views updated


KRIMCHAKS (inhabitants of the *Crimea), Jewish ethnic and linguistic community. Prior to World War ii Krimchaks lived mainly in the Crimean peninsula. Before the Russian invasion of 1783 they called themselves Yehudi (Jew) or srel balalary (sons of Israel). Only at a relatively late period – in the end of the 19th–beginning of the 20th century – did they begin to call themselves Kirymchakh from the Russian Krymchak. The name Krimchaks (the Crimean Jews) first appeared in official Russian sources in 1859. Evidently the term was coined to distinguish the Rabbanite Jews in the Crimea from the *Karaites who lived in the same region, and also from the *Ashkenazi Jews who had moved there. In the documents issued by the Crimean rulers before the peninsula was captured by Russia the members of the community were called yehudiler, i.e., the Jews, which was the name also given to the Karaites. Neither the documents of the European colonies in the Crimea nor the writing of European travelers visiting the region in the Middle Ages differentiated between the two. The Crimean Tatars called the Krimchaks colloquially zuluflu chufutlar (Jews with earlocks), while they called the Karaites zulufsuz chufutlar (Jews without earlocks). The Krimchak language is akin to the Crimean-Tatar languages.


In the 14th–16th centuries the Rabbanite Jews had their main center in the town of Kaffa, now Feodosiya. However, already by the end of the 18th century, the majority of Jews lived in Karasu-Bazar, now Belogorsk, which remained the main center of the Krimchaks up to the middle of the 1920s when the majority of them moved to Simferopol.

According to the census conducted by the Turks during the rule of Sultan Suleiman i (1520–66), 92 Jewish families and one single Jew lived in Kaffa, which according to the demographic notions of the time denoted a total of about 460 people. The total number of Krimchaks at the time was 500–700 people.

In 1847 the population of Rabbanite Jews in the Crimea numbered 2,837, the majority of them being Krimchaks. The census of 1897 listed 3,345 Krimchaks in the Crimea.

From the end of the 19th century Krimchaks who had previously lived in Karasu-Bazar began to move to the other towns in the Crimea. A small number might have moved to Ereẓ Israel in the late 19th century or early 20th century.

By 1912 the number of Krimchaks had reached 7,500; 2,487 of them lived in Karasu-Bazar, about the same number in Simferopol, 750 in Feodosiya, 500 in Kerch, 400 in Sevastopol, while the rest were scattered among 28 other towns of the Crimea and the Caucasus.

The Soviet census of 1926 showed a decrease in the number throughout the country: the total was now 6,383 Krimchaks among 42,000 Jews (without the Karaites). The number of Jews in Crimea rose in 1939 to 47,387 (8% of the total population) and it can be assumed that the number of the Krimchaks increased only slightly. The drop in the Krimchak population was due to the Civil War and the famine of 1921–22 which led to the death of 700 members of the community; about 200 members immigrated to Palestine, and 400 to the U.S. According to the 1926 census, 98.4 percent of the Krimchaks lived in towns, and 74.1 percent declared the Krimchak language their mother tongue. Simferopol was now their main center, where about 2,500 persons lived.

Prior to the German attack on the U.S.S.R. in 1941, the Krimchaks numbered about 9,000. The majority perished during the Nazi occupation of their regions in 1941–42. In 1948 in the whole Crimea only 700–750 Krimchaks could be found. After World War ii not more than 1,000–1,500 remained alive throughout the Soviet Union. The Nazis destroyed about 75 percent of the community; about 1,000 lived in Palestine and in the U.S.

According to the Soviet census of 1959, only 189 of the 1,500 Krimchaks declared Krimchak their native tongue. In the 1970s–1980s the number of the Krimchaks, according to available data, dropped not less than 15 percent, decreasing to 900. However other estimates put their number at about 2,000 in 1982. Nevertheless the remnants of the community were rapidly assimilating among the surrounding Russian and Ukrainian population.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, those Krimchaks in Ereẓ Israel adopted the Sephardi prayer rite. A Krimchak synagogue existed in Tel Aviv up to 1981. In Israel the Krimchak population intermingled with other Jewish settlers, and did not found a separate community. Those who immigrated to the U.S. assimilated with the Ashkenazi Jews and did not retain a separate identity.

Although already in the 13th century some of the Crimean Jews spoke Turkish, and the final crystallization of the Krimchaks into a separate ethnic and linguistic group occurred in the 14th–16th centuries, a number of historians – Simon *Dubnow included – thought that the Krimchak community descended from the ancient Jewry of the Crimea.


bosphorus period

The appearance of the Jews in the Crimea was connected with the Greek colonization of the shores of the Black Sea in the second–first centuries b.c.e. although it is possible that they had reached the Crimea from the Caucasus through the Taman peninsula already at the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions (seventh–sixth centuries b.c.e.).

