The Crimean Peninsula, which extends into the Black Sea, has been home to a succession of dominant cultures. Among the many who have settled in this region have been Jews, whose presence there is recorded as far back as the first century C.E. In fact, there is a fascinating document describing how the Jews freed their slaves on condition that they convert and join the community, which the former slaves did.
The Jewish community stayed in the Crimea when the Huns invaded in the fourth century, and when the Byzantines arrived in the sixth century. When the Khazars took over the region in the seventh century, the Jews found like-minded rulers, especially after the Khazar nobility converted to Judaism. At this time, the Crimean Jewish community also absorbed Jewish refugees fleeing Byzantium persecution.
In the mid-13th century, the area was conquered by the Tatars and the Mongols, who remained the dominant culture even when the area was under Turkish rule until the area was annexed by Russia in the late 18th century. This was a critical time for the development of a unique Jewish community. While Jews from all over had migrated to Crimea, the distinctions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic had disappeared so that the community not only had their own distinct nusach (customs in prayer) but also their own patois language as well. Like other Jewish tongues, Krymchak, as it later came to be called (when the community labelled themselves in order to distinguish themselves from more recent Ashkenazic communities), was a meld of the local language and Hebrew. In this case, Crimean-Tatar and Hebrew. It was written in Hebrew characters.
By the 20th century, the Krymchak population was a shrinking community, having faced first Russian persecution and then Soviet oppression. The community’s fate, however, was tragically sealed when the Nazi High Command in Berlin ruled that the Krymchaks were not to be seen as a distinctive community and were to be treated like all other Jews (some other distinct communities were given exemptions).
More than half the Krymchak population was murdered, and assimilation and social pressure took care of the rest. In the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence in interest in the Krymchak language and descendants of this unique community have been trying to preserve their near extinct linguistic history.
Sunday September 4, 2016, is the European Day of Jewish Culture, which this year will be celebrating Jewish Languages.
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