During World War Two, Finland was an Axis power. They fought alongside the Nazis only because they hated the Soviets more. The strangest part of this lethal partnership was that Finland’s Jewish soldiers also fought and died in combat on the same side as the Germans.
Finland, however, referred to its soldiers as co-belligerents as opposed to allies of the Nazis. Above all, despite their strong military relationship with Hitler’s Germany, the Finnish government refused to deport, persecute, or discriminate against its Jewish population.
In 1938, Finland’s Jewish population numbered only 2,000. After the Nazis entered Austria, Finland admitted 300 Jewish refugees at the request of members of their Jewish population.
The Winter War
In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, marking the beginning of the Winter War. Despite much smaller numbers, the Finns drove back the powerful Red Army.
In 1940, the Russians attacked again, this time grabbing Finnish territory that included southern Karelia. This was the same year that the Nazis invaded and occupied Denmark and Norway.
The Continuation War
In 1941, Finland joined forces with Germany to battle the Soviets, regaining the territories lost in The Winter War. Finns called this renewal of armed combat The Continuation War.
Finland’s Jewish soldiers were encamped near SS-Waffen units, but didn’t fight alongside them. Jewish soldiers even had their own field synagogue, the only operating synagogue behind German lines.
Ironically, three of Finland’s Jewish soldiers were awarded Iron Crosses, the highest Nazi command citations for bravery in combat. One Jewish soldier saved an entire SS battalion under attack by Soviet troops. All three Iron Cross honorees refused the awards because they were Jewish. Their refusals were backed by the Finnish government.
Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler asked Finnish military leader General Carl Gustav Mannerheim to impose the Nazi anti-Jewish laws similar to those enforced in Nazi occupied countries. Mannerheim told Himmler, “While Jews serve in my army; I will not allow their deportation.”
Finland’s Non-Citizen Jewish Refugees
There were notable exceptions to Finland’s righteous protection of the Jews in their territory. In 1942, the Finnish head of police handed over eight non-citizen Jews upon request by the German command. Seven were murdered immediately by the Nazis. This created uproar in the Finnish press and resulted in government ministers resigning.
The Finnish government also handed over Soviet prisoners of war to the Germans, among them hundreds of Jews.
However, in 1944, General Mannerheim helped transport 160 non-citizen Jews to neutral Sweden, saving their lives. Mannerheim became President of Finland and broke off his country’s alliance with Nazi Germany.
Finland’s Jews today
In 2000, Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen officially apologized to Finland’s Jewish community for the 1942 incident where eight non-citizen Jews were turned over to the Nazis. Today, there are only about 1500 Jews left in Finland.