In September 1941, a medical officer performed a deed so heroic he was awarded an Iron Cross by the German high command. With little regard for his own safety, and in the face of heavy Soviet shelling, Major Leo Skurnik, a district doctor who had once fostered ambitions of becoming a concert pianist, organised the evacuation of a field hospital on the Finnish-Russian border, saving the lives of more than 600 men, including members of the SS.
Skurnik was far from the only soldier to be awarded the Iron Cross during the Second World War. More than four million people received the decoration. But there was one fact about him that makes the recommendation remarkable: he was Jewish. And Skurnik was not the only Jew fighting on the side of the Germans. More than 300 found themselves in league with the Nazis when Finland, who had a mutual enemy in the Soviet Union, joined the war in June 1941.
The alliance between Hitler and the race he vowed to annihilate — the only instance of Jews fighting for Germany’s allies — is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the Second World War, and yet hardly anyone, including many Finns, know anything about it.
“I lived here for 25 years before I heard about it, and I’m Jewish,” says John Simon, a New Yorker who moved to Helsinki in 1982. “It’s not a story that’s told very much.”
The reasons why it’s rarely told go right to the heart of what it means to be Jewish and that race’s quest to be accepted by a long list of unenthusiastic host nations. The Jewish veterans – a handful of whom are still alive today – insist they’re not ashamed of what they did. But spend an evening in their company and talk to other members of the community who have examined the events in detail, and you soon realise the “accommodation”, a battlefield Sophie’s Choice, has left deep psychological scars.
Aron Livson’s first taste of military action came in 1939. A 23-year-old son of a milliner from the city of Vyborg, he was drafted into the army when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. In common with many Jews, he was determined to do his duty to the best of his ability, laying down his life for his country if necessary.
Almost without exception, the Jews of Finland descended from Russian soldiers who had been posted to the region during their military service. (Under Russian rule, Jews had been forced into the army at the age of 10 and made to serve for up to 25 years.) They were viewed with some suspicion by the rest of Finland, which itself had been ruled by Russia until its independence in 1917, and the war that broke out in 1939, known in Finland as the Winter War, was regarded by the small Jewish population as a chance to prove they were loyal Finnish citizens.
Livson fought in the Karelian Isthmus and, although the army was eventually forced to retreat by the far larger Russian force, he fought so valiantly, demonstrating such great skill and initiative, that he was promoted to sergeant.
For a while, an uneasy peace reigned between Finland and the Soviet Union, but, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his surprise invasion of the communist state, Finland saw an opportunity to regain the territory it had lost in the Winter War and joined forces with Germany.
Like all Jews, Livson had heard Hitler’s venomous tirades against his people. He knew something about Kristallnacht, the attacks against German Jewish homes, businesses, schools and synagogues in November 1938. But, when the orders arrived to rejoin the fight against Russia, he didn’t for one minute consider disobeying.
Livson is 97 now and a frailer version of the tough soldier he once was, but his voice remains loud and clear, his handshake firm and his opinions unwavering.
“I had to do my duty, like everyone,” he says. “We weren’t Jews fighting in a Finnish army – we were Finnish people, Finnish soldiers, fighting for our country.” We have met in the cafeteria in the basement of Helsinki’s synagogue, alongside Livson’s wife and other members of the Finnish Jewish Veterans Society. The atmosphere is friendly, jovial even, in the way conversations among veterans sometimes are, but there is no mistaking Livson’s serious intent. When he’s making an important point, he bangs a walking stick on the floor in unison with each word for emphasis.
As well as doing their duty as soldiers and proving their loyalty to their country, the veterans insist they were happy to fight for another reason: as far as they were concerned Finland and Germany were fighting separate wars, they say; one, a war of self-defence and one a war of conquest. “I had nothing to do with the Germans,” says Livson. “There were no Germans where I was serving. They were 200km north of my regiment.”
But not every Jew was so lucky. On the border with Russia, in the region of Karelia, Finnish and German troops fought side-by-side and Jews had to contend with two enemies: one in front of them and one within their ranks.
They lived in permanent fear of their identity being revealed, but, incredibly, on the occasions that it was, the German soldiers took the matter no further. The men were Finnish, they had the full support of their superior officers, and the Germans – while often shocked to find themselves fighting alongside Jews – did not have the authority to upbraid them. In fact, where they found themselves outranked by a Jewish officer, they were forced to salute.