Algoth Niska was a Finnish athlete and bootlegger who saved 151 Jews during the Holocaust.
Algoth was born in Viipuri, Finland in 1888. As a youth, he excelled in soccer and played on the Finnish national team at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. During World War I, Algoth entered navigation school and got married and divorced twice. In 1919, Finland, like the US, enacted a law prohibiting alcohol and Algoth saw a lucrative business opportunity. An experienced sea-goer, he bought a boat and started smuggling liquor from Sweden, Germany and Estonia into Finland.
Algoth became known to bon vivants in Finland as the man who could get a large variety of intoxicants. He tried to keep ahead of the police boats, but was shot at and arrested multiple times. Algoth served prison sentences in both Finland and Sweden. Though a tough seadog, he was well-liked by prison authorities and often released early.
In 1938, Algoth’s focus shifted to a new kind of illegal cargo: Jews. Finland was relatively safe for Jews at the time, but Germany was becoming a death trap. Over the next year and a half, Algoth took German Jews over land and sea to Finland, thus saving them from concentration camps. He provided the Jewish refugees with passports – some stolen, and some fake.
Algoth refused payment for smuggling Jews. Perhaps he welcomed the opportunity to redeem himself for past mistakes. In 1939, Algoth’s smuggling operation was discovered by the Nazis. He fled to Estonia, only to find that the Soviet Union had occupied the country. Finally, Algoth returned to Finland in a rowboat.
After the war, Algoth was broke. He made a little money from writing two books about his colorful life. Algoth died of a brain tumor in 1954 at the age of 65. Twice divorced, he left two children. Well-known Finnish musician Ilkka Lipsanen is his grandson.
For risking his life to save 151 Jews, we honor Algoth Niska as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.
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