Short History of the Finnish Jewry

Prehistory of the Community

The territory which is now Finland was for more than half a millennium – until 1809 – part of the Swedish Kingdom. Under Swedish law, Jews of that period were allowed to settle only in three major towns in the Kingdom, none of them being situated in the territory of Finland.

In 1809, as a consequence of the defeat of Sweden in the Finnish War of 1808–1809, part of the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden lost control of Finland, and an autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. The Swedish constitution and legal system was, however, maintained in the Grand Duchy, and the prohibition on Jewish settlement in Finland thus continued.

Arrival of Jews in the Czar’s Army

Finnish Jewish history effectively began in the first half of the 19th century when Jewish soldiers (so-called Cantonists), who served in the Russian Army in Finland, were permitted to stay in Finland by the Russian military authorities following the soldiers’ discharge. Subsequently, the presence of Jews in the country was governed by the decree of 1858, under which discharged Russian soldiers and their families, without regard to their religion, were allowed to stay temporarily in Finland. The occupations open to discharged soldiers were defined in a decree of 1869 which was applied also to soldiers of Jewish origin. In 1889, the Government issued an administrative decree expressly governing the presence of Jews in Finland. Under this decree a number of Jews mentioned by name were allowed to stay in the country only until further notice, and to settle only in certain towns assigned to them. They were given temporary visit permits with a period of validity not exceeding six months. The occupations open to the Jews, being the same as under the decree of 1869, meant in practice that they were to continue supporting themselves mainly as dealers in second-hand clothes. They were forbidden to attend fairs or perform their activities outside their town of residence. The slightest violation of any of these limitations served as grounds for expulsion from Finland. Children were allowed to stay in Finland only as long as they lived with their parents or were not married. Jews conscripted to the Russian Army within Finland were not allowed to return to Finland after their discharge.

Finnish Independence and the Emancipation of the Jews

The struggle for equal rights for Jews was taken up in the Diet of Finland in 1872. The press debate on Jewish emancipation that started about that time continued during the 1870s and 1880s. There was not, however, yet to be any change for better in the status of the Jews in Finland. By the end of the 1880s there were about a thousand Jewish residents in Finland. It was not until 1917, when Finland became independent, that the Jews received civil rights. On 22 December 1917, Parliament approved an Act concerning “Mosaic Confessors,” and on 12 January 1918 the Act was promulgated. Under the Act, Jews could for the first time become Finnish nationals, and Jews not possessing Finnish nationality were henceforth in all respects to be treated as foreigners in general.

The Jewish School of Helsinki in c. 1895.

Interwar Period

Between the two world wars, the Jewish population increased to about 2,000 as a result of immigration mainly from Soviet Russia during the early period of the Revolution. Many young Jews studied at university, and others entered the liberal professions as physicians, lawyers, and engineers. Still others turned to industry and forestry, but the majority continued in the textile and clothing business. With a few isolated exceptions, the Jews did not take part in internal party politics or join any political movement.

The Second World War and Finnish Jewry

JDuring the Winter War (Finnish-Russian War of 1939–1940), Finnish Jews fought alongside their non-Jewish fellow countrymen. During the Finnish-Russian War of 1941–44, in which Finnish Jews also took part, Finland and Nazi-Germany were co-belligerents. Despite strong German pressure, the Finnish Government refused to take action against Finnish nationals of Jewish origin who thus continued to enjoy full civil rights throughout the war. There are many interesting anecdotes from this period, concerning, among others, the presence of a Jewish prayer tent on the Russian front virtually under the Nazi’s noses and the food help given to Russian-Jewish POWs by the Jewish communities of Finland.

The Postwar Era

After the end of the war, the integration of Jewish population of Finland into Finnish society was completed. The War of Independence for the State of Israel brought to the new state Finnish-Jewish volunteers as well as weapon donations by the State of Finland. These Finnish volunteers represented the highest per-capita participation of any diaspora Jewish Community. The following years saw a fairly high rate of aliyah. Today, Finnish Jewry numbers some 1,800, of whom about 1,400 live in Helsinki and in cities surroungin it, about 200 live in Turku. There are organised Jewish communities in Helsinki and Turku with their own synagogues, both Ashkenazi-Orthodox, built respectively in 1906 and 1912. The Jewish community of Tampere discontinued its activities in 1981. The communities are members of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland, a consultative body dealing with matters of general interest concerning Jews in Finland. This body is in its turn a member of the European Council of Jewish Community Services and of the World Jewish Congress. Connections with communities in the other Nordic (Scandinavian) countries are also maintained.

The Jews have integrated well into the Finnish society. The members of the older generation are mostly self-employed, whereas the majority of the younger generation has found employment in different professions in a wide range of fields. There is one Jewish member of parliament in Finland who has been in office since 1979. There are also a number of Jewish scientists as well as artists, such as painters, musicians and authors.

Go to virtual exhibition Fenno Judaica.