Alex Rose
Alex Rose

Two Historical Episodes

Over the years, ESRA has provided us a number of excellent historical papers. In recent times, “Did the Holocaust pass over Finland?”  by Serah Beizer, which appeared in the March 2021[#208]edition gained my attention. It did so probably because I knew very  little about Finland’s history despite having been in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in the 1960s on engineering business. I have found that this lack of knowledge applied to most individuals I know.

What makes Finland particularly interesting is its geography as it “–borders Sweden in the west and Russia in the east”. In other words, it was literally wedged in between two enemies during the time of the Holocaust. Apparently, I am not alone in that Beizer states that we know less about what happened  in the Nordic countries , Denmark and Norway that were occupied by the Germans and Sweden that was neutral. I beg to differ in that Denmark’s heroic saving of Jewish lives and Sweden’s neutrality have been given extensive coverage.

Beizer relates an extremely interesting story  and one must concentrate on dates to avoid a mistaken history. Clearly being wedged between 2 enemies and at different times being allied with one while at other times being allied with the other makes for absolute intrigue.

It is interesting to note that between WW1 and WW2, Finland selected Germany over the Soviet primarily because the Soviet lost WW1 Even more so, the relationship with Germany ran deep . Of course there were no signs of Nazism then. To their credit the Finns waited for the Soviet Union to fire first before joining the war as  a de-facto ally of Nazi Germany. That Finland’s ultimate goal was independent sovereignty was made clear by Commander-in-Chief Mannerheim on July 14, 1941 when he proclaimed, “—I will not set my sword to the scabbard before Finland and East Karelia will be free.”

In confirmation of Finland’s intent, we learn from Serah Beizer that in 1944, Finland looked for a way out of the war: an armistice with the Soviet Union was signed in September 1944. “The Finns agreed to fight the Germans and drive them out of Finland.——The Germans burned down everything they could on their retreat. ”

According to Beizer, the fate of Jews in Finland during the Holocaust period could be divided into 3 categories: Jews who were Finish citizens, Jewish refugees in Finland during the wars and Soviet Jewish POWs caught by the Finish army. Understandably, the sudden reality in 1941 when facing a war on the side of Nazi Germany caused  widespread news, particularly when viewing German soldiers on the streets of Finland.

There are many strange occurrences and contradictions in the history of Jewish life in Finland. One example was the establishment of a field synagogue on the front  by a Finnish Jewish soldier, Sholka Smolar, where Jewish soldiers met on Shabbat and Jewish festivals.

As recalled by Beizer, in 2003, the journalist  and human rights activist Elina Sana published an important book , Luovutetut [The Extradited] on the treatment of the Refugees, Finish communists and , and Soviet POWs published mainly in Finish. I was able through research to access several English copies.

In Luovutetut, on Finland’s human deliveries to the Gestapo, Sana aroused a pointed controversy in Finland. Challenging the official figure of 8 Jewish refugees  handed over to  the German authorities , Sana claimed  that during the German-Finish alliance on the Continuation War [1941-1944], Finland extradited  almost 3, 000 civilians and POWs; among them  approximately 100 Jews.

These extraditions were carried out were carried out in cooperation with the Gestapo, even though the discriminatory treatment of the Jewish community in and on the territories of the Third Reich was known by the Finnish authorities.. Despite these human deliveries, however, in the after  of WW11 Finland claimed a non-existing or insignificant role in the Holocaust, asserting it had remained a state governed  by the rule of law with respect for human rights.

Sana’s book dramatized the politics undergirding the “research establishment” and its alleged objectivity, also showing the extent to which academic historiography had been, if not explicitly legitimizing, at least closely related to state politics, not least through its reliance on access  to official documentary sources. Beyond rectifying  omissions in the wartime record, Luovutetut provided a much need critical perspective on the history-political debate of the post-Soviet era, whose main substance has been that the war was a noble defensive victory against Bolshevism.

On March 31, 2007, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published “Finland’s Tarnished Holocaust Record”, an interview with Serah Beizer by Manfred Gerstenfeld. [ translated from Finnish and Swedish to English by Serah Beizer]

A few years ago it became public that Finland had handed over almost three thousand Soviet prisoners of war to the Germans during World War II. Until that time Finland had the reputation of a country that protected all its Jews, except for eight Central European Jewish refugees who were handed over to the Gestapo in Estonia. At least seventy Soviet Jewish prisoners were extradited to the Gestapo. Finnish historians claim that these people were handed over because they were political prisoners.

There was little punishment for war criminals in Finland. It now seems that a large part of Finland’s tarnished wartime record will never be revealed. Author Elina Sana, who has played a crucial role in bringing the matter to public attention, says in her book that Finland should establish a truth commission.

Stranger’s in a Stranger World: How One Country’s Jews Fought an Unwinnable  War Alongside Nazi Troops—-And Survived  by John  B. Simon is a 473 page book with  57 Chapters on Finland. In fact, it is 3 books in one: a history of the Jews in Finland, a surprisingly compact history of Finland over the same period, and a novel in which David, Benjamin and Rachel, 3 childhood friends grow up and experience the prewar and war years through their complicated interpersonal relationship. An excellent book, Simon has put in years of effort, and it shows on every page.

Living under the restrictions of the Pandemic, I found myself reading about another not so well known country, Salonica. For myself, it is of particular interest in that my maternal grandmother and a cousin were the only family members to find their way to Jerusalem shortly prior to the commencement of WW2.

