Strangers in a Stranger Land: How One Coun­try’s Jews Fought an Unwinnable War along­side Nazi Troops… and Survived

  • Review
By – December 21, 2020

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.

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