Interview with 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. However, many of the Jews were barbers, carpenters, and postal workers by profession. These are highly unlikely candidates to have been political agitators or commissars.
The Finnish government has appointed a historical commission to investigate the deaths, extraditions, and deportations of Soviet prisoners of war and others to the Germans. 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. The present commission does not qualify as one. It has done important research but will only partly disclose its findings. Finland’s Data Protection Board decided that ‘in order to protect the privacy of the registered [person]…action has to be taken so that data on a certain individual shall not be revealed to outsiders’ without his or her permission. As the data on prisoners of war extradited sixty to sixty-five years ago, most of them 85-105 years old if alive by today, will not be published, this is hardly a truth commission.
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.
“A few years ago, it became known that Finland had handed over Soviet prisoners of war-among them a number of Jews-to the Germans during World War II. Finland’s wartime past regarding the Jews is worse than usually portrayed. Until then, it had the reputation of a country that protected all its Jews except for eight Central European Jewish refugees who were handed over in November 1942 to the Gestapo in Estonia. Seven of them perished in concentration camps.
“Almost fifty-eight years after the deportation, in 2000, a monument to their memory was set up in Helsinki harbor. The then prime minister, Paavo Lipponen, apologized to the Jewish community. It also took until 2000 for the Evangelical Lutheran Church to make an official statement on this matter. This text, approved by its synod, stated: ‘The church admits to having remained silent about the persecution of the Jews and wishes to apologize to the Jewish community for this…. The handover, even of one single Jew was a sin…more instruction on Judaism and the common roots of Judaism and Christianity…should be given in the parishes.’ The church also declared that Luther’s attitude toward Judaism ‘should be reexamined.’”
Serah Beizer, a part-time researcher on the history of the Jews in Finland and the fate of Jewish POWs in World War II, is affiliated with the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies and works as the coordinator of the Jewish Agency Resource Center. Her MA thesis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was on the Hehalutz (pioneering-Zionist) movement in Sweden during World War II.
She points out that Finland is a country where, until today, very few foreigners live and that its language is an extremely difficult one, inaccessible to most foreign readers. Beizer cites this as one major reason why Finland’s wartime misbehavior is not publicly known.
Elina Sana’s Research
“The initial information about the eight Jewish refugees extradited to the Gestapo was documented by the Finnish author Elina Suominen (Sana) in her 1979 book Death Ship S/S Hohenhörn.1 This German ship took the refugees to be handed over to the German-occupied Tallinn in Estonia. For her research she examined German archives as well as those of the Red Cross in Switzerland. It has since become known that more Jewish refugees were handed over to the Gestapo during the war.
Sana found the sole Jewish survivor, Mr. Georg Kollman, in Israel, From him she heard that the eight refugees had ended up in Auschwitz. Sana went to Auschwitz and asked to see lists of inmates, but was told that the data were not organized. She insisted and within a few days the administration found the list with the names of the refugees who in November 1942 had been deported from Finland.
“When Sana published what had happened to the refugees and an interview with Kollman’s brother, who lived in Finland, the response from Finnish historians was very critical. They countered that she was a journalist and her work lacked footnotes. On that point they were right, but she cites her sources at the end of the book and I have not yet read one critic who has properly confronted her facts.
“Before the war, mainly in 1938, some five hundred Jewish refugees passed through Finland, most of them continuing elsewhere. Thereafter the Finnish authorities refused to accept any more. Sylvi-Kyllikki Kilpi, a member of the Finnish parliament and active on behalf of the refugees, heard that the reason was that ‘there are anyway more than enough Jewish refugees’ in Finland. In late August 1938, Jewish refugees on the ship Adriane were sent back to the harbor of Stettin in Germany, which is now Szczecin in Poland.”
Finland’s Wartime Deportations to Nazi Germany
“Sana revealed in 2003 in another book that some three thousand non-Finnish citizens-POWs-were handed over to the German army, security service, and secret police or Gestapo. In that book, The Extradited: Finland’s Extraditions to the Gestapo, she speculated that many of the approximately five hundred so-called political prisoners may have been Jews.2 Her book was awarded the prestigious Tieto-Finlandia Prize for nonfiction.