Mark Mazower’s “Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950” is described by  the Guardian’s Jan Morris as “A tremendous book about a city unique not just in Europe, but in the entire history of humanity.”The 509 page book consists of 23 chapters and includes a number of historical photographs.

Salonika’s  initial character was Byzantine – a synthesis of imperial Rome, the Greek language and Orthodox  Christian faith. Subsequently, the big upheaval was the advance of the Ottoman Turks into the Balkans from Anatolia in the 14th century. Under the rule of the Ottoman Sultans, one of the most extraordinary and diverse societies in Europe, lived for 5 centuries amid its minarets and cypresses on the shore of the Aegean, alongside its Roman ruins and Byzantine monasteries. Egyptian merchants And Ukrainian slaves, Spanish -speaking rabbis-refugees from the Iberian Inquisition and Turkish pashas rubbed shoulders with Orthodox shopkeepers, Sufi dervishes and Albanian brigands.

In essence it was generally inhabited by people of 3 faiths – Muslims, Christians and Jews. For the most part they lived peacefully.

Chapter  16 of the book describes “The great Fire” on August 18, 1917, one of the seminal issues.” It was an amazing and sad scene”, wrote Collinson Owens,”—the wailing families, the crash of falling houses as the flames tore along, swept by the wind; and in the narrow streets, a slow moving mass  of pack-donkeys, loaded carts, hamals carrying enormous ,loads; Greek boy scouts [doing excellent work]; soldiers of all nations as yet unorganized to do anything  definite; ancient wooden fire-engines that creaked pathetically as they spat out ineffectual trickles of water; and people carrying beds [hundreds of flock and feather beds], wardrobes, mirrors, pots and pans, sewing  machines [every family made a desperate endeavor to save its sewing machine] and a general collection of rubbish.”

The damage was  almost incomprehensible. No less than three quarters of the old city had been destroyed, according to an official report. 9,500 buildings were destroyed and over 70,000 people had lost their homes. The Jewish community was worse effected, for the fire had consumed its historic quarters; most of its 37 synagogues were gone, its libraries , schools, club buildings and offices.

In Salonica, fires were such a regular occurrence that prayers against them formed part of the local Yom Kippur service . This fire dwarfed all other fires suffered by Salonica as it destroyed the essence of the Ottoman town, and its Jewish core. Out of the ashes, an entirely new town began to emerge, one molded  in the image of the Greek state and its society.

Chapter 22 addresses, “Genocide”. On 6 April, 1941German troops  attacked Greece from the north and 3 days later, they entered Salonica. The country was partitioned, while Salonica and its region were among  the strategically vital areas which remained  under the control of the German army.  As the resultant death toll rose, fear of famine gripped the population. Emaciated adults were collapsing on the pavements. The wife of the Swiss consul  upon arriving home at the end of 1941, reported, “The specter of a contrived  extermination of a whole population cannot be dismissed as a hallucination conjured up by starved stomachs, but rather viewed as a logical appraisal of German  behavior in Greece since the invasion of Russia.”

Around this time, Hitler’s ideological commissar, Alfred Rosenberg was setting up a research center in Frankfurt for the study of world Jewry. When Greece fell , he immediately sent a team to Salonica – “one of the main Jewish centers, as you yourself know”, he told Martin Bormann.In October 1941, Heinrich Himmler warned Hitler that the city’s large Jewish population posed a threat to German security.

Thus, it was a shock when out of the blue – on July 8, 1942 the local Wehrmacht commander in Salonica instructed all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 to present themselves for registration. From 8 in the morning, the following Saturday, 9,000 Jewish men stood in lines in Plateia Eleftherias while their names were taken down. The round-up on July 11 helps one to realize how the Final Solution unfolded: not only through instructions from Berlin, but also via the accretion of local initiatives taken by  authorities

Something less than 5% of Salonika’s Jewish population escaped deportation compared with perhaps 50% in the Greek capital a year later.

In Chapter 3, “The Arrival of the Sephardim”, we read,” by—1667-68, the Jews were such an integral part of Salonica that it seemed impossible to imagine they had not always been there.  And indeed there had been Jews in the city before there were any Christians. At the conclusion in the paragraph prior to Chapter23- Aftermath, we find according German records, approximately  45,000 people reached Auschwitz  from Salonica and within a few hours of arrival, most of them had been killed  in gas chambers.

Times of Israel published, “A Century Ago, Jewish Salonica Burned” by Devin E. Naar on 18 August, 2017. [“The home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino speaking Sephardic Jewish community in the world was rebuilt, only to be destroyed anew].

Salonica had suffered from a series of fires in its history, but during the four centuries under the benign rule of the Ottoman Empire, the city’s residents were permitted to rebuild without much state interference. Not so after the Great Fire of 1917. The Greek government, which had only recently annexed Salonica during the Balkan Wars (1912-13), saw in the fire an opportunity to transform once and for all Jewish and Ottoman Salonica into Greek Thessaloniki

As much as Salonika’s Jewish community rebounded from the fire of 1917, the destruction wrought by the German occupation was insurmountable. Beyond the dispossession, deportation and murder of almost all of Salonika’s Jews by the Nazis, the entire character of the city was irrevocably transformed. Several dozen synagogues, with the exception of one or two, were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators; visual traces of the Jewish presence in the built environment were gone.  A journalist further lamented: “The most important thing that the fire destroyed was the Jewish soul of Salonica. It is a terrible story.”

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.
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