Boundaries of an Urban Minority:
The Helsinki Jewish Community from the End of Imperial Russia until the 1970s
Ekholm Laura Katarina
In the period covered by this research, Helsinki evolved from a multilingual and heterogeneous military town of the Russian empire into the capital of an independent nation. As one of the few Eastern European Orthodox Jewish communities not destroyed in the Holocaust, the history of the Helsinki Jewish community offers a different set of spatial contexts that make this history an empirical case study of changing ethnic relations from one generation to another. My study suggests that empirical materials can be used as clues for teasing into existence the long-vanished practices of boundary-drawing done at various times in the past. Collecting and organizing information in archives is always guided by decisions that reflect the contemporary ideas of relevant and meaningful social categories. Consequently, as Jews ‘in Finland’ became Finnish Jews, the ethnic background subsequently lost its distinction in the archival material; in short, the sources gradually became “mute” in this respect. My research strategy is to focus on questions concerning the economic aspects of social boundaries, for example, whether the members of the Helsinki Jewish congregation were entrepreneurs or were self-employed. I have operationalized occupational status to analyze changes in the social position of the community. The occupational titles were collected from three different cross-section years and organized by using a Historical International Classification of Occupations (HISCO) Scheme. By combining the occupational titles with the data on the Jewish-owned companies, I have established a set of descriptive statistics. Supported by the findings of this empirical material, my study analyzes how the concept of Finnish Jews has taken shape over the entire period of this study. Contemporaries writing about the Jews of Finland did not use concepts of ‘ethnic boundaries,’ but nevertheless considered questions related to economic aspects as the key elements in modern societies. Such questions were a constant theme in modern economic antisemitism with a major influence on Jewish policies, such as the restriction of Jewish occupations in Finland until 1918, which in turn influenced the (counter-)narratives of Jewish business. This is what makes the Jewish occupations so interesting – and also makes discussing them such a sensitive issue. The community is an important part of the history of Helsinki, but it has only been accepted as a part of the larger Finnish society since the Second World War. During this process, Jews were clearly less frequently categorized as Jews and more frequently categorized by the professions they represented. In this study I have contextualized different aspects of what has been selected and written down as Finnish-Jewish history. This involves discovering the political positions of its various authors. All histories on the Finnish Jews have been written during the post-Second World War period and, in consequence, are unavoidably viewed through post-Shoah/Cold War lenses. In these writings, the national and transnational aspects are totally severed and become, indeed, mutually exclusive. The Jewish history of Helsinki is often told as a collective story, where each generation faces similar challenges and options. In this way, the past has been described as a joint striving for all Finnish Jews. In reality, wide economic differences have played an important role in what is ultimately a business-oriented community. In this narrative, the Jewish history has been reduced to a bare minimum in order to serve as a collective story. Consequently, in the histories of the city of Helsinki, Jews have either been described as poor, or they have not been remembered at all.