Thursday, September 10, 2009

Once Upon a Time There Were Karaites in Romania

Because my family came from Romania in the 1890s, it's only natural to assume that there would have been left behind members of the community that never migrated to North America. That being the case, then finding the remnants of the Karaite community should be simple. But they're gone, vanished, obliterated so to speak, leaving one to ask the qustion, "What has happened to the Karaites that were in Romania?" Once in North America the family spent very little time discussing life back in Peatra Neamt. And since they left in the 19th century they would have lost all contact with Romania during the post World War II communist purge. Well faced with this lacuna in knowledge, I thought about it and realized I probably owe it to my ancestors and any family that may have been left behind to find out exactly what did happen to them. Family wise I know that some emigrated to Hungary from Romania and then on to Israel in the twentieth century but that was only a handful and not necessarily representative of the community. There were still hundreds unaccounted for.

It is said that Karaites in the Ukraine that live in the western provinces of the country are slowly becoming extinct. Therefore it is no surprise to me that this may have already occurred to the small pockets of Karaim in Romania. After all, if the Ukraine with its significant Karaite population in the Crimea can't sustain its smaller pockets outside this region, then how would it have been possible for Romania to do so. There is a report that in the town of Galich, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of the Ukraine there are only five Karaite women left and they are all betwen the age of 70 and 90. It would be safe to say that the Karaite presence in Galich does not have much longer to survive. It is only the existence of the Crimean Karaites today that suggests that in the past there had been a healthy Karaite Jewish presence around the Black Sea, including in parts of today's Romania, primarily in the trading ports from the mouths of the Danube and the Dneister Rivers; their presence in Moldavia definitely occuring by the 16th century but may have been even earlier.
Even by 1914 the presence of Karaites in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was becoming scarce. The Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, prohibited Karaites from military service fearing that the Karaites were so few that they could be counted on one hand and if he permitted them to be killed at the front, then the nation would die out completely. Franz Joseph was not prepared to allow that to happen.

The Karaites in the Ukraine built their temples (kenessa) but the last one was erected in Galich in 1836 and remained functional for 120 years. It was that same time period that my third great grandfather left Brody Galicia under a cloud of controversy and I can only hope that this was not related to the demise of the Galich community at that time.

A hundred years ago in the Western Ukraine there were ten Karaite communities. In Galich there were 167 Karaites but after 1939, when the town came under Soviet rule they unsurprisingly, began to die out. When Nikita Krushchev came to power in the 1950s, the communists decided to destroy the religion of the Karaites for whatever reason.Perhpas simply because it was an ancient religion which went against the communist party stance that there is no God. They claimed it was the community's refusal to do military service but so few hardly made a difference. The communists confiscated their property, exterminated their community and completely destroyed the temple buildings. Karaites were even blacklisted by the Committee of State Security of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and documents regarding their participation in anti-Soviet activities were kept by the KGB. These documents included the efforts in the 1940s of two Karaite women, Yelena and Hannah Leonovicha, who were known members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, to hide members of the resistance in their home. They also called for the overthrow of the Stalinist regime which resulted in Yelena being stripped of her citizenship for 5 years and sentenced to 10 years in the gulag while Hannah took refuge in an Orthodox church which they set on fire, burning her alive.
The Communist propaganda machine used the activities of Yelena and Hanna Leonovicha as proof of the terrorist threat represented by the Galician Karaites. The communists banned the opening of a Karaite museum displaying domestic artefacts, ritual objects and archive materia. They then completed the job by destroying the last Karaite temple and still not satisfied started destroying the ancient Karaite cemetery in the village of Zaluvka in the Ivan-Frankivsk region. This cemetery had existed for 500 years and had even remained untouched by the Nazis in the Second World War. With official approval, Soviet citizens were permitted to cart away headstones, smash memorials and destroy the graves. With these events occurring with the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that the small communities in Romania also vanished without even a mention.

I'd like to believe that I am wrong and that should I visit Romania in the near future that I find that the old communities still exist. But I really don't hold out much hope for that possibility. I think those of us that have survived did so only because of the migrations in the nineteenth century and those that remained found themselves lost in the Soviet purges. Sadly that has been a historical reality of Karaites. But we're still here and that in itself is a miracle. And that means there's hope that some day we will be able to restore the community to its once glorious past.

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