The first mention of the Crimean Jews is from the 1st century c.e. They are found in documents concerning the liberation of the slaves by their Jewish owners and epitaphs discovered mainly in the southeastern part of the Crimea and on the Taman peninsula.

The documents concerning the slaves refer to the obligations imposed on them to visit regularly the synagogue under the supervision of the Jewish community. Thus, the Hellenized Jewish communities of the Bosphorus Kingdom, never having suffered from persecutions or limitations of any kind, grew – thanks to the conversion of the liberated slaves to Judaism. Moreover, the so-called Sebomenoi, non-Jews partially observing Jewish law, also tended to join the Jewish communities. A fourth-century inscription has been found on the construction of the synagogue in Panthikapei, now Kerch.

Little is known about the occupations of the Crimean Jews of the period. They must have dealt mostly in trades and crafts. The Jews also occupied state positions and served in the army, as evidenced by a first-century tombstone found in Taman. The tombstones of the third and fourth centuries preserve, besides Greek inscriptions, a Hebrew inscription, as well as Hebrew names and symbols.

In the second and third centuries, the Jews moved along the southern coast of the Crimea. In 300, the Jews are mentioned in Kherson, in southwestern Crimea, in connection with the rebellion of the local population protesting the introduction of Christianity.

In the late fourth century, *Jerome wrote about Jews in the Bosphorus Kingdom. Traditionally they included descendants of families who had been exiled by the Assyrians and the Babylonians as well as of imprisoned warriors of Bar Kokhba.

The invasion of Huns in the 370s destroyed the Bosphorus Kingdom, and another state rose on its ruins – the Alan-Hun, which ceased to exist in the early sixth century. Those events contributed to the further dehellenization of the Crimean Jews, evidenced by the tombstones of the period, usually without inscriptions of names but with Jewish symbols such as the seven-branched candelabrum.

At the beginning of the sixth century the territory was invaded by the Byzantine Empire, and Byzantine chroniclers mention Jews in the area. In the Taman region, Jewish tombstones of the sixth–eighth centuries have been excavated.

the khazar period

In the middle of the seventh century *Khazars occupied most of the Crimean territory.

The Jewish population might have played a decisive role in the process of establishing Judaism among the Khazars, who adopted Judaism as their religion in the late eighth–early ninth century.

The Jewish population also grew as a result of the influx of Jewish refugees coming mostly from the Byzantine Empire where Jews were periodically persecuted (843, 873–874, and 943). Judaism in the Crimea was greatly influenced by the Jewish refugees from the Byzantine Empire and by constant contacts with Byzantine Jewry. Under this influence the so-called Crimean Rite was elaborated. The most ancient of all known synagogues on Russian territory was built in 909 in Kaffa (Feodosiya). Several sources mention authors of religious hymns (*piyyutim) in the region, such as Abraham ben Simḥah ha-Sefaradi (died 1027). Silk processing, fabric-dyeing, and trade were the main occupations of the Jews.

From the mid-ninth century the power of the Khazars in the Crimea weakened as a result of invasions and also because of renewed wars with the Byzantine Empire. In 940–41 the Kiev princedom at the instigation of the Byzantines, waged war against the Khazar state, resulting in the victory of the Khazars who recaptured the southern and southwestern parts of the Crimea up to Kherson. Attempts by the Byzantine Church to convert the Crimean Jews to Christianity failed.

The Khazar ruler Joseph wrote to *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut, in approximately 960, stating that he ruled over many other areas besides the 12 settlements in the Crimea and in Taman. The most numerous Jewish communities existing at the time were in the towns of Samkush or Samkersh (Tmutarakan), Mangup (Doros), and Sudak. Large Jewish communities were known in the towns of Solkhat (presently Stariy Kryn), Kaffa (presently Feodosiya), and Kherson, where already in 861 Cyril, a preacher of Christianity, found a Jewish community of long standing including Khazars converted to Judaism. The decline of the Khazar kingdom began after Prince Svyatoslav defeated the Khazars in 965.

