By Paul Kendall
In September 1941, a medical officer performed a deed so heroic he was awarded an Iron Cross by the German high command. With little regard for his own safety, and in the face of heavy Soviet shelling, Major Leo Skurnik, a district doctor who had once fostered ambitions of becoming a concert pianist, organised the evacuation of a field hospital on the Finnish-Russian border, saving the lives of more than 600 men, including members of the SS.
Skurnik was far from the only soldier to be awarded the Iron Cross during the Second World War. More than four million people received the decoration. But there was one fact about him that makes the recommendation remarkable: he was Jewish. And Skurnik was not the only Jew fighting on the side of the Germans. More than 300 found themselves in league with the Nazis when Finland, who had a mutual enemy in the Soviet Union, joined the war in June 1941.
The alliance between Hitler and the race he vowed to annihilate—the only instance of Jews fighting for Germany’s allies—is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the Second World War, and yet hardly anyone, including many Finns, know anything about it.
“I lived here for 25 years before I heard about it, and I’m Jewish,” says John Simon, a New Yorker who moved to Helsinki in 1982. “It’s not a story that’s told very much.”
The reasons why it’s rarely told go right to the heart of what it means to be Jewish and that race’s quest to be accepted by a long list of unenthusiastic host nations. The Jewish veterans—a handful of whom are still alive today—insist they’re not ashamed of what they did. But spend an evening in their company and talk to other members of the community who have examined the events in detail, and you soon realise the “accommodation”, a battlefield Sophie’s Choice, has left deep psychological scars.
Aron Livson’s first taste of military action came in 1939. A 23-year-old son of a milliner from the city of Vyborg, he was drafted into the army when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. In common with many Jews, he was determined to do his duty to the best of his ability, laying down his life for his country if necessary.
Almost without exception, the Jews of Finland descended from Russian soldiers who had been posted to the region during their military service. (Under Russian rule, Jews had been forced into the army at the age of 10 and made to serve for up to 25 years.) They were viewed with some suspicion by the rest of Finland, which itself had been ruled by Russia until its independence in 1917, and the war that broke out in 1939, known in Finland as the Winter War, was regarded by the small Jewish population as a chance to prove they were loyal Finnish citizens.
Livson fought in the Karelian Isthmus and, although the army was eventually forced to retreat by the far larger Russian force, he fought so valiantly, demonstrating such great skill and initiative, that he was promoted to sergeant.
For a while, an uneasy peace reigned between Finland and the Soviet Union, but, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his surprise invasion of the communist state, Finland saw an opportunity to regain the territory it had lost in the Winter War and joined forces with Germany.
Like all Jews, Livson had heard Hitler’s venomous tirades against his people. He knew something about Kirstallnacht, the attacks against German Jewish homes, businesses, schools and synagogues in November 1938. But, when the orders arrived to rejoin the fight against Russia, he didn’t for one minute consider disobeying.
Livson is 97 now and a frailer version of the tough soldier he once was, but his voice remains loud and clear, his handshake firm and his opinions unwavering.
“I had to do my duty, like everyone,” he says. “We weren’t Jews fighting in a Finnish army—we were Finnish people, Finnish soldiers, fighting for our country.” We have met in the cafeteria in the basement of Helsinki’s synagogue, alongside Livson’s wife and other members of the Finnish Jewish Veterans Society. The atmosphere is friendly, jovial even, in the way conversations among veterans sometimes are, but there is no mistaking Livson’s serious intent. When he’s making an important point, he bangs a walking stick on the floor in unison with each word for emphasis.
As well as doing their duty as soldiers and proving their loyalty to their country, the veterans insist they were happy to fight for another reason: as far as they were concerned Finland and Germany were fighting separate wars, they say; one, a war of self-defence and one a war of conquest. “I had nothing to do with the Germans,” says Livson. “There were no Germans where I was serving. They were 200km north of my regiment.”
But not every Jew was so lucky. On the border with Russia, in the region of Karelia, Finnish and German troops fought side-by-side and Jews had to contend with two enemies: one in front of them and one within their ranks.