“Sana claims that the handing over was a systematic practice of both the Finnish police and the military. Part of the deportations was a population exchange: the Finns were interested to receive Finnish-related POWs and citizens so as to settle them in Eastern Karelia, and in return, the Germans received POWs captured by Finland. After the war, Valpo, the Finnish national police force, destroyed large parts of its archives. Nevertheless, Sana, in other archives in Finland and Germany, managed to find documents that directly involved Valpo head Arno Anthoni and Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller.
“When the transfer of Soviet POWs to the Gestapo became known, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, wrote a letter to the president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, requesting information on the deportation of Jews from Finland to Germany during the war:
I am writing to you in the wake of recent revelations by Finnish researcher Elina Sana, that Finland turned over approximately three thousand foreigners to Nazi Germany during World War II, among them a considerable number of political officers of the Red Army and Soviet Jewish prisoners of war. They were thereby, in effect, sentenced to almost certain death…. I am certain that you would agree that such revelations require a forthright response by the Finnish authorities and appropriate measures to acknowledge the wrongdoing and if possible, hold those responsible accountable for their misdeeds.
“Surprisingly, within twenty-four hours President Halonen replied: ‘I accept your letter and I have appointed a professor at Helsinki University to prepare for me a portfolio on the subject and we will indeed do research on the subject.’ The professor in question is the legal historian, Prof. Emeritus Heikki Ylikangas.”3
Serah Beizer underlines that Finland’s wartime background is a very singular one. Understanding it requires going back in history. “Until 1809 Finland was under Swedish rule. Then it became an autonomy called the Grand Duchy of Finland, and as such part of Russia. In 1812, the Finnish capital was moved from Turku on the western coast close to the Swedish sphere of influence, to Helsinki, much closer to St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital. The Russians saw Finland’s strategic role as guarding their capital.
“The first Jews came to Finland during the nineteenth century. One often hears that these were so-called cantonists, young Jewish boys forcefully conscripted to military service at an early age and, starting when they were eighteen, made to serve twenty-five years in the army. These boys had to be stripped of their religious and national identity. That only pertains, however, to a few of the early Finnish Jews. Most were soldiers, drafted during the reign of Tsar Nikolai I, who were based in Finland and in 1858, as discharged soldiers, were allowed to stay in Finland. They were known as ‘Nikolai’s soldiers.’
“In 1917, the Finnish parliament declared independence. Lenin and his government, who by then were in power in the Soviet Union, announced their agreement. Thus on 6 December 1917, the Republic of Finland was born. One of the first things the Finnish parliament decided was to give the Jews citizenship. It was the penultimate country in Europe-before Romania-to do so. The Finns claim they were not independent before, and hence could not have given the Jews citizenship. The truth is rather different. Already in the nineteenth century, there were bitter debates on the issue and hard-line positions against granting the Jews citizenship. Opponents said they did not want Polish or Russian Jews but would accept Western ones.
“Finnish independence was followed by a civil war between the Reds, backed by Russia, and the Whites, backed by Germany. The war involved a contest between Russia and Germany over spheres of interest. Only in the 1920s could Finland begin building itself as a modern independent state.
“In the 1930s, like elsewhere in Europe, several right-wing parties emerged. These published a great deal of anti-Semitic material. A doctoral thesis was recently published on anti-Semitic writings in Finland in that period. The author read 433 Finnish periodicals and textbooks covering the years 1918-1944, and concluded that 16.4 percent of them contained at least one instance of anti-Semitism. He remarked: ‘One can see a distinct foreign and especially German influence in the subjects and phraseology of Finnish anti-Semitic writings from 1918 to 1944. Several known Finnish anti-Semitic writers had some kind of link with Germany.’”4
The 1939 War with Russia
“In autumn 1939, the USSR attacked Finland in what has become known as the Winter War. It lasted from 30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940. Most of the fighting occurred on the Karelian Isthmus, a territory between Finland and Russia that the Finns considered Finnish. Although the Russians fought with all their power, Finland, which fought alone, held out very well. But in the peace treaty concluded in March 1940, it had to secede Karelia.
“Finland was now looking for German help. There had already been many visits to Germany by Finnish politicians, military leaders, and the secret police before the war. On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union through Finnish territory. Four days later Finland was bombed by the Russians and entered what would become known as the Continuation War. It lasted from 25 June 1941 to 19 September 1944.
“After an initial advance by the Germans and the Finns until December 1941, there followed a long period of stalemate. After months of tough fighting in summer and autumn 1944, the war ended. Thereafter a third war, in 1944-1945, was fought by the Finns against the Germans, their aim being to drive the Germans out of Lappland and remain independent.
