Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Jews and the Crimea

In 2014, the Russian army seized control of the Crimea. This occurred after Russia claimed a referendum of Crimean citizens, many of whom are Russian nationals, overwhelmingly favored joining Russia and seceding from the Ukraine, which had controlled the Black Sea peninsula since February 19, 1954. One of the justifications for Russian occupation, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was to combat the anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists.

The Crimea has a long history of Jewish settlement, featuring the “krymchaks” (Crimeans in Russian), who were adherents to traditional rabbinic Judaism, and the Crimean Karaites, who rejected rabbinic Judaism. Excavated inscriptions found in the Crimea have dated a Jewish presence there to the first century BCE. Some argue that those Jews who survived the Hadrianic persecutions after the Bar Kochba revolt were exiled to the Crimea. In the late 7th century C.E., most of the Crimea fell to the Khazars, who ruled the Crimea through the tenth century. Legend claims that the Khazars converted to rabbinic Judaism, as recounted in R. Judah HaLevi’s Kuzari.

Around the year 1240, The Tatars (Mongols) conquered the Crimea along with much of Eastern Europe, and centuries later, formed an alliance with infamous Cossack Bogdan Chmielnicki who massacred tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews in 1648-1649. Many Jews who survived the pogroms were relocated to Tatar territory in the Crimea, while other ransomed Jews were redeemed by Crimean Jews and relocated there with them. The Russians annexed the Crimea in 1783, at which time 469 Jewish families lived on the peninsula. As Russia continued its hegemony over the Crimea, Jews from the Ukraine and Lithuania moved to the Crimea, adding about 60,000 Ashkenazic Jews to the peninsula’s Jewish population. The native Krymchaks numbered about 6,000 at that time. Rabbi Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1834-1904), author of the famed S’dei Chemed halachic encyclopedia, relocated to the Crimea from Istanbul and the Krymchaks soon became disciples of his. It is believed that Rabbi Medini married a Krymchak.

The 1917 Russian Revolution impacted on the Crimea, as civil war ripped apart its population. Many Krymchaks were killed in the fighting, and many moved to British Mandatory Palestine, the United States and Turkey. The Germans, who invaded the Crimea in June, 1941, targeted as Jews the Crimean Krymchaks, but not the Crimean Karaites. 6,000 Krymchaks perished in the Holocaust, amounting to about 75% of their remaining population. After the Red Army expelled the Germans from the Crimean Peninsula, tens of thousands of Jews returned.

Under Stalin’s regime, the remaining Krymchaks were forbidden to write in Hebrew letters, and synagogues and yeshivas were closed. There was brief discussion in the Kremlin about offering the Crimea to serve as a Jewish homeland, but those talks stalled with the U.N. vote to partition the British Mandate, creating a Jewish homeland. In 1954, the Soviet Union transferred the Crimea from the Russian republic to that of Ukraine.

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