Jewish Neighborhoods: Helsinki

The first Jews to settle in Finland were soldiers in the Russian army, including cantonists who had been forcibly conscripted as children for the infamous 25-year draft. In 1858 cantonists were given permission to settle in areas normally barred to Jews, and a group of former soldiers founded the Jewish community of Helsinki. 

Many of the early Jewish settlers were artisans and textile workers who plied their trades in the city’s Narynka Market. To strengthen the Jewish community, in 1906 the Stjärnan—now Makkabi Helsinki—sports association was founded, the oldest Jewish sports club in the world.   

When Finland declared independence in 1917, it recognized its Jewish residents as full citizens and abolished antisemitic legal restrictions. Using their newfound freedom, the Jewish community founded Yiddish organizations, including the Yidishe dramatishe gezelshaft (Jewish Drama Society), which was created by Jac Weinstein in 1923. The National Library of Finland became a repository for Yiddish books from the Russian Empire. 

In the Winter War of 1939–40, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, and Jews in ceded territories became refugees. Though Finland refused to sign a formal alliance agreement, the country fought the Soviets alongside Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944 in what was known as the Continuation War. Because of a universal draft, Jewish men found themselves alongside Nazis on the front lines. While Finnish Jews were not turned over to the Nazi regime, eight Jewish Austrian Jews who sought refuge in Finland were deported to Auschwitz in November of 1942. This national scandal caused widespread protests from Finnish citizens, and Jewish refugees were no longer deported during the war.    

Today, approximately 80 percent of Finnish Jews reside in Helsinki, and while few of them speak Yiddish, many feel connected to the culture. A recent Yiddish revival has boasted Yiddish theater productions in the city and a klezmer cabaret group that performs around the world. The Limud Conference Helsinki hosts annual events, and there are weekly synagogue services, vegetarian meals, and other activities through the Jewish Community of Helsinki

Across Generations 

Joseph Gideon Bolotowsky, president of the Jewish community in Helsinki from 1988 to 2007, discusses how the Finnish Jewish community survived the Second World War largely intact and thus benefits from strong intergenerational memory. 

We Were Yiddish Jews

For Karmela Belinki, Yiddish was a lingua franca that could be used with Jews from all over the world. She recalls her father once speaking in Yiddish with a ship’s captain from Czernowitz, who was en route to Turku.

Army Life 

Boris Rubanovitsch served as a soldier in the Finnish army in 1944 and 1945. Despite some frightening experiences, he recalls that the Finns who fought alongside him were not antisemites.

Finnish Yiddish 

Simo Muir is a mainstay of the Helsinki Yiddish community and the author of a guide to its distinctive Finnish-Yiddish dialect. He discusses his first impressions of Yiddish and his early teachers and influences.

100 Years of Song 

Norbert Kruk shares his experiences with the Helsinki Yiddish Choir, which has been going for almost 100 years. For some songs, they still have handwritten notes from previous choir directors. 

Banner image courtesy of Boris Rubanovitsch.

Special thanks to Simo Muir for his consultation on the text about the Jewish history of Helsinki.