From Chufut-Kale to Lenindorf: How Jews arrived in Crimea

The historian Mykhailo Tiahly discusses the Krymchaks and Karaites, and the peninsula’s Jewish history. 

The historian Serhii Plokhy calls Ukraine the “gates of Europe,” a country on the border of East and West. Owing to constant wars, campaigns, border changes, and migrations, these territories turned into a multiethnic mosaic. Part of it is Crimea, which over the course of two thousand years was settled by Greeks, Goths, Byzantines, Italians, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians. Jews also were able to find their niche in the life of the peninsula. Mykhailo Tiahly, who studies Jewish history, talked about them and when they first arrived in the Greek colonies.

Mykhailo Tiahly:  Jews first appeared in Crimea in the first century of the Common Era; in other words, two thousand years ago. There is a hypothesis that this happened even earlier, but starting approximately in the first century, first and foremost on the territory of the Kerch Peninsula, we have exact information about the existence of a Jewish community. First of all, this is archaeology; second, epigraphy, inscriptions on stones and gravestones. This also concerns the vicinity of today’s Sevastopol and its environs. Inscriptions on marble slabs called “manumission” are well known. These represent the legal act attesting that in the Jewish community, in some families, there was a slave, for example. I remind you that this is the period of antiquity when slavery existed. In keeping with Jewish tradition, in the seventh year, a slave was to be given his or her freedom. And this is exactly what these inscriptions attest. This attests to a Jewish presence of two thousand years in Crimea.

Where did they come from? From neighboring regions, above all from Asia Minor. Here we must mention ancient rulers and tsars, wars, Mithradates VI Eupator (the last king of Pontus—Ed.). Thanks to these contacts, which often had a military character, the Jews ended up in Crimea.

Andriy Kobalia:  As you explained, the Jews arrived in Crimea via military contacts and trade routes. The peninsula was always multiethnic. In other words, they coexisted with other peoples who had arrived here earlier? Who else was living in  Crimea at this time?

Mykhailo Tiahly:  Yes, above all, Greeks lived there. Because we know that Chersonesus once stood on the site of today’s Sevastopol. Jewish settlers integrated into the Greek communities. We even encounter the logical phenomenon of their adoption of Greek names. And in their daily life, they differed little from others, apart from religion and language. These two things remained. And later we see a rather complicated picture. In the fifth and sixth centuries, Byzantium gains control of Crimea. And we see that in the seventh and eighth centuries Crimea is within the sphere of influence of the Khazar Khaganate. Later, the Polovtsians and Pechenegs arrived. Because of all these changes, there is a certain lack of sources to be able to talk about the continuation of the Jewish community’s existence. A new wave of settlers to Crimea arrives in the thirteenth century. Many Jews also arrive during the period marked by the influx of the Mongols.

Andriy Kobalia:  We have few sources dating to the Early Medieval period. Can we say that those Jews who ended up on the peninsula were an absolutely different group? Did they settle where their predecessors had lived?

Mykhailo Tiahly:  The new wave settled both in new places and areas where Jews had lived earlier. We can mention the city of Staryi Krym, which was called Solkhat at the time and initially was the capital of the Crimean ulus of the Golden Horde. And there is also a place located near Bakhchysarai. Everyone knows it as the very attractive cave-city of Chufut-Kale, which for some time was the capital of the Crimean Khanate. Later, when this role was taken over by Bakhchysarai in the sixteenth century, for some time this city remained the center where the Jewish community resided. The thirteenth century marks the beginning of active Genoese colonization and trading posts in the southern Crimea, where Jews formed a large share of the population. They engaged in trades and commerce.

Andriy Kobalia:  To listeners not familiar with this subject, the combination of Mongols and Jews seems very bizarre. How was the Mongol invasion able to contribute to the rise of Jews?

Mykhailo Tiahly:  In the general understanding, the Mongols are something monolithic, but in fact, they were not a homogeneous, monolithic group but a conglomerate of tribes. Various groups and families searching for a better life joined them on their route. We know about a separate group of Crimean Jews, the Krymchaks. They are the descendants of settlers who arrived in Crimea in the thirteenth–sixteenth centuries from the Caucasus; Spain, from where they were expelled in 1492; and Kyiv, from where the Jews were expelled in 1495.  Until recently it was possible to trace their surnames. When we see Gurdzhi, for example, this is a Jew from the Caucasus. Lambrosa or Piastro—these are “Italian Jews” who ended up on the peninsula thanks to the Genoese colonies. The Ashkenazi is a settler from Eastern Europe or even Germany because the Ashkenazis are German Jews. The name Liakhno is from the lands of Ukraine because it comes from the word liakh, which recalls Polish–Ukrainian relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In other words, the waves were very different. And this determined the significant diversity of the Jewish population in Crimea because these are not simply people from various countries and regions. Each one has his own rituals and habits. This led to the fact that, in modern Feodosia, then called Kaffa, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, one of the influential leaders of the Jewish community, Moshe Gagola, contributed to the creation of a single prayer for various groups. In this way, he wanted to consolidate the local Jewish community.

Andriy Kobalia:  During the Middle Ages Jews from various corners of the world came to Crimea. The Crimean Khanate originated in the fifteenth century, and it became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. In the eighteenth century, the Russian Empire captured Crimea. How did the Jews, Crimean Tatars, and other peoples coexist during those several hundred years?  What was Bakhchysarai’s policy toward the Jews?

Mykhailo Tiahly:  You couldn’t call the Khanates’ policy intolerant. We know that in Islam those who were not considered coreligionists had to pay certain taxes. But one cannot say that these measures were all that discriminatory. In the sixteenth century, the Jews continued to live in Chufut-Kale, and local traders could work in Bakhchysarai, but they had to go back to spend the night. There were some cultural and financial restrictions.