“Late in 2006, the Finnish attitude during the Continuation War again became the subject of controversy. The Swedish journalist Henrik Arnstad, in a book about the Swedish wartime foreign minister Christian Günther, claims that Finland has lied about its relationship with Germany during that war. He wrote that Finland was the only Western democracy that voluntarily joined forces with Nazi Germany and is keeping quiet about it.
“Arnstad’s book was criticized by Pertti Torstila, secretary of state in the Finnish Foreign Ministry. He argued that the Swedish author lacked historical perspective. Arnstad reacted by saying it was highly unusual that a foreign ministry would attack a foreign author.5
“The earlier-mentioned Finnish professor emeritus Heikki Ylikangas gave an important lecture in October 2004 titled, ‘What if We Were to Take the Skeletons out of the Closet?’ He observed: ‘The writing of history is always an interpretation of what happened, nothing more…. Why did our writing of history circumvent the transfers of people to Germany?’ Ylikangas claims that, first, many war veterans are still alive and the memory of the ninety thousand war fatalities has to be honored; second, history-writing since the war has largely been a continuation of the sort of research conducted shortly after the war.
“Ylikangas notes: ‘researchers in history are more or less tied up with [political] power. They cannot just break away and write history that argues against the line adopted at the beginning. Almost everyone…has to make certain compromises because of pressures from society and conclusions drawn about the topic they are researching.’ Ylikangas, for his part, maintains that Finland was not an ally of Germany but was dependent on it. I think the writing of history would be more objective and meaningful with more historians such as Heikki Ylikangas.”6
Serah Beizer points out that the Swedes also have skeletons in their closet. “Their neutrality during World War II has rightfully been challenged. In 1989 two Dutch historians, Gerard Aalders and Cees Wiebes, published a book accusing banks and companies in Sweden of collaboration and cooperation with Nazi Germany.7 Only recently, two new books were published in Sweden about the Swedish king Gustaf V during the war. In an October 1941 letter from Gustaf V to Hitler, addressed to ‘Mein Lieber Reichskanzler,’ the king thanks Hitler warmly for having decided to attack Bolshevism everywhere.”
An Unwritten Agreement
“When the Finns fought together with the Germans, the latter did not touch the Jews who served in the Finnish army. There was an unwritten agreement about that. The Germans knew that in the Scandinavian countries, when one is a citizen, one belongs. The Finns treated the Jews who were of their nationality equally during the war. The Jewish soldiers found themselves in a position where they were fighting on the side of Germany, even if they did not fight together with the Germans. A film titled David documents the experiences of these soldiers.8 The refugees, however, were unsafe; this was even worse if one was a Russian POW.
“It seems that in the latter half of 1942, the Germans began insisting that Finnish Jews be handed over to them. The Finns, in order not to do so, replied that they would raise the matter in parliament, which they did not convene for a few months.
“These were bloody wars. At the time Finland had a population of slightly over four million, and as mentioned, ninety thousand of its soldiers were killed. Jews served in all these wars. On a personal note, my father fought on the Finnish side, against my husband’s father, who was from Leningrad.”
Maltreatment of Prisoners of War
Serah Beizer observes: “Finnish historians have devoted very little attention to the issue of the POWs. Testimonies and a documentary film titled A Heaven for POWs, made by Finnish television about what happened to the Jewish POWs, suggest that they were treated better than the others captured by the Finns. Considering the case of the seventy Jews handed over to the Gestapo, this is an unrepresentative picture.
“Finland captured sixty-four thousand Russian prisoners in the Continuation War. Twenty-nine percent died in Finnish POW camps. This is an extremely high percentage, surpassed in Europe only by the number of Soviet POWs who died in German camps and of German POWs in the hands of the Soviets. In Lappland there was much cooperation between Germans, Norwegians working for the Germans, and the Finns. POWs captured there often say that the Finns were the worst of the three.
“The high number of POW deaths became known only more than forty years after the war, when Finnish journalist Eino Pietola published a book on the POW issue in 1987.9 He felt he could no longer remain silent after reading a newspaper article that claimed it was well known that Finland had in no way mistreated its POWs, and none were killed. Pietola came under severe criticism from historians who said he was not an academic and did not give footnotes. Yet we now know that he was right.”