They lived in permanent fear of their identity being revealed, but, incredibly, on the occasions that it was, the German soldiers took the matter no further. The men were Finnish, they had the full support of their superior officers, and the Germans—while often shocked to find themselves fighting alongside Jews—did not have the authority to upbraid them. In fact, where they found themselves outranked by a Jewish officer, they were forced to salute.
There may have been German troops in Finland and the German command and Gestapo in Helsinki, but Finland rejected Hitler’s demands to introduce anti-Jewish laws. When Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution, visited Finland in August 1942 and asked the prime minister Jukka Rangell about the “Jewish Question”, Rangell replied: “We do not have a Jewish Question.”
“You have to remember,” says John Simon, who has been interviewing veterans about the war for several years, “that only 20 years beforehand, Finland had gone through an ugly, brutal civil war which had split society in half. Ever since, there had been a concerted effort, led by a few brilliant politicians, to unite the country—to get the Reds and the Whites together. Jews were part of this act of bringing everybody together.
“Politicians were determined to protect every citizen, even former communists. If they had broken ranks, even for the Jews, it would have annihilated that argument.”
One general, Hjalmar Siilasvuo, was positively proud of his soldiers’ Jewish ancestry. In the memoirs of Salomon Klass, another Jewish soldier who was offered the Iron Cross, Klass, who had lost an eye in the Winter War, tells a story about the general calling him into a meeting and introducing him to German officers present as “one of my best company commanders”. “General Siilasvuo knew full well who I was and what segment of the population I belonged to”, Klass wrote. The Germans said nothing.
Perhaps more uncomfortable are incidents, revealed by the Finnish historian Hannu Rautkallio, of friendships struck up between Jews and ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers.
“I have heard a story about one Jewish soldier who was making his way back to camp with a German of a similar rank,” says Simon. “The Jew said to the German, ‘When we get back to camp, don’t tell people I’m Jewish.’ The German replied, ‘But nothing would happen to you—you’re a Finnish soldier. It’s me who would get into trouble.’ ”
Feelings ran particularly high among the injured. A scrapbook that belonged to Chaje Steinbock, a Jewish nurse in the main hospital in Oulu, 370 miles north of Helsinki, contains several heartfelt messages from German patients. “To my darling, what you are to me I have told you,” begins one from a soldier calling himself Rudy. “What I am to you, I have never asked. I do not want to know it, I do not want to hear it, because to know too much may destroy happiness. I will tell you just one thing: I would give you everything your heart desires. You are the woman I have loved over everything else. Until now, I had never believed that anything like this existed.”
Another woman, Dina Poljakoff, who worked as a nursing assistant, is believed to have made such an impression on her German patients that, like Skurnik and Klass, she was awarded the Iron Cross (the third and final Finnish Jew to have been offered the medal). “Non-Aryan women were not meant to tend to Aryan men and the Germans knew my mother was Jewish, but despite all this, they liked her,” says Aviva Nemes-Jalkanen, the daughter of Steinbock.
Germans are even reported to have visited a field synagogue that was erected near the front line. “It was an unbelievable picture,” Rony Smolar, the son of Isak Smolar, the man who founded the synagogue, told a conference in the United States in 2008. “German soldiers in their uniforms, sat shoulder to shoulder with praying Jewish men. The Jewish worshippers noticed that some of the Germans even showed a certain respect for the Jewish service.”
Of course, many of the details of the Holocaust were still secret at this point. The Jewish soldiers didn’t know about the gas chambers and the horrors of Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. But most were in contact with relatives in Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe.
“They got letters,” says Simo Muir, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Helsinki University. “They knew about the deportations.”
Leo Skurnik was certainly aware of the dangers. A talented scientist whose career had been blocked by anti-Semitism in Finland, he had travelling salesmen in his family who had written to him about the gathering clouds over Europe. “He knew enough to be afraid,” says his son, Samuli. Nevertheless, as a doctor responsible for both German and Finnish soldiers, he refused to discriminate.
“If you want to describe my father, the one feature that came across very strongly was his humanity. He had taken the Hippocratic oath and, because of that, he wouldn’t turn away an injured man, whatever his nationality.”
And there were many injured Germans who needed his help. The sector where Skurnik was stationed saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war and both his regiment, the 53rd infantry, and the German SS division with whom they were fighting, suffered heavy losses.
