By Simo Muir
(First published in Helsingin Sanomat, 27 January 2018)
The sister of 1930s’ film star Hanna Taini died in the Holocaust – the family remained silent about the murdered sister and her daughter for seven decades
Ruth Kamtsan from Helsinki recalls listening through the door, as a child, to the conversation of adults. It was a few years after the war, in the early 1950s. Ruth was born in 1946, so was still a little girl.
A relative from Riga, father’s uncle, had come to visit. Father and the Riga uncle were speaking in another room. Or, rather, the uncle was speaking. Father was weeping.
Ruth Kamtsan’s father, Bernhard, was the son of the Helsinki-Jewish Schlimowitsch family. Ruth had always believed that she had two aunts on her father’s side, aunt Ester and aunt Hanna. Hanna was the celebrity of the family—the famous movie star Hanna Taini, known throughout all Finland before the war.
But now Dad told her that Ruth had a third aunt, Martha. And that Martha had a daughter.
So Ruth heard from her father of her aunt and cousin, of whom the family had never spoken in the past. At the time, father told Ruth that aunt Martha had disappeared along with her daughter. Then the silence returned, and no-one ever spoke of them again.
Ruth Kamtsan’s grandparents, Mendel and Rebecka Schlimowitsch’s, had five children. Ruth’s father Bernhard was the middle of the siblings. He gained two little sisters: Martha (b. 1909) and Hanna (b. 1911).
There were five children in the Schlimowitch family in Helsinki. Martha sits to the left. Besides mother Rebecka stands the youngest child Hanna.
The Schlimowitsch siblings were third-generation Helsinkians and attended Swedish-language schools in the city. The family faced a major tragedy in 1921 when the children’s mother died. Hanna—the youngest— was only ten years old; Martha was twelve.
This was not the last of their adversities: Two years later, the father died as well. Despite this, the siblings decided to stay together, and the younger children were not placed with other families.
Hanna started acting early on in the Yiddish Theater Society in Helsinki. On one occasion, at the Fazer Café, a photographer noticed her extraordinary beauty and suggested that she have a test shoot. The encounter led to Hanna’s first film role in 1929 when she was only 18 years old. It was at this time that she adopted the stage name Hanna Taini.
The Helsinki Jewish Community maintained close contact with other Jewish communities in the Baltic States. In the summer of 1938, for example, Finns participated in Jewish sports competitions organized in Liepaja in Latvia. For a small community, youth meetings of this kind were also important for identifying a Jewish spouse.
Martha—the second little sister of Ruth Kamtsan’s father Bernhard—became acquainted with a businessman from Riga on a similar Latvian trip. Salman Kir conquered Martha’s heart, and the wedding was celebrated the following year (1939). At the outbreak of the Second World War, Martha and Salman’s daughter was born. The young couple named their daughter Ruth (born late 1939).
Martha settled in Latvia after her wedding. At that time, Riga was an international and multilingual city with more than 40,000 Jewish inhabitants. Shortly after the birth of Martha’s baby, in June 1940, Soviet troops occupied Latvia. From then onward, the Jews suffered oppression. The new rulers abolished Zionist organizations and Hebrew schools. Thousands of Jews were deported to Siberia, but Martha and Salman managed to avoid expulsion.
However, their concerns did not end there. On the contrary, Nazi-German troops reached Riga only a year later, on the first day of July 1941. The persecution of the Jews began immediately. Martha’s husband Salman was arrested early in July with countless other Jewish men. The Einsatzgruppe A, the extermination unit that came with the Wehrmacht, commenced executions. In collaboration with the Latvian auxiliary police forces led by Viktors Arajs, the unit put to death an unknown number of Jewish men during the summer and early autumn.
No information is available regarding the final destiny of Salman Kir; after he had been taken by the Nazis, however, he was not seen again. The Latvian research project, ‘Jews of Latvia: Names and Fates 1941–1945’, reveals that Martha’s fate, and that of her year-old daughter Ruth, was sealed only one month after Salman had disappeared.
The Germans had established a ghetto in the poor Moscow District of Riga, and Martha was forced to move there with Ruth and 29,000 other Riga Jews. The conditions in the ghetto were miserable. Weekly food per person was restricted to 175g of meat, 100g of butter, and 100g of sugar.
In October 1941, the Nazis fenced off the ghetto with barbed wire. All remaining contact with the outside world was finally cut off. By the end of the same year, the Nazis initiated the liquidation of the Riga ghetto and its captive inhabitants—they wanted the area cleared to make room for Jews expelled from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Prior to this, the Nazis had moved Jewish men of working capacity to a separate ghetto.
In the morning of 30 November 1941, a group of more than two thousand SS-men and Latvian volunteers drove women, children and the elderly out of their homes and forced them into lines, then moved their prisoners out of the ghetto.
