Finland: Where Jews fought on the side of the Nazis

HELSINKI — Max Wardi, a bit over half a century ago, packed up his patriotism and a few personal items and went to war.

Like many Finns, he fiercely battled the Russians — as an ally of the Nazis.

But Max Wardi is a Jew.

"We knew about German anti-Semitism," he recalls, "but we didn't know…"

Wardi, now 73, is in pain as he starts again: "We knew of Dachau but…"

Once more, a troubled pause.

"I was fighting for my country. We had to draw the Russians out of my country. I don't know what I'd have done if I'd seen Germans, but I never saw them. I only saw my own army and the Russians."

Visiting Riga, Latvia, years later, the amiable, softspoken Wardi encountered a Russian man who'd fought during World War II against Finland. "Had I came across him in the war, I'd have shot him without knowing he was my brother Jew."

Today, the bald, mustached senior is undoubtedly more at ease walking tourists through Helsinki's Great Synagogue than talking about the Holocaust, the 27 Jewish soldiers who died in the war, the 177 who survived — or even about Finland's eventual flip-flop decision to fight against the Germans.

Moshe Balboa, Israel's current ambassador to the Nordic country, fills in some blanks. He describes Finland's lining up with Germany as "purely a pragmatic situation," based on an empty Nazi promise that the Finns could annex southern Karelia, a Soviet territory that had previously been part of Finland.

Later, "when the Germans demanded that Finland surrender its Jews, Finland refused — except for eight [Jewish immigrants] who were not Finns," says Balboa, a diplomat with graying hair and loving-cup ears in his final post before retirement.

Today, about 850 Jews live in the capital, according to Gideon Bolotowsky, the angular-faced, kippah-wearing president of Helsinki's Jewish community. He estimates that 150 more reside in Turku, about 100 miles east of the capital.

The numbers are approximate, however. Talk to 10 Jews here and you're apt to get 11 different figures. Wardi — pronounced "Vardi," since Finns say "v" for "w" — explains why estimates vary.

"You can be a member of the Jewish community here even if you live outside Helsinki," he says. "So some people who have lived in Israel for 20 years are still members."

Neither Helsinki nor Turku has a rabbi, although the capital's Jews are searching to replace the one who left the city's only congregation three years ago.

Andre Zweig, an Israeli who married a Finn 11 years ago, has acted as cantor at both synagogues, but to earn a living, he is a wandering minstrel replete with acoustic guitar, velvet vest, open black shirt and repertoire stuffed with chestnuts such as "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Havenu Shalom Aleichem."

According to Bolotowsky, Helsinki's community is "growing a little bit," in contrast with that in Turku, which is dying a slow death as a result of 99 percent intermarriage rate. The growth in Helsinki's Jewish population, he says, is due to a small influx of Israeli and Estonian families.

Because the tiny Jewish community is comfortably integrated within a Finnish population of five million, outbreaks of anti-Semitism are extremely rare, Bolotowsky asserts.

"It's never been a big issue in this country because there are so few Jews. As it's been said, `You can't cook a thick soup from a thin bone.'"

Security, unlike that in many other European Jewish communities, is loose. However, due to ongoing Middle East tensions and global terrorism, minor measures have been taken for the last decade.

At the gate of the synagogue-cum-community center, a young man gently asks visitors to identify themselves. At the Israeli embassy, a 10-minute ride away, there are no armed guards, just a double-door buzzer system.

A Jew in Finland reserves the right to be as Finnish as the next guy, meaning that he or she, in Balboa's words, is likely to be "very middle class," with priorities that range from sweating in a sauna twice a week to forcing body and mind to adjust to almost round-the-clock sunlight during the summer and 24-hour winter darkness.

For the most part, Jewish Finns have assimilated to the edge of invisibility. They work at low-profile, white-collar jobs, replicate the general community's 20 percent unemployment rate, and bemoan the socialist government's increasing failures.

Jewish identity is never willingly surrendered, however. Those who intermarry, for example, are strongly encouraged to rear their children as Jews.

One parent, Ira Kantor, says her husband hasn't converted but their kids attend the same Helsinki Jewish school she did as a youngster. Despite an occasional anti-Semitic incident, she adds, "we are feeling very safe here."

Every Jewish adult is encouraged to acknowledge community membership on income tax forms. The government rebates 1.5 percent of each official Jew's gross income to the community. The money raised is a mere fraction of the amount generated by the country's vastly larger Lutheran majority, which contributes 1 percent to its churches.

For Jews, the funding helps operate a community center, which houses the synagogue, a 16-bed hospital, a mikveh and — in an attached annex erected in 1961 — the 90-student school that offers a general curriculum as well as instruction in Hebrew, Judaism and Jewish history.

The building also contains two kosher kitchens (which serve 200 meals a day, for schoolchildren and the hospitalized); a 5,000-volume library (with material in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, German, Swedish and Finnish but open only two hours each Sunday); and a multi-purpose room where a simcha now and then make the walls reverberate.

The government funding also underwrites a burial society that cares for two Jewish cemeteries, one of them full, and a choral society that specializes in Yiddish, Israeli and Finnish folk music.

On the wall of the center, the initial section of which was erected in 1906, hangs a brass plate from the very first Helsinki synagogue. That, according to Bolotowsky, was built in 1840 — long before Jews were even allowed to be Finnish citizens. Finland's Jews didn't win equal rights until 12 years later, a year after the country declared its independence from Russia.

It had been a long struggle.

The first Jewish settlers were young soldiers, "cantonists," who'd been drafted into the Russian army in the early 1800s to separate them from their families and foster conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church. Villainous Jews, known in Yiddish as chappers, had kidnapped those 12- to 25-year-olds from their kin. But following their quarter-century conscription, the Jewish lads, who'd been stationed in Siberia and Finland, were allowed to stay.

A semi-official history of Finnish Jewry has been put on paper by Professor Hannu Rautkallio, but it "is in dispute" because it's based on oral accounts rather than documentation, says Bolotowsky.

In fact, no two Finnish Jews seem to agree on any details about the community except that the first synagogue, in Helsinki, cost 100,000 Finnish marks, which in today's money would be about $25,000.

Despite their disagreements, the Jews regularly come from miles away to attend services. The second-floor sanctuary, which seats 650, was "filled last Yom Kippur," according to Bolotowsky. And Saturday morning "Litvak Orthodox" services draw "an adequate" crowd each week. Friday nights, smaller services are held downstairs in a snug "minyan room."

Wardi says a minyan also is held there every day. "It's not easy, but we have it."

Continuity, too, is a major focus. Jewish symbols help make connections.

Nailed to an inner wall of the building are two boards for preschoolers; colorful kippot are attached with clothespins. Upstairs, menorot and small Jewish figurines decorate shelves above oldsters in sitting rooms of the hospital.

Wardi couldn't be more pleased. "Grandparents are here while their grandchildren are playing outside in the schoolyard," he says with a broad smile.