Andriy Kobalia:  Crimean Jews were not homogeneous either. The peninsula was settled by Karaites, Krymchaks, and Ashkenazis. The former practically had a monopoly on the tobacco business during the Russian imperial period. At one time, the Cohens, a famous Karaite family, moved from Crimea to Kyiv, where it financed the building of the Karaite Kenasa, today the Actor’s Building. The historian Mykhailo Tiahly discussed who the Krymchaks were and how the Ashkenazis differed from them.

Mykhailo Tiahly:  This is another group of Jews. In fact, they are the descendants of settlers who ended up in Crimea in the thirteenth–fifteenth centuries. I will explain briefly. Imagine these Jewish communities existing in a Crimean Tatar environment. In the religious sense, of course, they remain Jews; they have synagogues, the Torah, and the Talmud. But their daily language, customs, traditions, and even cuisine become like their environment. In this way Turkification takes place. But they call themselves “sons of Israel.”

What happens later? In 1783 the Russian Empire annexes the Crimea. Within a few years, it is included within the Pale of Settlement. It turns out that some settlers from former Polish territories are coming to Crimea. And these Jews do not resemble one another. The Jews here speak the Crimean Tatar language on a daily basis and did not have a high level of education. They work as tradesmen and traders. But the migrants are an absolutely different world. They came from the territories of the Rzeczpospolita, which was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century. So, a unique identity begins forming among the Jews who had been living here for a long time, and the term “Krymchak” appears. Scholars have proposed various hypotheses about the exact date that this term appeared. According to the most likely version, the local Jews called the Ashkenazi Jews who arrived on the peninsula “Krymchakis.” Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, the Krymchaks themselves adopt this name.

Andriy KobaliaHalf a century after the Krymchaks finally accepted this name, the Russian Empire ceased to exist. In the 1920s the majority of the lands fell under Bolshevik control, but before this happened these territories were overwhelmed by chaos. The historian Mykhailo Tiahly says that Crimea managed to avoid this situation almost completely.

Mykhailo Tiahly:  In 1919 the Crimea, unlike many other Ukrainian regions where there were pogroms, was a relatively peaceful place. This was determined by the dynamic activities of various popular Zionist parties. Several Jewish agricultural colonies were established, in which young people were taught the basics of agricultural labor, so that later they would settle in Palestine, where they could live normally.

After the Civil War, in 1921 the Crimea became part of the RSFSR, and part of the USSR in 1922. The Agro-Joint project began to be implemented here; this was a subsidiary of the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation. Its assistance was aimed at resettling in the Crimea Jews from those regions of Ukraine and Belarus that had suffered from the pogroms. In the 1920s and 1930s Crimean cities were home to nearly forty thousand Jews, and another twenty thousand came to villages as part of this program. Two separate Jewish national districts, Fraydorf and Lorindorf, were created. Three more existed in southern Ukraine—all this taking place against the background of the Soviet policy of indigenization.

Andriy Kobalia:  The period when Ukrainian signs appeared in Ukrainian cities.

Mykhailo Tiahly:  Yes, it lasted from the second half of the 1920s until the beginning of the 1930s. In Crimea, it took place just like you said. In fact, the propaganda goals of the agricultural experiment were bigger. I think that the Soviet government failed, but not because Jews did not want to work on the land. At one time I was in contact with many former collective farm members, who were very satisfied with this period of their lives. In those years there were nearly eighty Jewish collective farms on the peninsula. In 1939 there were 65,000 Jews living in Crimea; two-thirds of them, of course, lived in cities. There was little that was Jewish about these collective farms if you compare them to the colonies that were founded by Zionists with names like Tel Hai (“Hill of Life”). On Soviet collective farms, Hebrew was banned as the language of bourgeois nationalism and Zionism, but Yiddish was considered a Jewish proletarian language. That is why those eighty collective farms had names like Lenindorf (“Lenin’s Village”), Nayveg (“New Way”).

If we are talking about the Second World War, the Nazis occupied the Crimea in early November 1941. At first, they took control of the main cities, with the exception of Sevastopol, which the Germans tried to capture until mid-1942. In this history, the Crimea has several features that are also characteristic of the territories in eastern Ukraine. This was no longer July or August. Many people had managed to be evacuated. Crimean Jews were deeply integrated into administrative structures. That is why they left as part of enterprises and farms. Crimea was home to both “traditional Jews,” whom the Germans had already encountered, and to Karaites and Krymchaks. Each group numbered between seven to eight thousand. The Germans didn’t know what to do with them.

They had encountered Karaites in Poland and Lithuania. In Germany in 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were introduced in the Third Reich, the Karaites appealed to the Germans to exempt them from discrimination because they were not Jews, and in the Russian Empire they were not considered Jews. That is why they achieved temporary success in the Crimea. The Krymchak population was not widespread outside the borders of the Crimea. The Nazis recruited local experts from Symferopil and Kerch. They also appealed to Berlin for guidance.  A report prepared by Einsatzgruppe D, one of four punitive detachments responsible for this policy, states that the Krymchaks are Jews who came from Italy four hundred years ago. Thus, eighty percent of the small Krymchak community was exterminated.

Andriy Kobalia:  Like in other Ukrainian territories, regular army units, police, and the SS took part in the Holocaust, in addition to Einsatzgruppen. Ghettos practically did not exist on the territory of the peninsula. Shootings took place not far from the areas where the Jews had resided for centuries. According to estimates compiled by contemporary historians, during the occupation of Crimea, the Nazis exterminated nearly forty thousand Jews.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.