In 1096 the Byzantine emperor Alexei i ordered that all Jews should be driven from Kherson and their property confiscated. The exiles from Kherson must have settled in those regions of the Crimea where the Byzantines did not reach. However 60 to 70 years later the Jews were still living in the Byzantine part too as *Benjamin of Tudela in the 1160s reported on the existence of a community of Rabbanite Jews in the town of Sogdia (presently Sudak), which was a significant Crimean port. At that time the Jews of the Crimea comprised a provincial part of the Romaniot community, whose members spoke Greek.

Khazars observing Judaism must have assimilated among the Jewish population of the Crimea. Some of the immigrant Jews were Karaites. In approximately 1175, the traveler Pethahiah of Regensburg confirmed the existence of Jewish groups in the region of the Azov Sea, whose customs were identical to those of the Karaites. The Jews of the Crimea continued to maintain contact with the Jews of the Byzantine Empire and of Islamic countries.

the tatar period

In 1239 the steppe area of the Crimea was occupied by the Tatars and Mongols. Along the southern coast, the colonies of Genoa entrenched themselves. Thanks to the Genoese colonies, the Crimea became an important trading center attracting numerous Jewish emigrants from the eastern countries (Persia, Asia Minor, Egypt) as well as from the West (Italy, and later, Spain).

The economic flourishing of the Jewish communities contributed to their cultural development. Se at Emet ("Language of Truth"), a rationalistic commentary on the Pentateuch by Avraham Kirimi (i.e., of Crimea), written in 1315, is the first known original work by a Crimean Jew. Several sources point to the town of Solkhat (where Kirimi was born and lived), as an important center of Jewish rationalism at the time.

From the 14th century on, the Karaite communities were centered in Chufut-Kale and in Mangup. Most Rabbanite Jews settled in Solkhat, and later in Karasu-Bazar. However Kaffa was the largest Jewish community in the Crimea with both Rabbanite and Karaite Jews.

The Genoese authorities endeavored to calm the tensions between various ethnic and religious groups in their colonies related, in particular, to the forced conversions of the Jews to Christianity and the plunder of property. In 1449 they issued a decree for the Black Sea colonies, which included a confirmation of the rights of all peoples and groups including the Jews to observe their own religion. Later decrees from the Genoese ordered that the Jews be free from interference in their affairs, so that the Jews enjoyed freedom until the conquest of Kaffa by the Turkish troops in 1475.

Already prior to 1475, some Jews living in Kaffa had established contacts with the court of the Crimean Khans in Solkhat. One of these Jews, Khozya Kokos, a merchant, mediated in 1472–86 the negotiations between the Grand Duke of Moscow, Ivan iii, and the Crimean Khan, Mengly-Girei, a part of the correspondence being written in Hebrew.

Centuries of Tatar rule resulted in a considerable Orientalization of the Crimean Jews: to a great extent they adopted the language, customs, and mores of the Moslem Tatars. Already in the 13th century some of the Crimean Jews spoke Turkish. The Bible was translated into Krimchak. The decline of trade led to the increased share of crafts and agriculture in the occupations of the Crimean Jews. Many Jews in Mangup and Chufut-Kale engaged in leather tanning, mountain vegetable gardening, and viticulture. The Jewish merchants obtained credentials from the ruler to protect themselves and their property from the encroachment of local feudal lords.

Throughout their history the Krimchaks absorbed Jews coming from other communities: the Byzantine Empire, Babylonia and the Khazar kingdom, Italy, and the Caucasus, as well as Ashkenazi Jews brought to the Crimea as prisoners of the Tatars, or those who fled from pogroms and later moved to the Crimea for economic reasons.

Prior to the conquest of the Crimea by Russia, all Rabbanite Jews in the Crimea merged with the Krimchak community, and it was only in the 19th–early 20th century that a separate Ashkenazi community emerged. The merger of the various communities resulted in a special prayer rite incorporating elements of different communities (minhag Kaffa). Various trends of Jewish mysticism made their impact on Krimchak tradition: *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, the Kabbalah of the Zohar, Isaac *Luria, and especially, practical Kabbalah. Rabbi Moses ben Jacob, who went to the Crimea from Kiev, reconciled the different traditions and elaborated the single rite compiling the prayer book Maḥzor Minhag Kaffa; he also established rules for guiding community life.

the russian period

The successful struggle of Karaites to be exempted from the anti-Jewish laws of the Russian Empire and their move from the dilapidated town-fortresses to other regions of the Crimea for economic reasons led to a complete break in relations between the Karaites and the Krimchaks.

From 1866 to 1899 Ḥayyim Hezekiah *Medini (born in Jerusalem in 1832, and died in 1904) was chief rabbi of Karasu-Bazar. He raised the spiritual and cultural level of the Krimchaks, increasing the Sephardi influence. He introduced changes in the community's customs, and founded several schools, and a yeshivah.

