The Jewish side of our family was never discussed openly when I was young. If it was, the matter appeared as a fleeting question: Is it true that part of our family is Jewish?
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Silence always followed that question.
In retrospect, our silence and answer revealed a lot about how some Finns saw cultural diversity.
My grandfather never spoke about his Jewish background because many members of his generation, who were born in the early 1890s when Finland was a grand duchy of Russia, were busy erasing who they were to forge a new Finnish national identity. He did this with the help of nationalism, by joining the White Guards (Suojeluskunta) and changing his surname in 1931 to Harvo from Handtwargh.
Even if silence was the best answer we could rally about our past, it wasn’t until many decades later when I stumbled on a wealth of genealogical information on the Internet about my grandfather and family.
I discovered that my grandfather of my great grandfather was Jakob Weikaim (1785-1848), a tinsmith from Daugavpils, Latvia. My great great great grandfather became in 1832 the first Jew to be granted a permanent residence in Finland.
A 1782 law, when Finland was part of Sweden between ca. 1150 and 1809, forced Jews to settle in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Norrköping. Any Jew that wished to live outside these cities had to convert to the Christian faith.
The Jewish community of Finland has always been small. Today their numbers total about 1,500 versus 870 in the 1870 census. One third of the Jews that lived in Finland at the time were natives with the rest being from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine.
Jews that settled Finland in the nineteenth century were the so-called poor Russians who were conscripted in the Russian army for up to 25 years.
The first synagogue build in Finland was in the 1830s on the island of Sveaborg, located outside Helsinki.
If Jakob Weikaim was our first Jewish relative to live in Finland and my grandfather the last, our Jewish heritage survived four generations in this country.
Like other minorities in Finland, the Jews were victims of outright discrimination. Citizenship rights were not granted to them until 1918, and they could only work in a few professions like selling secondhand clothes.
Even if Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women the right to vote, it was the last together with Romania to grant Jews full citizenship rights.
The national media exacerbated people’s fears about the Jews. In an article published in 1883 by Uusi Suometar, the daily claimed that the Jewish population of Finland would reach half a million within a century due to high birth rates.
Dan Kantor, executive director of the Jewish Community of Helsinki, said that many of the fears and claims used by anti-immigration groups today were used against the Jews in the past.
Even if my grandfather had renounced Judaism and replaced it with Finnish nationalism, I’m certain he knew about the Holocaust long before its horrors became widely acknowledged by the outside world. My aunt, who was married to a US diplomat, asked her brothers and sisters to leave Finland. She feared that if the Nazis won the war, they’d be sent to extermination camps.
Fearing persecution, another aunt fled to Sweden shortly after the outbreak of the Continuation War in June 1941, when Finland was militarily allied with Nazi Germany.
Even if my grandfather never spoke about the Holocaust, I’m certain that the pictures of emaciated and dead humans at concentration camps would have horrified him. The mass murder committed by the Nazis would petrify anyone. The Holocaust will alwys live by us like an ugly reminder of our savagery, or in particular of a regime that based its existence on racism and ethnic purity.
If my grandfather lived today, I’d ask him about our alliance with Nazi Germany.
If he chose to answer my question candidly, I’m certain he’d tell me that hatred makes strange bedfellows. Even if Nazi Germany and Finland had a common enemy, the Soviet Union, what would have happened to the Jews of Finland if the Germany would have won the war?
Finns claim proudly – followed by an obvious sign of relief – that even if we were an ally of Germany during World War 2, anti-Semitism never reached the same levels as in Hungary, Romania and other parts of Nazi-dominated Europe.
Even so, former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen formally apologized in November 2000 to the Jewish community for the extradition of eight Jews to Germany in 1942. Only one of the eight survived after they were sent to Auschwitz.
In neighboring countries like Estonia, the fate of the Jews was far worse. An estimated half of the country’s Jewish population, which totaled 4,000, died in the Holocaust. Nothing, however, compares to the barbarity that the nazis committed in Poland and other parts of Europe, where an estimated 6 million Jews perished.
The anti-Semitism that we still see in Europe today is in many respects linked to the intolerance we are seeing against immigrants and visible minorities. Factors like the economic recession and rising unemployment play important roles in fueling racism, xenophobia and far right ideologies.
The history of the Jews of Finland, as that of other minorities like the Finnish Tatars, Roma and Saami, should serve as a constant reminder of the importance of teaching and reinforcing tolerance.
Disenfranchising and denying people their right to their identity should never be encouraged but condemned by society.
I have a strong hunch that my late relatives would agree.
Source: Sarah Beizer and Meliza Amity: Migration Patterns among Jews – Finland. Originally downloaded from www.amitys.com.
The column was originally published in Finland Bridge 4/2013.