The story of the Jews in Finland is unique: During the Holocaust not one Finnish Jew was deported or killed.
The back story is beyond belief! Finland had always been afraid of Russia. In 1939, when Russia attacked Finland country allied with the Nazis. 350 Jewish men, out of a population of 2000 Jews, volunteered to fight alongside Finnish and German soldiers against Russia. This, being the only instance of Jews fighting for a Nazi ally, formed an eerie alliance between Hitler and the race he vowed to annihilate. Similarly ironic is that several of these Jewish soldiers received the Iron Cross for heroism from the German High Command!
As Rosh Hashanah approached, the Finnish commanding officer permitted the Jews to have a temporary synagogue on a military base and bring in prayer books. In addition, a Sefer Torah was sent from Oslo. Russian POW’s were given special permission to join the Finnish Jews in the celebrations. The German officers were appalled but helpless to intervene.
The Nazis pressured the Finnish government to deport all of their Jews. First Himmler, then Hitler came to Finland and offered to “Solve the Jewish problem”. The Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Forces, Carl Gustaf Mannheim responded with, “We have no Jewish problem!”
There was a dark moment in all of this. In November of 1942, 8 polish Jews found their way to Finland with the aim of getting to Sweden. The Mayor of the city commanded the Chief of Police to see to their rescue. The chief, a Nazi sympathizer, put them on a train to the camps. This, 8 Jews were lost.
58 years later, in the year 2000, the Finnish Prime Minister issued an official apology to the Jewish community and dedicated a monument to those 8 Jews. Every year, on the anniversary of the deportation, a memorial service is held at the monument with the government leadership in attendance.
Today, there are 1400 Jews in Finland – out of a population of 5.5 million. 80 Jewish children attend the day school and in 2014 the synagogue built a mikveh. 99% of Jews intermarry, although the synagogue does require conversion before every Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
As for the Bris, European Union Law requires that doctors alone perform circumcision. So, officially, there is no moyel in the country. The people skirt these restrictions as they do for dietary laws. Kashrut is a problem in all countries I visit because of legal restrictions on slaughtering.
When the cantor of the synagogue proudly showed me a first ever Siddur in Hebrew and in Finnish, I silently wondered how long this prayer book will be needed…