The fought with them, they slept with them and they healed them, the story of Finnish Jews who fought alongside Nazi Germany in World War 2.
With the launch of Operation Barbarossa, German soldiers posted in Finland found themselves in a rather unusual alliance with members of Jewish community – the same people who Hitler claimed to be the worst of the worst and had vowed to annihilate. This instance of Jews fighting alongside Nazi Germany – and indeed the only instance – is a story both uncomfortable and extraordinary. Yet it is also a story that few – including those in Finland – are much aware of.
The Jewish Community of Finland originally descended from the Russian soldiers posted there during their military service. After independence, they became Finnish citizen though distrust of them remained. Seeing the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to their country, many Jews drafted themselves in the Finnish army and fought with the best of their abilities.
“We weren’t Jews fighting in a Finnish army – we were Finnish people, Finnish soldiers, fighting for our country.”
Maj. Leo Skurnik was one such example. Without discrimination, he treated both German and Finnish soldiers alike on the war front, even going as far as venturing into no man’s land to rescue wounded German soldiers when no other officer dared.
On one occasion, amidst heavy Soviet Shelling, he directed the evacuation of a field hospital, saving the lives of more than 600 patients, including those from the infamous Waffen SS.
Sergeant Aron Livson was another example of the distinguished Jewish soldiers who fought in the war. Although like many others, he knew about Nazi’s oppression of his people in Germany, he never for a minute considered disobeying orders.
“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.”, said Livson in an interview with Telegraph.
Many Finnish Jews chose to hide their identity when fighting alongside their supposedly German “allies”, but surprisingly, in cases this secret was out, the matter was usually never taken further.
Even surprising was the bonds of friendship struck between Jews and members of the Wehrmacht (Separate from the SS). It was common for wounded soldiers to warm up to Jewish nurses who tended to them, even though according to Nazi ideology “Non-Aryan women were not meant to tend to Aryan men”.
But perhaps most remarkable was reportedly an instance of Germans visiting a field Synagogue. Here “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.”
In total three Finnish Jews were awarded the Iron Cross but all of them, rightfully, refused the decoration. Leo Skurnik reportedly told General Siilasvuo to tell the Germans he’d like to wipe his back with the medal. The Germans, after being told this word for word, were furious but were not in a position to do anything about it.
For the Finnish Jews that fought in the war, it was a matter of service to their country and had nothing to do with the likes of Nazi Germany.
Even though allied with Nazi Germany, Finland never succumbed to Hitler’s pressure on introducing anti-Semitic laws. For the Finnish government, every citizen was equal. It was this resolve and the loyalty of the Jewish population that ensured their safety from the Holocaust.