Karaim or Qaraylar, a Karaite Jewish community of Eastern Europe. Originally centered in the Crimean Peninsula, the Karaim were established in Lithuania and elsewhere in Europe from late medieval times.
The name Crimean Karaites is something of a misnomer, as many branches of this community found their way to locations throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their self-designation, Karaim, however, is insufficient, as it fails to distinguish the distinctive, Turkic-speaking Karaite community which originated in the Crimea from historically Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic-speaking Karaites of the Levant, Anatolia and the Middle East. For the purposes of this article, the terms "Crimean Karaites", "Karaim", and "Qaraylar" are used interchangeably, "Karaites" alone refers to the general Karaite branch of Judaism.
The Karaim developed a Kipchak Turkic tongue, based on the Crimean Tatar language but with heavy borrowing from Hebrew vocabulary and grammar. This distinctive language is known as Karaim, and was used as a communal lingua franca among Karaim throughout Eastern Europe. Hebrew remained in use for liturgical purposes, and following the Ottoman occupation of the Crimea, Turkish was used for business and government purposes.
Turkic speaking Karaites (in the Crimean Tatar language, Qaraylar) have lived in the Crimea for centuries. Their origin, is disputed. Some regard them as descendants of Karaite Jews who settled in the Crimea and adopted a form of the Kipchak tongue (see Karaim language). Others view them as descendents of Khazar (unlikely) or Kipchak (more likely) converts to Karaite Judaism. Whatever their origins, from the time of the Golden Horde onward, they were present in many towns and villages throughout the Crimea and around the Black Sea. Some of the major communities could be found in the towns of Çufut Qale, Sudak, and Bakhchisaray.
Karaims were agriculturists, some served in Crimean khan military.
In 1392 Grand Duke Vytautas of Grand Duchy of Lithuania relocated one branch the Crimean Karaites to Lithuania where they continued to speak their own language. The Lithuanian Karaites settled primarily in Vilna (Vilnius) and Troki (Trakai), but also in smaller settlements throughout Lithuania proper and lands of modern Belarus and Ukraine, that were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Karaim in Lithuanian territory were granted a measure of autonomy.
Some famous Karaim scholars in Lithuania included Isaac ben Abraham of Trakai (1533? - 1594?), Joseph ben Mordecai Malinovski , Zera ben Nathan of Trakai , Salomon ben Aharon of Trakai , Ezra ben Nissan (died in 1666) and Josiah ben Judah (died after 1658). Some of the Karaim became quite wealthy.
During the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Karaim suffered severely during the Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648 and the wars between Russia and Poland in the years 1654-1667, when many towns were plundered and burnt, including Trakai, where in 1680 only 30 families were left. Catholic missionaries made serious attempts to convert the local Karaims into Christianity, but ultimately were largely unsuccessful.
Nineteenth-century leaders of the Karaim, such as Simcha Babovitch and Avraham Firkovitch, were driving forces behind a concerted effort to de-Judaize the Karaite community in eyes of the Russian legal system. Ultimately, the Tsarist government officially recognized the Karaim as being of Turkic, not Jewish, origin, a political ruling that has little basis in historical fact. Because the Karaim were judged to be innocent of the death of Jesus, they were exempt from many of the harsh restrictions placed on other Jews.
Their status under Russian imperial rule bore beneficial fruits for the Karaim decades later. In 1934, the heads of the Karaite community in Berlin asked the Nazi authorities to exempt them from the regulations; on the basis of their legal status in Russia. The Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families determined that from the standpoint of German law, the Karaites were not to be considered Jews. The letter from the Reichsstelle fur Sippenforschung gave the official ruling in a letter which stated:
- The Karaite sect should not be considered a Jewish religious community within the meaning of paragraph 2, point 2 of the First Regulation to the Reich's Citizenship Law. However, it cannot be established that Karaites in their entirety are of blood-related stock, for the racial categorization of an individual cannot be determined without ... his personal ancestry and racial biological characteristics
- -(YIVO archives, Berlin Collection, Occ E, 3, Box 100, letter dated January 5, 1939)
This ruling set the tone for how the Nazis dealt with the Karaite community in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the Nazis had serious reservations towards the Karaites. SS Obergruppenfuhrer Gottlob Berger wrote on November 24, 1944:
- Their Mosaic religion is unwelcome. However, on grounds of race, language and religious dogma... Descriminiation against the Karaites is unacceptable, in consideration of their racial kinsmen. However, so as not to infringe the unified anti-Jewish orientation of the nations led by Germany, it is suggested that this small group be given the opportunity of a separate existence (for example, as a closed construction or labor battalion)
Despite their exempt status, confusion led to initial massacres. German soldiers who came across Karaim in Russia during the initial phase of Operation Barbarossa, not aware of their legal status under German law, attacked them; 200 were killed at Babi Yar alone. German allies such as the Vichy Republic began to require the Karaites to register as Jews, but eventually granted them non-Jewish status upon being instructed by Berlin.
On interrogation, Crimean rabbis told the Germans that the Karaim were not Jews, in an effort to spare the Karaite community the fate of their Krymchak and Ashkenazi neighbors. The record of the Karaite community during the war is a checkered one; while many Karaim risked their lives to hide Jews, and in some cases claimed that Jews were members of their community, others joined German auxiliary units such as the Tatar Legion , Ostturkische Waffenverband , an SS unit that included Crimean Tatars and other Turkic peoples. According to a letter of September 27 1944, penned by Chancellor Gerhard Klopfer, an estimated 500-600 Crimean Karaim were fighting in the Wehrmacht, Waffen SS and Tatar Legion. Klopfer asked that until such a time as the exact racial origin of the Karaites could be determined, a list of all members of the sect be dilligently kept. Many of the Karaim were recruited for labor battalions.
In Lutsk the Karaim generally cooperated with the Nazi anti-Jewish activities. In Vilna and Troki Karaite Hakham Seraj Szapszal gave precise lists of the members of their community, allowing the Nazis to quickly discover Jews bearing false Karaite papers.
Assimilation and emigration greatly reduced the ranks of the Karaim community. A few thousand Karaim remain in Lithuania, Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia. Other communities exist in Israel, Turkey, the United States, and Great Britain.
At the time of this writing (March 2005), genetic testing is being conducted to ascertain their ethnic origin.
- Blady, Ken. Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Jason Aronson, 2000.
- Friedmsn, Philip. "The Karaites under Nazi Rule". On the Tracks of Tyranny. London, 1960.
- Miller, Philip. Karaite Separatism in 19th Century Russia. HUC Press