Laura Ekholm: “Boundaries of an Urban Minority: The Helsinki Jewish Community from the End of Imperial Russia until the 1970s”. Lectio praecursoria 26.10.2013

VTM Laura Ekholmin talous- ja sosiaalihistorian alaan liittyvä väitös “Boundaries of an Urban Minority: The Helsinki Jewish Community from the End of Imperial Russia until the 1970s” tarkastettiin 26.10.2013 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori David Feldman (Birkbeck, University of London) ja kustoksena professori Sakari Heikkinen. Väitöskirja on luettavissa osoitteessa


Mr. Custos, Mr. Opponent, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my doctoral dissertation, I suggest that the history of Helsinki with its Jewish community will make an extraordinarily good case study for ethnic relations in modern societies.

The thread of my study has been to take one city with one urban minority, and follow and analyze it from different perspectives. My starting point is Helsinki which, for a long time as the capital city of independent Finland, had almost no immigration. Yet only one hundred years earlier during the Imperial era the same city was, in fact, a multilingual and heterogeneous provincial capital with large, multinational military garrisons.  I turned this into a research setting for my study focusing specifically on the Helsinki Jewish community.

In my speech today, I wish to address the question: in what ways might an historical perspective increase our understanding of the present world? I will first use two fictional works, one from 2006 and another from this fall 2013, both written by the same author, Kjell Westö, to illustrate my points.

In 2006, Kjell Westö published a book Där vi en gång gått written in Swedish and translated into Finnish as Missä kuljimme kerran. I will refer to the book by translating it as Where Once We Walked.

Where Once We Walked is an award-winning novel of class boundaries within Swedish-speaking Helsinki from the 1900s to the 1940s describing how the brutality of the Finnish civil war in 1918 kept tearing apart people’s lives and relationships in the city.

Westö was already a known author before publication of his Where Once We Walked, but it was this book that made him famous. Over the years the book has won eminent literary awards and it has been filmed and rendered on stage. It is safe to say that it has had more of a direct influence on the public’s sense of Finnish history than any of the publications coming out of academia.

Here I will use this book, which essentially deals with class boundaries, as an example of how Jews have often been portrayed in Finnish literature. The opening chapter describes the messy and noisy streets of Helsinki with Russians, Jews and Tatars. There is a square, Westö describes, “where most of the town’s Jews lived, near their newly-built synagogue; those who sold second-hand [goods] at Narinkka [the marketplace] and in their stores along Heikinkatu (Henriksgatan)”.

This is the only time Jews are mentioned in the book. Why do I point this out?

Because Kjell Westö, besides his skills as a narrator, is one of those authors who is very careful in studying the time period and context in which his novels are placed. A history-oriented reader can sometimes almost tell which books and which archives Westö has explored when composing his texts.

For example, the well-written studies of Professor Sven-Erik Åström, founder of the Economic and Social History Department at the University of Helsinki, may well have influenced the paragraph where Westö describes the Jews, Russians and Tatars in the working-class district.

Now, if a fiction writer is so attentive to the smallest of historical details when depicting life as it used to be – right down to the restaurants, jazz bands, movies, fashions, and politicians of the era – then I suggest his works may give an indication of the themes emphasized in the research literature itself.

And this is what I found so interesting: the description of the poor working-class streets and surroundings of the synagogue are so precisely written, including the Jewish Narinkka market. What is missing from this picture, however, are the Swedish-speaking educated bourgeois Jewish families. In Westö’s portrayal of the urban “modern” and “avant-garde” of the Swedish-speaking Helsinki of the 1920s to the 1940s, there appears no musician, tennis player, a doctor perhaps, or a lawyer with a Jewish background.  He makes no indication of a Jewish middle class that would, in light of my research findings, be an even more accurate portrayal of Helsinki at the time.

This oversight in Westö’s 2006 book serves as an example of the typical narrative on Jews in Finland. It is correct as such, yet one-sided and over-simplified.

This begs the question: What does it matter if the portrayal of a very small ethno-religious community is one-sided?

Or, addressed from a different point of view: Clearly, any historical study will contribute to our understanding of the past, but how exactly will this knowledge help us understand the present-day world?

The idea of history as important for its own sake is problematic because it is difficult to justify the importance of the historian’s work vis-à-vis the need to solve the current problems of humanity – cancer, climate change, nuclear safety – as hard sciences do at their best. It is especially difficult to justify if good fiction can have a more popular influence anyway.

This latter issue is something that my generation of scholars is trained to take as a starting point of our work. In the very first textbooks and university lectures, we are reminded that there is no authority called an “historian” possessing a monopoly or exclusive rights to the past. There is interaction between different actions and time-layers supplying impulses to both directions.

Kjell Westö came out with a new book in fall 2013 which highlights such a process. It is called Hägring 38, translated into Finnish as Kangastus 38 (Illusion or Mirage 38). The story, again, centers on the nightmare-like recollections of the 1918 civil war and the hovering fear of a new war approaching. Again, the book is vivid in its details about Helsinki in the late 1930s.

This time, in this newest book, there appears a character of Jewish descent belonging to the educated middle-class society. This tragic side-character is haunted by the rising antisemitism and, even more, by the inability of his friends to realize what is happening.

The book also features the discrimination against a Jewish athlete in the opening games of the Helsinki Olympic stadium, which is based on real events (although under changed names).