The Follow-Up to Zuroff’s Letter
Serah Beizer returns to the Finnish follow-up to the Zuroff letter. “Prof. Ylikangas confirmed many facts Pietola had written. There had indeed been sixty-four thousand POWs. Twenty-nine percent of them indeed died in Finnish concentration camps. There is some argument about the number of those transferred to the Germans.
“Some historians say ‘only’ two thousand were handed over, while others give a figure of 2,500. Several historians claim that those handed over were all Bolsheviks and hence should be considered political prisoners.
“Since then, a commission has been appointed to investigate the subject and is scheduled to work until 2008. It received a budget of some 2 million euros. At least six researchers are currently engaged in this project, working in an old building belonging to the national archives in central Helsinki. Although this is positive, it has come rather late. Most surviving POWs are very old, having been captured sixty-two to sixty-four years ago, and the research is mostly archival work and much less based on interviews. However, some other countries have not even done this much.”
The Deported Jews
“Finding out about the Jews is not easy. Those Finns who interrogated the Soviet soldiers during the Continuation War found that there were eighty-nine different ethnicities in the Red Army. Many Jews called themselves Russian, White Russian, and so on because they wanted to hide their Jewishness, as the Finns were allies of the Germans. The Jewish POWs who fought directly against the Germans remained alive only if they lied about their ethnicity, claiming to be Russians or Ukrainians.
“I have heard from these Finns that one soldier who was handed over to the Germans named Vladimir Borisovitch Levin was not Jewish but Russian. That was what he officially claimed to be. I had a very moving interview with a Jewish POW, Mr. Abram Bakman, who lives in Beersheba. Having been wounded in the war, he was taken to a Finnish military hospital. When asked about his ethnicity, he said he was Jewish. The Finnish interrogator who received him was stunned and told him he was the first Jew he had ever seen.
“Bakman saw two other Jews before him and felt he had been a fool to say he was a Jew. I went to the archives, and indeed three or four names before his there are other Jewish names. These were the people Bakman had seen.”
At Least Seventy Jews Handed Over to the Gestapo
Serah Beizer says: “I suppose, on the basis of my research, that some five hundred to six hundred Jewish soldiers were captured by the Finns of whom at least seventy were transferred to the Gestapo. The historians’ claim is that these people were not handed over to the Germans because they were Jews but as political prisoners. However, among these Jews were barbers, carpenters, a photographer, postal workers, a decorator, and a musician. These are not the sorts of people you turn into political commissars. At least eighteen of the Jews handed over were under age twenty-five, which also makes it unlikely that they were political commissars or agitators.
“At the War Archives in Helsinki, I examined lists of POWs handed over to the SS. The first time this happened was in October 1941 in the northern town of Salla. These included a twenty-eight-year-old barber and ‘agitator’ Zalman Kuznetsov, a professor of Marxism-Leninism named Alexandr Malkis, and a tailor and ‘agitator’ Haim Osherovitch Lev, as well as four other Jews. On 4 March 1942, at least seventeen of the sixty prisoners handed over were Jews. This is a very high percentage if one takes into account that Jews were about 1 percent of all Russian POWs.
“In 2004, Jukka Lindstedt, a doctor of law, wrote an article about the transfer of Jewish POWs claiming that forty-seven Jews were handed over to the Gestapo.10 This was at the very beginning of the commission’s work, while Lindstedt headed it (he later resigned after being appointed to another important post and was replaced by the historian Dr. Lars Westerlund). He says thirty-three of them were officers. Jews often had academic degrees and were drafted after completing their studies. These Red Army officers were not all what would be called military commanders. Neither could they all have been political prisoners/communists/agitators.
“In Finland where Bolshevism was hated, no one asked if it was proper to hand over communists to the Nazis. It was, however, against international law. In the modern Finnish mind, it is still acceptable to have handed over Bolsheviks. I have little doubt that the Finnish authorities who themselves extradited Jews to the Germans were fully aware at the time what their fate would be.
“The lists of those handed over to the German authorities include people with obviously Jewish names whom the researchers, and especially Lindstedt, consider non-Jews. Some examples are: Josef Jakovlevitsh Kirshbaum, Semjon Isakovitsh Kuper, Naum Borisovitsh Smoljak, and Grigory Jakovlevitsh Slisinger.
