crime rates, and world-famous school system has made it a beacon of hope in the Diaspora, and an unexpected one at that.
Finland’s Jewish community has been, and is, a deeply traditional one. At fifteen hundred individuals, with the main community in Helsinki and a smaller one in Turku, it is surprisingly vivacious. It is one of the few Jewish communities that has had a small but steady stream of outsiders making a new home within its walls. Since 2010, Yaron Nadbornik has been the head of the Jewish community of Helsinki, and in 2015, he became the youngest person ever to be elected president of a major Jewish community. Yaron runs the community with his twin brother Ariel, and together they have made a point of returning to the traditional ways of Finnish Jewry, focusing on Jewish education and basic community guidelines rooted in orthodoxy. One of their more controversial policies—not allowing uncircumcised boys to enter the Jewish school—was at first met with massive protests, but as Yaron tells me, it later resulted in an uptick in circumcisions among Jewish boys in Helsinki.
According to Yaron, “What we did by demanding more of Jews in this community was to make people think about and relate [to] their Jewishness in a more active way. It’s not as if they don’t want to be Jewish or don’t want to be observant; they have just been told for so long that little is enough, whereas we’re saying that they need to do more. So, they do.”
It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride for the Nadbornik brothers, and in the otherwise liberal-leaning Nordic Jewish community. They have been accused of everything from Zionist zealotry to strong-arming congregants into an Orthodox fold—but their methods have also garnered a fair amount of respect and inspired others, such as the younger Jews of Sweden, to ask more of themselves and others. Overall, the Nadbornik leadership has led to a revival for the small congregation, and in 2013, the community hired Simon Livson, its first Finnish-born rabbi—another positive sign for things to come.
When I sit down with Dan Kantor, the man who steered the community for thirty-eight years before the Nadbornik brothers came along, he tells me that the Finnish Jewish community’s biggest strength is its members’ sense of solidarity. Almost ninety percent of all Finnish Jews are paying members of the community, in comparison to its neighbor Sweden where the same number is around twenty percent, and,according to Dan Kantor, even people who never set foot inside a synagogue or a Jewish school pay the annual fee, because they feel responsible for their fellow Jew. When Mr. Kantor’s father grew up, the spoken languages were Yiddish and Swedish, but during his own childhood this would change, and Jewish schools would start teaching Finnish as theirfirst language, marking a change between the older and younger generations.
As for the new and stricter guidelines introduced by Yaron and Ariel, Mr. Kantor isn’t necessarily on board but remains supportive of anything that will bring Jews together.
“As a community, we’re not really that religious and our expressions of Jewish identity aren’t always tied to Halacha but rather tradition and culture. But I respect what Yaron is doing, and I’m happy that he has the energy to try.”
I’m not entirely convinced that he is indeed happy about it, but what he does agree with the brothers on is their unapologetic view on Israel and the way they have made the connection with the Jewish State an integral part of the community’s identity. According to Mr. Kantor, loyalty to Israel has never been an issue for Finnish Jews as it has for other Nordic communities.
In many ways, the Finnish community mirrors others in Europe, with an intermarriage rate in the low ninetieth percentile and struggles with assimilation, but in others it sets itself apart. This is no more visible than when it comes to Israel, where the Finnish state maintains a friendly and positive relationship with its Jewish counterpart. According to Mr. Kantor, this has to do with the similarities between the two countries, being small nations with threatening neighbors and a solid national defense. As for Zionism within the community, the president, Yaron Nadbornik, stated their position clearly and succinctly:
“In the Finnish Jewish community, we don’t argue about if we should support Israel, but rather how much we support it.”
It’s clear that Yaron enjoys the role he has been typecast in by other Nordic Jewish communities as well as his own: as the rebel with a cause, the fire-starting charmer who pushes his agenda come hell or high water. But the rumors of his extremism are highly exaggerated, I realize, when he starts talking passionately about the interreligious work he does in his own community and across Europe. As Yaron describes it, his own and the community’s Orthodox baseline make it easier to speak to and work with, among others, the Muslim community, because there is no fear of cross-pollination, just a search for understanding and coexistence. As a representative of his community, Yaron has met with Muslim and Christian leaders around Europe, and he tells me that in many ways there is more understanding between Muslims and Jews than there is between Jews and Christians. Perhaps it’s down to the religious similarities, he says, or perhaps it’s because Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims both believe they are right and don’t expect the consensus that European Christians seem to believe is necessary to live side by side.
