The Karaim

Back in May 2001, I visited the town of Trakai in Lithuania. A mini-bus took me and a handful of Japanese tourists the 30 or so km from Vilnius bus station and dropped us off outside Trakai’s tourist attraction, the restored Trakai Castle situated romantically in lake Galvė. While the others headed across the footbridge to the castle with their cameras at the ready, I wandered by myself the length of the little town to see what I could find of the Karaim.

Karaism is a non-Talmudic Mosaic faith and the Karaim, or Karaites, are a dispersed people with what are generally regarded as Semitic but sometimes, probably fancifully, as Turkic roots, living in scattered communities across the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East.

Historically in what is today Ukraine, Karaim lived in towns such as Lutsk (inter-War Polish Łuck) and Halych (after which the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia is named). There were many Karaite communities in the Crimea, in towns such as Bakhchisaray (Bağçasaray), Feodosiya (Kefe) and Yevpatoriya (Keslev). One of the best-known traditional centres of the Crimean Karaim was Chufut Kale (Çufut Qale) but this was abandoned during the 19th century (although two kenesas survive, adjacent to one another). The Crimean Karaim often lived by trade and therefore sometimes had mercantile links and family outposts in Black Sea ports (e.g. Kherson and Odessa) and the Eastern Mediterranean (e.g. Egypt and Constantinople).

The Karaim in Lithuania arrived at some date before the end of the C14th, almost certainly as officially invited and privileged settlers involved in defence. It is not clear whether the original settlers came from the Crimea or from Lutsk. In any event, while military service may have been the prime mover behind their arrival in Lithuania, soon many Karaim were involved simply in agriculture or in trade.

The most well-known settlement in Lithuania is that at Trakai which I visited but smaller communities survive in Panevėžys and Vilnius. There is a Karaim cemetery in each of these three places. The one in Trakai is disappearing amid meadow and woodland on the other side of lake Totoriškiai facing the town – inscriptions are mostly in Hebrew but with some Latin script. A Karaim place of worship – a prayer house known as a kenesa – survives at Trakai and Vilnius but that in Panevėžys was destroyed in 1970, a victim of the atheist communist state and probably also the declining local population and the ongoing process of assimilation. Other Lithuanian Karaim communities such as the one in Biržai have become extinct or, like that in Naujamiestis, all but died out with only individuals or solitary families surviving. The Lithuanian Karaim population is now very small and dwindling: officially 423 in 1959, 388 in 1970, 289 in 1989 and 273 in 2001. Assimilation and out-marriage are serious issues for the survival of the community, which traditionally was endogamous and sometimes had to resort to sourcing marriage partners from Lutsk or even the Crimea.

A distinctive feature of the Trakai Karaim settlement is its vernacular architecture. The typical Karaim wooden cottage, sometimes painted in pastel or brighter shades, sits with its gable end with three ground-floor windows facing on to the street; the entrance is on the facade round the side.

One reason why the Lithuania Karaim community survives at all today is the official recognition they gained in 1863. In that year, they successfully asserted themselves as a Turkic people in contra-distinction to the Jews, with whom they had previously been associated in the Russian Empire. The unforeseen consequence of this was that they were largely spared the fate of the Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust.

The Google Map shows the distribution of past and present Karaim settlements from Lithuania in the north, south through Poland and Ukraine to Crimea, and on to Egypt, Turkey and Israel. The pattern is quite curious, with a north-south axis, especially noticeable if the newer, post-WW2 diaspora Karaite communities, such as most of those within the borders of modern Poland, are disregarded. Green Stars of David pins show kenesas/synagogues, both surviving and former. Blue pins show cemeteries and settlements which have or may still have a Karaite population, no matter how small. Grey pins show extinct settlements.




Return to Lithuania, 1921

In eastern Europe, the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution was chaos and population displacement on a previously unknown scale. Imperial Russia unravelled around the edges and new states struggled to assert their independence and pull away. In the former Russian gubernias of Kovno, Vilna and Grodno, moves were afoot to recreate Lithuania.

However, the issue here, as elsewhere in Europe, was that there were competing and mutually incompatible claims to land. It was impossible to satisfy all claims, as the population was not neatly parcelled up into ethnically or nationally homogeneous units. Most regions had diverse populations. In the city today called Vilnius, for example, Poles and Jews formed the majority and in its hinterland many of the pre-War landowners were minor Polish gentry or szlachta; yet the peasantry was Lithuanian. Force decided the issue and treaties ratified it. It was the new Polish state which emerged victorious, securing a Polish Wilno, just as it successfully secured Lwów as a Polish island in a largely Ukrainian sea.

At the start of 1918, as many as one in six Lithuanians were refugees within Russia. An estimated 550,000 were scattered across European Russia, from Minsk and St Petersburg to distant Voronezh and Yekaterinoslav. It took until 1924 to bring home all those who wanted to return and who Moscow and Kaunas would between them allow. Maybe as many as one third of Lithuanian refugees remained abroad and settled, willingly or otherwise, in Soviet Russia or Poland.

From 1921, the return of refugees was closely supervised by the authorities. Refugees were registered and issued with travel permits in Moscow. From Moscow they travelled by train to Rēzekne, Daugavpils and Kalkūni in Latvia, and thence across the Lithuanian border to Obeliai. At Obeliai – the only recognised point of entry into the country, although not the only one in practice – refugees were vetted, re-registered and issued with passes, usually to their place of birth or pre-War residence.

Those who were regarded as suspect were sent back to Moscow. And those refugees who wished to return to their pre-War homes in what had become Polish territory were often stuck in limbo for months on end in the Obeliai transfer camp, with its ever-present risk of humanitarian crisis – typhus, cholera and hunger.

Not all those coming to Lithuania were refugees. So-called optants – Lithuanian colonists long settled in Russia – paid their own way to reach the newly independent country. And from 1918 to 1921, the nascent Lithuanian state, in need of qualified administrative and technical experts, welcomed back not just its Lithuanian but also its Jewish middle classes. In fact, the immigration policy was so liberal before the change of government in 1922 that Jewish doctors, engineers and so on from elsewhere in Russia headed to Lithuania for the opportunities it presented.

For many researching their family history in Lithuania, the period 1915 to 1924 looms like something of a black hole. For a start, the family may not appear in the expected parish registers (assuming, that is, that such records were created and have survived). Over half a million spent several years effectively in exile in Russia and, of course, of these, some married, some had children and some died there. At Obeliai, too, refugees gave birth or died and, doubtless, in some cases married. The Lithuanian state did not recognise Soviet civil registry marriages so, in order to return with spouse and children, natives of Lithuania would have to remarry in a Roman Catholic or Orthodox ceremony: this can result in what appear to be illegitimate children born between the respective dates of the secular and the religious marriage.

The Google Map shows the railway route from Moscow’s Vindavsky Station to the transfer camp at Obeliai.