“Even today, the commission maintains that the Jews were not handed over because they were Jews. As they cannot find out what happened to POWs, nobody can prove that they were killed. So this part of Jewish war history remains very unclear.”
Finland Needs a Truth Commission
“Elina Sana says Finland needs a truth commission. It needs to learn from its mistakes. The present commission does not meet these criteria. It generates a lot of information but reveals very little. The Data Protection Board of Finland decided that ‘in order to protect the privacy of the registered [person], … action has to be taken so that data on a certain individual shall not be revealed to outsiders.’ The data on POWs extradited sixty to sixty-five years ago will not be published.
“An important issue is how high the Finnish responsibility for the transfer of the POWs goes. It is documented that Field Marshall Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish wartime chief of staff, who in 1944 became president, knew about the exchange of POWs between the Finns and the Germans. Here one is on very sensitive territory because Mannerheim is a sacred name in Finland, remembered by everybody only in positive terms.”
Mannerheim had refused to attack St. Petersburg together with the Germans. In Serah Beizer’s view: “thus, paying off the Germans with a few thousand POWs was small change for him. I am quite sure that he knew about the POW exchanges. We have found documents that indicate this, but this matter the Finns will never touch, even if it would constitute the truth.”
Concentrating Jewish Prisoners of War
Beizer adds: “There is another matter that raises great suspicion. At the end of 1942, Jewish POWs were concentrated at a location in central Finland, in work camps close to the Second Central POW camp in Naarajärvi. This might have been to protect them. In Sana’s opinion, however, it was to prepare them for transfer to the Nazis. This did not happen because Mannerheim and his inner circle had decided already by autumn 1942 that Germany was going to lose the war. Hence they considered it was not worthwhile to create problems about the Jews.
“Mannerheim was a highly intelligent person. This was evident when, in 1944, he went to the Helsinki synagogue to show his appreciation for the Jewish community that fought together with the other Finns against the Russians.
“The Finns were very lucky that the Soviets, after the war, did not want to find out too much about their POWs. The Russians are still not interested. One cannot freely visit their archives to find out what happened to their captured soldiers.
“There was little punishment for war criminals in Finland. After the war the Finns were forced to put eight senior politicians on trial, but this was a quite random exercise. For instance, the Russians insisted on the Social Democrat, former foreign minister Väino Tanner being brought to trial and he was given a prison sentence. Many others, including the pro-Nazi Toivo Horelli, who was interior minister during the beginning of the war, were not touched. This was despite the fact that he was the person who decided to hand over the Jewish refugees. It seems that much of Finland’s tarnished war record will never be revealed.”
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
Translations from Finnish and Swedish to English by Serah Beizer
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1. Elina Suominen, Kuoleman laiva s/s Hohenhörn (Death Ship S/S Hohenhörn) (Helsinki: WSOY, 1979) [Finnish]. After marriage she became Elina Sana.
2. Elina Sana, Luovutetut: Suomen ihmisluovutukset Gestapolle (The Extradited: Finland’s Extraditions to the Gestapo) (Helsinki: WSOY, 2003). [Finnish]
3. The story of this exchange was covered by the press in Finland and Russia and also by the Associated Press.
4. Jari Hanski, Juutalaisvastaisuus suomalaisissa aikakauslehdissä ja kirjallisuudessa 1918-1944 (Opposition to Jews in the Finnish Press and Literature, 1918-1944), doctoral dissertation, Helsinki University, 2006. [Finnish]
5. “Finns Resentful over Swedish Author’s Claims of Nazi Sympathies in War,” Helsingin Sanomat International Edition, 4 December 2006.
6. Heikki Ylikangas, “What if We Were to Take the Skeletons out of the Closet?” lecture presented in Helsinki, October 2004.
7. See “Tillgivet brev från kungen till Hitler,” Göteborgs-Posten, 18 September 2006, 32. [Swedish]
8. David: Stories of Honour and Shame, produced by Lasse Saarinen, Real Productions, Helsinki, 1997.
9. Eino Pietola, Sotavangit Suomessa 1941-1944 (The POWs in Finland 1941-1944) (Jyväskylä: Gummerus, 1987). [Finnish]
10. Jukka Lindstedt, “Juutalaisten sotavankien luovutukset” (The Extradition of Jewish Prisoners of War), Historiallinen Aikakausikirja, No. 2 (2004):
Link to original article: jcpa.org/article/finlands-tarnished-holocaust-record/