“It was really awful,” says Samuli. “There were a lot of casualties and my father didn’t have enough medication.” But Skurnik never gave up. At one point he even ventured into no-man’s land to rescue wounded German soldiers when no other officers dared. Finally, with no sign of a let up in the Russian shelling, he took the decision that the field hospital had to be evacuated. That operation, across five-and-a-half miles of bogland, won him the Iron Cross, but, like Klass, who won his decoration for clearing a path for a German charge up a hill, and Dina Poljakoff, Skurnik turned his award down.
“When the Germans decided they’d like to give this decoration to my father, they told General Siilasvuo. He then told my father who thought it had to be a mistake and decided to see what happened when Berlin found out he was a Jew. But, after a while, General Siilasvuo came back to my father and told him the award had been approved. He said, ‘My good friend, do you think I can take that kind of decoration? Tell your German colleagues that I wipe my arse with it!’ The general told them, word for word, what my father had said.” The Germans, infuriated, then told Siilasvuo to hand Skurnik over for punishment, but he refused.
There were plenty of other acts of mini rebellion during the war. A doctor stationed in Oulu, who was less—or, some might argue, more—principled than Skurnik, refused to operate on Germans and was transferred to another sector. Sissy Wein, a Jewish singer who was Finland’s answer to Vera Lynn, refused to sing for the German troops. And Aron Livson’s father and brother, stationed in the city of Kotka displayed their disdain for their so-called “allies” on a daily basis. “My brother, who was an acting sergeant for the air defence, used to refuse to greet the Germans and my father, when the Germans came into his shop, would throw them out,” says Livson. Such behaviour in another part of Europe would have meant their certain death.
Nevertheless, after the war, as the horrors of the Holocaust revealed themselves, a discomfort about their special treatment spread, both among the Finnish Jews themselves and the wider Jewish community. At a meeting of war veterans in Tel Aviv in 1946, the Finns were almost thrown out as traitors. Had it not occurred to them, they were asked, that, by helping Hitler, they had prolonged his time in power and thus ensured more Jews went to the gas chambers than would otherwise have been the case?
That discomfort is still detectable today. When I repeat the line about Finland “helping Germany”, I feel the temperature in the room drop.
“We did not help the Germans,” snaps Kent Nadbornik, the chairman of the Finnish Jewish Veterans Guild. “We had a common enemy which was the Russians and that was it.”
Semantics aside, the veterans’ other principal justification—that it proved their loyalty to the Finnish state—has also been under attack in recent years. The “party line” is that the existence of Jews in the army not only put paid to the country’s anti-Semitism; it also protected the entire Jewish population of Finland from the Holocaust.
A key quote supposedly delivered by the wartime commander-in-chief Gustav Mannerheim to Himmler—“While Jews serve in my army I will not allow their deportation”—has been questioned by historians, who now think Mannerheim wasn’t even aware Jews had fought in the Finnish army until a visit to a memorial service at a synagogue in Helsinki in 1944. “Perhaps,” says Simo Muir, “in the post-war era, the value of Jews fighting for Finland has been overemphasised.” If they were guilty of anything, it was of trying too hard to fit in.
Unlike Islam, which urges its followers to reform the law of their host nation so that it complies with Muslim law, Judaism’s key texts emphasise the importance of adhering to the law of the land, even if the society is secular. Hundreds of years of persecution and a desire to escape the ghettos, attend university and play a proper part in politics and society, have added to Jews’ strong drive to fit in.
“Over the centuries, Jews have wanted to prove that they were the best kind of citizens,” says Lea Mühlstein, a rabbi at the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. “They wanted to show there was no conflict between being Jewish and being a patriot; that there was no double loyalty.”
But the Finnish Jews were on an impossible mission. Whatever they did there would always be one inescapable difference between them and their Finnish compatriots: the latter were fighting for their future, but, if Hitler had won, the Jewish soldiers would have had no future. What were they supposed to do? That is the question nobody can answer.
For more information about Finland’s participation in the Second World War visit the Museum of the Winter and Continuation Wars in Säkylä, Finland.
Finland and the Holocaust by Hannu Rautkallio is available from amazon.co.uk.