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This year marks 625 years since Karaites settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the invitation of Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania. On the anniversary of this event, the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania decided to declare 2022 the Year of the Lithuanian Karaites. In this way, it was decided to celebrate the history and culture of the Lithuanian Karaites. In particular, funds from the state budget were allocated for the implementation of the program of events dedicated to this event. Therefore, there is another reason to explore the culture of the Karaites – the indigenous people of Ukraine, one of the smallest indigenous peoples in the world, whose monuments and outstanding achievements still live in Crimea, Kherson, Melitopol, Galicia, Lutsk, as well as in the cities of Lithuania and Poland etc.
The first mentions of Karaites in Poland
The Karaites, the indigenous people of Ukraine, are also the smallest ethnic community in Poland: there are currently about 200 people who identify as Karaites. And it is in Poland that a considerable amount of research on the history and identity of the Karaites has been carried out and continues to be carried out. It is thanks to Polish and Lithuanian researchers, who were much less influenced by the Soviet authorities and were able to preserve many documents, that we can learn more about the culture, life and art of the Karaites. Let’s get to know Polish research more closely.
Karaite communities came under the rule of Polish kings after 1340, when Casimir the Great took over the power of Galician Rus. 80 Karaite families arrived from the Crimea to Halych around 1246. It is known that, in addition to Halych, there was also a Karaite community in Lviv under the scepter of Polish kings, which separated from the Halych community in 1475.
Like the Christian and Jewish communities, the Karaites in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also had their own self-government. The community was headed by elders elected by its members. In the Karaite community, there was a teacher (he managed, among other things, the local house of prayer), a gabbai (treasurer) and a gazzan or hazzan (he performed religious and judicial functions).
The Karaites built their kenas in the specified period in Trakai, Lutsk, Halychi, etc. They were all built of wood. In addition to kenas, cemeteries were also usually established. The oldest of them were the cemetery in Trakai and the suburbs of Lviv: both from the end of the 15th century.
After the divisions of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Karaite religious communities in Halych and Kukizov became part of Austria, and all others – into the Russian Empire. The 1897 census showed that there were 12,894 Karaites living in the Russian Empire, including 1,383 in Lithuania and 6,166 in the Crimea. Due to the fact that the Crimean Khanate was included in Russia in the 18th century, almost all Karaite communes were united into one community, which stimulated contacts between them (Karaimi. Mniejszości narodowe i etniczne w Polsce. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Sejmowe . 2012. p. 34. ISBN 978-83-7666-143-18).
After the Bolshevik coup, of the original thirty-two Karaite communes in the territories separated from Russia, only five remained – four in the revived Poland (Trakai, Vilna, Lutsk, Halych) and one commune in the then Lithuanian borders (Panevezhis).
Karaites in Poland after 1945
One of the most influential Polish researchers of Karaimism is Mariola Abkowicz, the granddaughter of Raphael Abkowicz, the last Polish chazzan, founder of the Wrocław Kenasa (a Karaite prayer house in Wrocław). Until December 31, 2019, Mariola Abkovich was the head librarian of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry of the Wroclaw Medical University and a teacher at the Department of Asian Studies (Department of Hebrew, Aramaic and Karaite Studies) at the Adam Mickiewicz University. Since 1997, she has been the head of the Association of Polish Karaites, a member of the board of the Karaite Heritage Foundation and the President of the Board of the Kaleidoscope Cult Foundation, the editor-in-chief of the quarterly magazine “Avazimiz”, a promoter of the history, culture and language of the Polish Karaites, in particular as the editor of a number of book publications devoted to these issues, published “Bitik” publishing house.
In his work “Karaim social life in Poland after 1945” (Karaimskie życie social w Polsce po 1945 roku) Abkovich describes the following. For centuries, the social life of the Karaites focused primarily on the rituals associated with the requirements of the religion, the cultivation of custom, and the social activities associated with the Karaite ethno-religious community. The policy of the Polish state in the interwar period of the 20th century significantly contributed to the formation of a number of secular Karaite organizations that were engaged in the development of social, cultural and educational life. At the end of World War II, the activities of Karaite religious and secular institutions were suspended, and the political situation and changing borders made it necessary to recreate the basic organizational structures of Karaite social life in a new reality. New settlements and new — at first informal — Karaite communities began to be created in Warsaw, Trimista and Opole, and later in Wrocław.
Professor Ananias Zajonczkowski, one of the few Karaites who lived in Warsaw during the Second World War, was at that time the informal leader of the Warsaw Karaite community, solving the problems of co-religionists who came to German-occupied Warsaw, if it was necessary and possible. Already at the beginning of 1944, he helped the first immigrants to get a residence permit.
In accordance with the Lublin Agreement of September 9, 1944 — the Agreement between the Government of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Polish Committee of National Liberation on the evacuation of the Ukrainian population from the territory of Poland and Polish citizens from the territory of the Ukrainian SSR — population exchange was to be carried out. However, it did not include Tatars and Karaites who lived in the Border Region, which meant that both communities had to make considerable efforts to get help from the Polish authorities in resettlement. In April 1945, the Polish embassy in Moscow appealed to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs to include Tatars and Karaites in the repatriation. On April 29, 1945, the USSR government announced that it would not prevent the relocation of former Polish citizens of other nationalities, except Polish and Jewish, if they were “connected to Polish culture.”