In his monumental multi-volume Sedei Hemed Medini described at length Krimchak traditions and elaborated his own regulations (*takkanot). In 1899 Medini returned to Ereẓ Israel to publish religious literature with translations into Krimchak.

Polygamy among the Krimchaks disappeared early in the 19th century. Girls married at an early age, and marriages between close relatives, such as an uncle and his niece, were permitted. Widows could never remarry because a husband and wife were considered inseparable also after death.

The everyday life of the Krimchaks was influenced by that of the Crimean Tatars. The patriarchal nature of the family was preserved up to the end of the 19th century. The practice of good deeds was regarded to be of great significance. They carried out charity extensively, caring for widows and orphans; no beggars were found in their midst, and the poor received firewood, flour, and candles at the community's expense.

In the 19th century the Krimchaks lived in small poor communities almost untouched by the European enlightenment. Most of them were craftsmen, and the minority was engaged in agriculture, gardening, and vine-growing, with only a few in trade.

In 1840 the Krimchaks founded an agricultural settlement, Rogatlikoy, with 140 members. However, in 1859 the Krimchak peasants received the status of middle-class citizens of the town of Karasu-Bazar, and their lands were transferred to Russian Christian settlers. Count A. Stroganov, governor-general of Novorossijsk, interceded for the Jews who wanted to acquire property in the Crimea and as a result the transfer decree failed to be ratified by the czarist government in 1861. The attitude of the Russian authorities to the "Talmudic Jews" in the Crimea was relatively favorable: the community enjoyed several privileges in the fields of taxation and conscription.

The Krimchaks created a rich folklore: collections of legends, songs, riddles, and proverbs, written by hand in Hebrew letters and passed from one generation to another. Samples of their folklore were published in the original with translations into Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Literature in Krimchak consisted, apart from folklore, mainly in translations of religious texts.

Drawn into Russian culture from the beginning of the 20th century, some of the Krimchaks participated in revolutionary movements and a considerable part of them joined Zionist organizations.

After the Revolution of 1917, the Krimchaks were subject to the same social and demographic processes as all the other Jewish ethnic and linguistic groups. The considerable increase in their educational level led to a decline in everyday traditional life. Many Krimchaks who had received professional education as physicians, engineers, and teachers severed contacts with their native community.

The German occupation of Crimea started with the city of Perekop on October 30, 1941, and was finalized on November 16 with the conquering of Kerch. Sevastopol was under German siege until July 3, 1942. Although 50% of Crimean Jews succeeded in evacuating themselves, it can be assumed that the escape of the Krimchaks was less. Einsatzgruppe D established its headquarters in Simferopol on November 12, 1941, having previously asked for guidance from the Main Reichs' Security Office in Berlin on how to treat the Krimchaks. The reply was to include them like all Jews in the "Final Solution." That is, they should be destroyed with the rest of the Jewish population.

During the main period of killings by subunits of the Einsatzgruppe d, November 16 to December 15, 1941, they reported the murder of 17,645 Jews and 2,504 Krimchaks. These numbers are not final, because those in hiding were hunted and many were caught and executed. The Krimchaks who spoke the same language as the native Tatars tried to hide among them. But since the Tatars cooperated with the Germans, the Jews were denounced and turned over to the killers. Some 1,500 Krimchaks from Simferopol were executed on December 9 near the village of Mazanka. The Krimchaks of Feodosiya were among the 1,052 Jews who met their death on December 15, the 7,000 Jews of Kerch, including the Krimchaks, were murdered on December 1–3, 1941, and the Krimchaks of Karasu-Bazar met their death on November 15; the 90 Krimchaks of Bakhchisarai were killed on December 13, 1941, and about 1,052 Jews, among them Krimchaks, from Feodosiya were murdered on November 17, 1941, in gas vans. Krimchaks fought in the Soviet army and in partisan detachments. Many perished, including the poet Ya. I. Chapichev (1909–1945), who received the posthumous title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

After the war there were about 1,500 Krimchaks, with fewer than 500 living in Simferopol. At present, any remaining Krimchaks are being rapidly assimilated, and their culture inadequately preserved. In the post-war period, they were officially defined in the Soviet Union as a special nationality of mixed ethnic origin, mostly non-Jewish. In the 1990s most of them left for Israel.

[Michael Zand /

Dan Kharuv /

The Shorter Jewish Encyclopaedia in Russian /

Shmuel Spector (2nd ed.)]