The history of the Jews of Finland that John Simon relates in his new book, “Strangers in a Stranger Land,” is an extraordinary tale of Jewish survival during World War II. Although the Jewish communities of Europe were decimated by the Nazi war machine, in Finland not a single Finnish Jew was harmed during the war.
As brave and dedicated members of Finland’s army, which was an ally of Nazi Germany, they fought alongside Nazi soldiers without ever experiencing anti-Semitism.
Because of their heroic stand against the Russians, three of the Jews were awarded the Iron Cross, Nazi Germany’s highest military honor. None of the three accepted the medal.
Even stranger still was the fact that at one point in the war, Finnish Jews in the army created a makeshift synagogue near the front lines, with a Torah imported from Helsinki. They held regular worship services in the midst of the Nazi troops with which they were allied.
At one point Heinrich Himmler, the head of Hitler’s SS, visited Finland. He offered the Finns help in solving their “Jewish problem.” He was curtly informed that Finland had no Jewish problem.
Simon took seven years to write this comprehensive and astonishing story. He visited Atlanta last month, where he spoke about his book at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs and Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb, among other places.
We asked him why the Finns, who never had shown a strong interest in Naziism, chose to ally themselves with Nazi Germany rather than the Soviet Union, which was America’s partner during the war.
Simon: By 1942, the Russians had already attacked Finland once in the Winter War two years earlier and were threatening a second time. Finland had only one objective and that was to maintain its sovereignty and to survive the war. And in doing that, they had to choose between a rock and a hard place, between what the Finns call the plague and the cholera. They chose the Germans. Going with the Soviets mean that they would have disappeared as a society from the face of the earth. They would have lost their ability to make any decision about their own lives.
AJT: So besides writing about the Jews of Finland, did you have other reasons for writing this book?
Simon: Even though the book was published in Finland in 2017 to good reviews, I didn’t primarily write it for the Finns. I feel that Finland has been given a bad name for its participation in World War II. It’s easy to look at it from an American perspective, which was a superpower on the other side of the ocean that looked very critically about the things that were happening in Finland.
But for the Finns, just like for the Jews, it was about survival, and I wanted to write about the broader questions of what was going on. The story of Finland’s Jews during World War II is very much like the story of Finland itself, certainly as it pertains to the war.
AJT: We hear a lot today about the anti-Semitism in Sweden, which is nearby. What is life like for a Jew living in Finland?
Simon: I’ve lived there for 36 years and I’ve had a good life. I’ve really had no examples, personal examples, of anti-Semitism.
What there has been has tended to be more protests of how Israel has behaved. And that’s a much more complicated question. Finland was very pro-Israel after World War II because Israel was like Finland. It was a country that had been attacked by much bigger countries surrounding it. But recently there’s been more criticism of Israel and some of it naturally became anti-Semitic.
AJT: And why do you think there is so much less anti-Semitism in Finland?
Simon: Two thousand Jews is the most there have ever been here at one time. And although this is a country with a tiny population, it’s still only 5 ½ million, which is, I think, about the same as there’s in Greater Atlanta, isn’t it?
Jews don’t stand out. I don’t think there’s anybody who could argue that the Jews of Finland have been manipulating the commercial or political scene here for their own benefit. They’re just a small group of people trying to do their part.
“Strangers in a Stranger Land,” by John Simon, was published in the U.S. in August by Hamilton Books.