Initially, the idea of almost five hundred pages on one of the smallest and newest Jewish communities in Europe — one that suffered neither deportations or casualties or roundups during the Shoah — might seem unlikely. Finland is not extensively known for its Jewish traditions or history. Since its founding in 1917, the country has never been home to more than two thousand Jews at a time; today the population is barely half of that, and diminishing. And yet, Strangers in a Stranger Land (originally published as Mahdoton sota or “The Impossible War” in Finnish) makes a significant contribution to Jewish historical knowledge.
John B. Simon is an American author who has lived in Finland for four decades. In 2009, he chanced upon the startling record of three openly Jewish soldiers, one a woman, who were offered (but declined) the Iron Cross for their service rendered to the combined German – Finnish war effort against the Soviet Union.
Simon devoted the next seven years to exhaustive research and interviewing in the Jewish community of Helsinki. He was able to identify the last remaining Jewish soldiers of the 327 who had served in the Finnish army together with German troops invading Soviet territory along the Finnish-Russian border in the Karelian Isthmus (leading to Hitler’s planned annihilation of Leningrad). He made contact with their families to gather the data on their service to the Finnish nation.
Simon explains that he didn’t want to merely provide a capsule history of Finland for readers unfamiliar with the country; he needed to add something more meaningful to him personally. His solution was to create three interlocked characters — Benjamin, Rachel, and David — whose story is told in sections that alternate with his historical examination. The three characters are composites drawn from what Simon learned about the development of the small community in the course of his research.
While Finland was part of imperial Russia, Jews who had been drafted into the Czarist army began to settle in present-day Finland after their service, but had no rights. Only after the Communist revolution did Finland gain separation, and in all of Europe, the small number of Jews in Finland were the last to gain citizenship. Soviet influence remained strong and the threat of a tactical invasion was constant.
War broke out in 1939 and continued on and off for years. The Finns held their own, helped by the patriotic Jewish soldiers, but when exhaustion and starvation threatened, Finnish leaders succumbed to the German desire to use Finland as a staging point for conquering the Soviets. Even today, Finns are uncomfortable remembering German control of the country and their role as co-combatants with German soldiers until the Nazi regime collapsed. They were severely punished by the Soviets in the peace treaties ending the war in 1945.
Simon gives extensive detail about the actual Jewish personnel lauded and protected by the German army. In an interview with me, he stated, “I felt I had to explore how it felt for the actual people of the community to have been so menaced by both sides.” The book manages to achieve a comfortable balance of detailed Finnish history and an examination of the role Jews played in the new nation throughout the last century, along with a romantic triangle of the three fictitious characters whose lives represent the achievement of maintaining Jewish identity while assimilating. Finland remains the only nation in Europe where occupying Germans did not kill any residents. Later, the proportion of Finns who fought for Israel in the War of Independence of 1948 was the highest of any country.
Simon makes a point of Finland being a “strange” country sandwiched between three dominant powers during its history, and of how its Jewish citizens fought for acceptance and survival in a similar way to the country itself. His book intertwines these shared fates in a highly original fashion. Readers will not soon forget the photo of the makeshift field synagogue in the Finnish forest standing untouched next to Nazi war lines.
Mark Bernheim is an emeritus professor and journalist with degrees in world literature, and the author a biography of Janusz Korczak for young readers. He taught children’s literature at American universities and abroad on Fulbright and other residences in France, Austria, and Italy. He currently freelances as a cultural critic and book editor.