For most European countries, the history of its Jewish presence begins some time in, or before the Dark Ages and is accented by varying periods of exile or oppression. Since Jews were not legally permitted to settle in Finland until 1825, and even then, permission was limited to retired Cantonists (Jewish soldiers forcibly conscripted to the Russian Army for 25 years of service – Russia took Finland from Sweden in 1809). The history of Jewish life in Finland is therefore relatively recent.

Although Finland functioned as an autonomous zone, it was still controlled by Russia until 1917. During this period of Russian control, the small Jewish community struggled to gain basic rights. Jews were restricted in work, forbidden from attending fairs and at constant personal risk of expulsion. This all changed shorty after Finland gained its independence from Russia. On January 12, 1918, the “Mosaic Confessors” law went into effect, allowing Jews already settled in Finland to become Finnish nationals and foreign Jews to have the same rights as other foreigners.

The Jewish population in Finland was never large – several thousand at its peak. The Finnish Jewish community survived the devastation of World War II because Finland refused to identify them or turn them over, even though Finland had allied itself with Germany. In one of the strangest historical events that occurred with the Jews of Finland, Finnish Jews fought alongside the Germans to ensure that Russia did not try and reclaim its lost territory. It has even been noted that this battle was probably the only time a Jewish prayer tent was set up in the midst of a camp full of Nazi soldiers.

With the creation of the State of Israel, many of Finland’s Jews made aliyah. It is said that Finland represented the largest per capita rate of aliyah to the new state. Today, only about 1,800 Jews reside in Finland, with most living in Helsinki.

This Treat was originally posted on December 6, 2011.

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