The games took place in June 1938. In the 100-meter sprint Abraham Tokazier, representing the Jewish sports association Makkabi, clearly won the race. There is even a photograph of the moment when the three athletes arrive at the finish line, clearly showing Abraham Tokazier was the winner.

However, when the formal results were announced, Tokazier received only fourth place. This, in brief, is what happened in 1938 and this is what Westö, in passing, recounts in his newest book.

I will now give an oversimplification of the unfolding of events in fall 2013. When Westö’s newest book came out, the media seized on Abraham Tokazier’s case, the event of the opening games at the Olympic stadium, and described it as a scandal instead of mentioning it as an “undefinable event”. Consequently, this fall the Finnish Amateur Athletic Association (Suomen Urheiluliitto SUL) made a formal apology to Tokazier’s family for the injustice committed 75 years ago and, as I understand from the news reports, the official results will be corrected in Finland.

If popular literature can effect such change in society, it is thanks in part to the ongoing research of historians.

A broader and longer historical perspective will give us dimensions and proportions to evaluate current problems. When migration, immigrant integration, or refugee questions are discussed, an historical perspective will help us compare this situation with past migration flows.

Historical awareness helps us ask good questions about the present, just as the present affects what we want to know about the past. It works in both directions.

Furthermore, an historical perspective can contribute to the social sciences and humanities and to the way we understand these studies. For example, much of the scholarly literature on ethnicity, including the literature I use in my study, has for a long time been primarily an Anglo-American domain. When taken in the context of continental Europe, sociological literature sometimes mistakenly assumes it is because ethnic minority communities would be only a relatively recent phenomenon in the continental Europe, connected to the post-Second World War period and post-colonial processes.

However, these themes were not discussed in post-war Europe because questions related to ethnic background and minorities had simply lost all credibility in post-Holocaust Europe. A longer perspective shows that many of the questions asked in ethnic studies today have, in fact, been asked before.

An historical awareness recalls the need of modern societies, as they were understood a hundred years ago, to classify and categorize people, citizens, languages, and races into neat statistical categories. The ideal of many theories and theorists of the modern era were inclined to natural sciences, the intent was to find taxonomies, distinctions and classifications within the human race that would be based on objective knowledge completely independent of any self-identification.

When these modern ideas were given political application, especially by totalitarian regimes, social engineering had tremendous consequences both terrible and extreme.  This is the other, dark side of modernity – denial of human dignity by using pseudo-scientific taxonomies.


Historians are, and should be, uncomfortable with any research that might instrumentalize the research setting. Historians and social scientists are, and should be, careful with the words chosen, and they should avoid any hidden connotations of a vocabulary that at first sight may seem neutral. This is why so much of the research is about defining the concepts used.

How does “ethnicity” as a term bear scrutiny?

Ethnicity, as understood today is a form of social organization, always negotiable and essentially based on interaction. This has a major impact on theories, methods and research practices. There are no “objective criteria” given to ethnicity and ethnic relations; there is nothing that would simply be out there, independent of the point of view of the human action. Moreover, the researcher is always involved in drawing ethnic boundaries in the very act of making them a research object. This is what makes social studies so challenging: the researcher is always involved in shaping the world he or she is studying.

Most researchers today agree on a few simple premises for ethnic groups: ethnic boundaries are based on a real or imagined shared past. This belief in shared past must be recognized by in-group members and outsiders alike.

These are the minimum elements required for ethnic identities and ethnic boundary-drawing: a belief in shared past, accepted by oneself and recognized by others.

The constellations and configurations of ethnicity may vary endlessly depending on time and place. There may be sharp distinctions between ethnic groups, the boundaries may be fixed and filled with tensions, or the ethnic identities may be fluid, overlapping, almost unrecognizable, and in constant change. My argument is that with the Helsinki Jewish community we can follow the process of how the ethnic boundaries transmute.

For instance, whenever asked about my research topic, the Helsinki Jewish community, I have learned to observe the reactions my research theme receives. There is a clear distinction in the replies I get, interestingly, based on the age of the questioner.

If I discuss it with someone who is about my age, the reply is usually either, “Are there really Jews in Finland?”, or, more often, I hear a personal story of a best friend from high school or a former colleague at work or boyfriend being a member of the Helsinki Jewish congregation.

The older generations have a different reaction. They either remember in detail at which Jewish store their family used to buy clothes or sometimes they will recall a teacher who told the kids “not to ever buy from Jews because they will always cheat you”.

This difference in the responses I receive from different generations is remarkable and begs the question: if Jewish background has become parenthetical knowledge, why pay attention to it at all?

My answer is this: If we accept the definition according to which ethnic groups are essentially based on a belief in a shared past, another aspect with a major impact on research strategies will be involved: history as a scholarly discipline will be in a key position for understanding ethnic relations.

Not discussing minorities, ethnicity, and social boundaries is also an act of power. Oblivion is not necessarily neutral and may have consequences too.

Here I refer to the Tokazier case I previously described as an example. Back in 1938, the event was first discussed in the newspaper but soon forgotten. For a long time it remained merely a family anecdote, mentioned at most in fragments.

In recent years, the research literature in Finland has begun to address the question of racism in general and antisemitism in particular. And only then an undefinable event becomes seen in its context – and taken seriously.

This is not about history in an essentialistic sense – as a story about interesting curiosities from the past – it is about history as a scholarly subject that deals with power: on selecting what to remember, who to include, where to start, and where to end.

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