The distance to the killing site in the Rumbula Forest is six miles. Those incapable of walking were gunned down on the spot by the Nazis. Once in the woods, the prisoners were ordered to undress, driven to mass graves, and forced to lie down on the bodies of those previously murdered. The killing team assembled by the Nazis then opened fire on them with automatic guns. Many did not die from the shooting, instead experiencing death by burial alive.
The murder squad executed nearly 13,000 Riga Jews on that day. The same process took place on 9 December, after which 25,000 ghetto inmates had been murdered. There is no information about the fate of Martha and Ruth specifically; most likely, however, they ended up with the other ghetto inhabitants in the Rumbula mass graves.
During the Continuation War (1941–44), Finnish Jews found themselves in the invidious position of fighting as brothers-in-arms with the Germans. However, Jewish life in Finland continued much like the lives of their compatriots.
Bernhard (the elder brother of Martha and Hanna) served as a Russian interpreter during the transfer of prisoners-of-war. The youngest Schlimowitsch sibling, Hanna, pursued her acting career, appearing on the stage of the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki, as well as in numerous films.
The Jews were not ignorant of the situation for their kindred in the German occupied lands. News of ghettos and forced relocations filtered through via the Swedish press. Many, such as the Schlimowitsch family, tried to maintain contact with their relatives in the ghettos, becoming increasingly worried when their correspondence faltered.
The youngest of the Schlimowitsch children, Hanna Taini, fell from the public eye in 1943. Leaving her to appeal to family friends. Later researchers have considered whether or not antisemitism in Finland, and the production company Suomi-Filmi’s close connections with Germany, exacerbated Taini’s popular marginalization. Stories related within the family support this proposition.
Taini’s daughters have recalled how their mother spoke of feeling like an unwanted person at the Swedish Theatre because of her Jewishness, and of having to leave the company. It is also perhaps not too farfetched to surmise that the shock of her sister’s fate, coupled with growing concern over her own future, also impinged upon Taini’s withdrawal.
Whatever the case, Hanna Taini was only 32 years of age when she fell from Finnish movie stardom. For the remainder of her working life she was employed in the family’s hat shop on Aleksanterinkatu Street.
Verified reports of the systematic destruction of European Jewry reached the Finnish–Jewish community at the end of 1942. Only a little earlier in Finland, eight Jewish refugees were deported to Germany. The authorities assured the community of their safety, but fear of further possible deportations nevertheless placed them under considerable strain. Only with the Moscow Armistice of 1944 did these concerns disappear.
After the Second World War, the whole horror of the Concentration Camps and Death Camps was revealed. Like the Schlimowitsch family, many Finnish Jews had lost close family members. The first extensive memorial service for victims of the Holocaust was held in the Helsinki Synagogue in April 1946.
However, in public, Finnish Jews wanted to distance themselves from the Holocaust. For example, when the World Jewish Congress inquired in 1946 about the community’s intention to erect a monument to the victims of the Jewish genocide, the answer was negative. In addition, the community refused to support the memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which was unveiled in 1948. Instead, Finnish Jews wanted to establish a memorial for the fallen Jewish soldiers of the Winter and Continuation Wars.
In the unstable post-war political climate, the Holocaust was an extremely sensitive issue. Speaking after the war, Interior Minister Toivo Horelli stated that the expulsion of Jewish refugees during the Continuation War, in November 1942, had been ‘a purely police operation’.
The political leadership of the country wanted thus to emphasize that Finland was in no way involved in the Third Reich’s crimes against humanity. Finns sought to remain silent on issues that could have enabled the Soviet Union to label the country as fascist. It was only in 1970 that the memorial to the Jewish Victims—completed in cooperation with Sam Vanni and Harry Kivijärvi—was unveiled on the wall of the Helsinki Synagogue.
Ruth Kamtsan traveled to Riga last summer. It was her first visit to the city in which her silenced aunt, her silenced cousin and her silenced father had lost their lives in the genocide of European Jewry 76 years earlier. Kamtsan’s visit included the Riga Jewish Museum, and she also went to the Moscow District, which in 1941 had been the scene of an unspeakably cruel series of events. Kamtsan has obtained more information regarding her aunt’s fate—information that has not been easy to absorb.
In winter 2018, amidst the melting snow of Helsinki, Ruth Kamtsan is trying to imagine what her cousin, seven years her senior, would have been like. A cousin she never met, but whose memory she has carried all her life in her own name. How would her cousin’s life have turned out had she not been murdered in the Holocaust aged just one? Ruth Kir would be 78 years old today.
The author works as a researcher at University College London, and was formerly Research Fellow for the international research project Performing the Jewish Archive.