Finnish Jews, Choosing to Stay
The size of the Finnish community has fluctuated through the years, from a modest few hundred descendants of Russian cantonists to over a thousand after the fall of the Soviet Union and membership in the European Union. Nowadays, the most common Jewish immigrant is Israeli, choosing Finland for its world-famous education system and lucrative high-tech sector. As a result, half of the children in the Helsinki Jewish School speak Hebrew—another unusual trait for a Jewish community in northern Europe.
Every week, there are well-attended Shabbat services in the Jugend-style synagogue on Malminkatu 26, and the prayers are read from a prayer book with text in both Hebrew and Finnish. The synagogue is stunning, with bright green walls and wooden benches, and above the Aron Hakodesh are deep blue walls, dotted with decorative stars painted onto the ceiling. There are remnants of Finland’s dramatic Jewish history everywhere; from the Torah scroll that was rescued by a Jewish soldier in the Crimean War and the crown above the Ark that was taken from an old Swedish warship before it was sunk, to the two menorahs on the sanctuary’s front wall with Stars of David hanging from them—each star inscribed with the name of a Jewish soldier who died defending Finland in one of its many battles. The synagogue and its interior are not only a living tribute to Finnish Jewry, but also a tribute to these Jews’ position and contribution to that history:shaping it rather than merely being shaped by it.
Salomon Altschuler did both those things, and in many ways, he is a symbol of Finland and its contradictions—the homogenous melting pot above the Arctic Circle. During Salomon’s lifetime, the Jewish community has gone through considerable change. Growing up in Vyborg, eighty-five percent of the Jews in Helsinki kept kosher, and all but a few identified as Orthodox. There was no intermarriage, but instead women were brought into Finland from neighboring countries to make a shidduch for the local men. Salomon keeps kosher, but at 104 he cannot walk all the way to synagogue for services anymore, relying on his family to make the seders for Passover and show up for the High Holidays.
Some of Salomon’s friends went to Israel in 1948 to fight, and some remained to make a life there. Salomon himself chose Finland, although some of his children now live in the Jewish state, and he tells me that in hindsight, he is happy about his decision.
“Being a Jew in Finland, I have wanted for nothing. I am happy here. I am wanted here. This is home.”
Salomon is not alone in feeling this way. The Jews of Finland feel wanted and welcome, and they are comfortable in living side by side with non-Jews as equal citizens. It is not unthinkable that, at least in modern times, this is related to their relatively low level of immigration. There are approximately seventy thousand Muslims in Finland compared to approximately nine hundred thousand in neighboring Sweden, and anti-Semitism is not a factor in the lives of Finnish Jews. Another important factor is the Finnish government’s good relationship with Israel, thus not putting the Jewish minority in the position of its Swedish counterpart, which is constantly struggling with accusations of dual loyalties and fear of repercussions in times of military conflict between Israel and its enemies.
The Finnish Jews are not forced to choose between their identities, so they can be Finns and Jews and Zionists all at once, making Finland feel like a home to them rather than a temporary dwelling.
It’s not all roses, though, and just as its neighbors, the Finnish community has considerable costs for its security, reacting to global developments rather than threats posed from within its borders. Former community head Dan Kantor says he would wear his kippah in the street fifteen years ago, but that he would not do it today. This, he says, is not out of a real threat but rather the mood in Europe in the past decade. Finland’s membership in the European Union has made the Jewish minority feel less safe, given the free movement between the membership countries and how it has brought global terrorism closer, making a previously remote threat feel tangible and real.
Finland is different. When asking the Jews in Finland why it is different, they tell me that the community is intensely Zionist, intensely traditional, and intensely Finnish in nature. It reminds me of America, in a way, how minorities are integrated but not assimilated through a culture of dual identity. You are Finnish-Jewish like you are Jewish-American, and in both countries your belonging is judged by your adherence to the social contract and common ideals rather than by your ethnicity. Once upon a time, the Jews came here because they had persevered through the many trials and tests the tsar had put them through, and they were accepted as Finns on merit, having truly earned their spot. That idea, that entrance exam, still seems valid, and the modern Finnish Jew exhibits a confidence that is rarely found in this part of the world.
It seems to me that Finland’s Jewish community has cracked some sort of code, where it actively goes against the grain of modern Europe and chooses tradition over trend. The question now is whether those choices will mean survival for Finland’s Jews—or simply a more dignified demise.