A reader recently wrote to ask me about Jewish activity in Helsinki, where she’ll spend a few days as part of a tour of Russia.
Never having visited Finland, I was intrigued. Norway and Sweden are the better-known Scandinavian destinations, their profiles raised with continuous buzz over Peace Prizes and Ikea. What lies in store for the Jewish traveler in exotic, far-flung Helsinki?
To help answer my question, I wrote to Andre Zweig, a prominent member of the city’s Jewish community, who operates a company that offers day tours of Jewish Helsinki. It turns out that Finland is more Jewish than one might imagine. In terms of proportions, it has a relatively large community that is “hupper dupper active,” as Zweig puts it, with about 1,400 Jews.
That’s down from a postwar high of 2,200. Postwar, you ask? Didn’t Finnish Jews largely perish, along with their brothers and sisters elsewhere in Europe?
In fact, Finns take pride in the staunch refusal of their king to turn over its Jews to the Nazis for deportation — this, despite the fact that Finland was allied with Axis Germany during World War II. Finnish Jews, many of them the descendants of Russian-Jewish soldiers who stayed here during the 19th century, fought alongside their Christian compatriots in the Resistance, and the only Jews who perished, according to many sources, were a handful of foreign refugees.
Remote and woodsy, Finland is a land of midnight sun and thick evergreen forests. Until 200 years ago it was part of the Kingdom of Sweden, which only permitted Jews to settle in a few designated areas — none of which happened to be in Finland. So those Ashkenazic soldiers in the early 1800s were among the first to sow a Jewish presence here under the Russian mandate, although their only permitted occupation was to sell used clothing.
“As we say, schmatte business,” observed Zweig. “But the schmatte business worked very well also here. Not only in New York!”
When Finland finally became independent a century later, Jews received full civil rights and began fully integrating into Finnish society. Today there are 100 children enrolled in a Jewish school, a Chabad organization, thriving social service organizations and a kosher deli (visitors take note).
“And we have a great cantor,” added Zweig, a man of many talents. “You can guess who it is!”
Along with the Jewish community, Finns overall have flourished in the past century, evolving into one of the world’s most prosperous, liberal and well-educated societies.
With all those assets, Finns enjoy the good life: long, golden summer days that stretch well beyond dinnertime, and abundant sea views, as Helsinki is almost entirely surrounded by water. The ideal time to visit is June through August, a season that kicks off with a nationwide Midsummer festival.
Helsinki is about a three-hour flight from most central European cities, though a large proportion of its visitors arrive via Baltic cruises, and a growing number take advantage of thrice-daily train service from Russia. Zweig, who has been leading Jewish heritage tours for a decade, often picks up travelers from their cruise ships.
Tours last four hours, easily managed within a port-of-call itinerary, and might include an additional two-hour excursion to the historic town of Porvoo.
“Helsinki is a beautiful city, famous for its architecture, music, Sibelius,” Zweig said. The tour covers city highlights, and then arrives at the synagogue and Jewish center, where visitors learn about Finnish-Jewish history and are treated to a concert. Zweig then escorts guests to their ship or hotel.
For independent travelers, Helsinki’s sights can easily be navigated on foot; it is surprisingly compact for a city of a half-million. In a region known for a strong aesthetic sensibility, it is no surprise that Finnish architecture and streetscapes are among Helsinki’s chief lures.
Art lovers can choose from three very different collections that constitute the Finnish National Gallery. The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma is a swirling, modern sweep of a building with multimedia exhibits, photography and participatory theater. Finnish painting and sculpture is the focus of the Ateneum, while the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, an elegant 19th-century grande dame of an edifice, is Finland’s only venue for what its Web site describes, rather clunkily, as “old European art” with an emphasis on Dutch and Flemish masters, the Italian baroque, and an impressive array of glassware, porcelain and silver.
But what Finland is really known for is its music. Finland has a passionate classical-music culture, nurtured by the government and a network of conservatories. With just a half-million residents, Helsinki boasts two symphony orchestras, two opera houses and myriad theaters.
Legendary composer Jean Sibelius is a national hero; his architect-designed country estate, a modern wooden structure called Ainola, is one of the country’s top attractions. Easily reached by a bus from central Helsinki, Ainola opens for the summer on May 1, and offers a glimpse into Finnish décor, lifestyle and musical traditions of the early 20th century.
The Helsinki Philharmonic plays, appropriately, in Finlandia Hall; typical of its inventive programming is a late-May series with the Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, featuring works by Ravel, Mozart, the young Argentine composer Esteban Benzecry, and the 32-year-old Finnish-educated Peruvian Jimmy López.
As the cultural year winds down in June, summer festivals pop up in small, picturesque towns all over southern Finland. The Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, the Savonlinna Opera Festival, and the Pori Jazz Festival attract top talent from around the world, and are just a few of the offerings a short distance from Helsinki.
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