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An Ethnic & Religious Patchwork

The Crimea’s Jews, Christians and Muslims restore their homeland

“Soviet soldiers came and forced five or six families, each with lots of kids, onto a truck,” recalled Khatidzhe Zhurayeva, a Crimean Tatar. “At first, we didn’t believe they were really sending us away for good. But when we finally reached the border, one old man pulled himself up so he could see where we were. When he saw, he started to cry. And then all of us began crying.”

The beauty of the sun-drenched Crimean peninsula belies its recent gloomy history. Connected to the European mainland by tiny strips of land, the Crimea juts into the Black Sea from its northern coast and is home to a bewildering number of ethnic groups, including Armenians, Greeks, Karaim, Tatars, Russians and Ukrainians.

A strategic outpost, the Crimea has been contested for millennia. Persians and Greeks, Khazars and Rus’, Byzantines and Mongols, Ottomans and Russians, Soviets and Nazis have all waged war to possess its sunny but rocky shores. In 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred administrative control of the peninsula from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine, citing its close cultural, economic and geographic ties to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Unwittingly, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 set up the likelihood of a Crimean conflict involving the U.S.S.R.’s successor states today. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalate daily, as each exercises brawn and bravado to subdue the peninsula. But the end of the Soviet Union also gave the Crimea’s ancient Jewish and Muslim communities the chance to regain some of what was lost, to rebuild literally and figuratively and to live in harmony with those who now inhabit their ancestral homeland — if only for the seasonal sun.

Ironically, Crimean Jews (Karaim) and Muslims (Tatars) consider themselves descendants of the same Turkic tribes that moved from Central Asia to the Crimean peninsula in the Middle Ages. These tribes eventually adopted Judaism, Christianity or Islam, though the latter became the dominant faith of the community by the 15th century.

The Tatar’s powerful state, or khanate, once included the Crimea, surrounding areas and the Caucasus for more than three centuries. Annexed by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1783, the Crimea’s Jewish and Muslim populations declined in significance as other groups, particularly Slavs, settled in the newly acquired territory.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the Crimea’s Tatar community consisted of some 250,000 people. Numbers vary for the Crimea’s Karaim, who forbade intermarriage and refused converts, but probably they did not include more than 15,000 people.

While most Karaim and Tatar men of fighting age served the Soviet Union as members of the Red Army or as anti-Nazi partisans, a minority aided the Nazis. As punishment for this collaboration, Stalin in 1944 deported to Soviet Uzbekistan all the peninsula’s Tatars — regardless of age or state of health. Nearly half of those deported died of exposure, malnutrition and disease. The Karaim, who after World War II numbered just 6,357 souls, eventually assimilated with the Slav population or immigrated to Israel or elsewhere.

“When we were living in Uzbekistan, someone managed to bring three pears from the Crimea,” recalled Kurtsyeit Osmanov, who now lives near Simferopol, one of the peninsula’s major cities. “The whole village shared those three pears.

“The whole village drank a bottle of water from the Crimea in half gulps,” he continued. “Once, it happened that someone was dying in great pain. They gave him water from the Black Sea, and he passed away more easily.”

Though the Soviets “pardoned” the Tatars in the 1960’s, the authorities prohibited them from returning until Soviet central authority began to unravel in the late 1980’s. Tens of thousands returned from 1989 to 1991. Some were original exiles, like Mrs. Zhurayeva and Mr. Osmanov. Others were their children or grandchildren. According to Ukraine’s 2001 census, Tatars make up 12 percent of the peninsula’s population of two million.

Though the Crimean’s Tatars face considerable challenges — the reclamation of ancient villages, burial grounds as well as cultural and spiritual renewal — their ethnic kinsmen, Crimean Karaim, struggle on a vastly different scale.

Now numbering just 2,000 people across the globe, Crimean Karaim reject Rabbinic Judaism, oral law and any blood relation to the people of ancient Israel, yet they devoutly follow the Torah. About 800 remain in the Crimea, where in the city of Yevpatoria they maintain two synagogues, called kenesas (derived from the Aramaic for “assembly” or “church”).

“In Ukraine today there is a program to support national minorities,” explained Yurii Polkanov, head of the World Association of Karaites. “The Karaim fall under this program, which puts them in the same category with Romanians, Crimean Tatars and Russians.

“But entirely different tasks stand before our development. The Karaim are passing away, and perhaps this generation, if not supported, will become the last Karaim.”

One activity to “save” the community is an annual camp to clean the territory near the ancient fortress at Dzhuft-Kale, including the cemetery. The youth work there, and also get acquainted. According to their beliefs, only Karaim may clean up their cemeteries. This cemetery, the site of many secret religious observances in Soviet times, contains an oak tree believed to link the living to their ancestors.

“A number of weddings have resulted from these annual camps,” noted Mr. Polkanov. “The birth of a child in these families is an event anticipated by the entire community.”

Matthew Matuszak is the English-language editor of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. Petro Didula is press attaché of the Ukrainian Catholic University.

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