The first Jews who settled in Finland were of Russian origin and were soldiers of the czar’s army, called cantonists. With its independence in 1917, the country promptly granted civil rights to the Jews. In 1939, when Finland became an ally of the Third Reich against the Soviet Union, Finnish Jews found themselves in the uneasy position of serving in an army allied with the Nazis: a prayer tent was even set up on the Russian front a stone’s throw from the Germans, and the community helped Soviet Jews who were prisoners of war observe dietary requirement. After 1945, the Jewish community reconstructed itself and gave, at the time of the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, the largest number of volunteers of all the Diaspora communities. Ben Zyskowicz, the Jewish premier of Finland who was elected deputy in 1979, is one of the best-known politicians of the capital. In 1999, the government caused a lively controversy by agreeing to help support financially the maintenance of the tombs of the Finnish Waffen SS who died in the Ukraine.
The number of Jews living in Finland today is about 1500, of which 1200 live in Helsinki, while 200 live in Turku and 50 in Tampere.