After crossing the front line on July 15, 1945, almost all Karaites from Lutsk decided to evacuate to Poland. The authorities of the Ukrainian SSR did not prevent the evacuation of Karaites from Galicia, a relatively large number of whom settled in Poland.
After the liberation of Warsaw, Professor Zajonczkowski made the first attempts to organize the private and public life of the Karaites and to organize the resettlement of the Karaite community to the new borders of Poland.
In 1945, Professor Zayonchkovsky revived the scientific and social yearbook “Karaimska Dumka”: before that it was published during 1924-1939 in Vilnius.
Contemporary Karaites in Poland
Currently, the Karaites of Poland are associated with the Karaite Religious Union in the Republic of Poland and the socio-cultural association of the Union of Polish Karaites. The “Bitik” publishing house, established in 2003, produces publications on Karaite subjects. An important place among them is occupied by the magazine “Awazymyz”, which has been published in its current form since 2004 (quarterly since 2011). Warsaw is currently the cultural center of the Karaites in Poland. The city has the only active Karaite cemetery in Poland. Until 1989, the only kenasa in post-war Poland operated in Wroclaw, headed by the last Polish gazzan, Rafal Abkovich.
The legal status of the Karaites as a religious group is regulated in the Law on State Relations with the Karaite Religious Union in the Republic of Poland. The 2005 Law on National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages grants Karaite ethnic minority status.
The building that housed the Karaite kenasa in Wroclaw until 1989. Knyazhevych Street, 28. Photo by Evgenia Virla (January 27, 2022).
According to the memoirs of the Karaite researcher Mariola Abkovich, part of her family remained in Vilnius (Lithuania) during the Second World War, and part moved to Poland. Then the rest also moved to Poland and all began to live together in Wroclaw: “It was one of the places where Karaites settled in the forties,” recalls Ms. Mariola. – It wasn’t easy, because we don’t really know what it was like when the Red Army came. According to the memories of the grandfather’s youngest son, he came back beaten from somewhere. And then the NKVD pursued him in night terrors for the rest of his life. Grandfather was very afraid and even told close Karaites in Vilnius that he was going to move to Poland. They knew what they were running from. But grandfather never said a word on this topic in his life.”
After settling in Poland, Rafal Abkovich organized Karaite life, in particular by registering a part of his apartment as a kenasa (above in the article – a photo of the house), which performed its functions until 1989. And now the Karaites in Poland continue to gather at each other’s houses, read prayers, and also travel to places where the Karaite culture has been preserved.
During the nationwide population and housing census of 2011 in Poland, 313 citizens of this country declared their nationality to be “Karaim” (according to the previous National Population and Housing Census of 2002, the Karaite minority numbered 43 people).
It is quite difficult to estimate the number of people with Karaite roots. We can roughly assume that this is a group of 500 to even 1000 people (M. Abkowicz, Karaimi we Wrocławiu. W: Almanach karaimski. Wrocław 2007, p. 107.).
In Poland, the “Karaim Music Map” was created: this is a virtual map that allows you to learn about Karai culture, go beyond the borders of the current country, look into the historical places of the community, listen to the language and secular melodies that are important for this community – as in modern arrangements by Karolina Chikha and Spółka, as well as in the original Karaite renditions.
Therefore, Poland is currently one of the important centers of development of Karaite culture and research on Karaite life. Given that Ukrainian research has been negatively influenced by the Soviet government and the Russian Federation (since 1991), it is Polish and Lithuanian research that is becoming very useful for Ukrainian researchers and Karaites in Ukraine. According to the 20-year-old census, there are about 1,000 Karaites in Ukraine, in particular, more than 600 in the currently occupied Crimea.
In Poland, Karaites began to appear in the 19th century – they were mostly people from the Crimea and they came to work in various industries, in particular in the tobacco industry. Many Karaites moved to Poland after 1939 from Lutsk, because they were persecuted here by the Soviet authorities. Subsequently, the oppression spread to the Crimean Karaites: as part of the fight against religious cults, the Soviet authorities dissolved communities, closed kenas, national-cultural associations, and schools where Karaite was taught.
Poland currently has considerable experience in supporting and developing Karaite culture. There, in particular, the State Administration for Repatriation was created to take care of the future fate of Karaites loyal to the Polish state.
Ukraine can well take an example of the development of Karaite culture from Poland, where every effort is made to support and develop the culture of a very small people. Specific measures aimed at preserving the Karaite community should be directly defined at the level of the law and specific budget programs: the study of history, culture, traditions, the restoration of the newspaper, houses of prayer, the revival of culture – everything that has already demonstrated its ability to contribute to the revival of the community in Poland .
Since the Crimea, where the Karaites come from and where there were most of them, is currently occupied, the state of Ukraine must make every effort to preserve the people and their heritage, which remains, and there is a lot of it: in Melitopol, in Kherson, in Lutsk, in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, in Odessa, etc.
member of the Council of National Minorities and Indigenous Peoples
at the Kherson Regional State Administration (ethnic Karaim)
Implemented within the project “Information Platform” Voice of Crimea. Culture “- about Crimea honestly, qualitatively, actually” with the support of the Media Development Fund of the US Embassy in Ukraine. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the US government.