Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Preservation and History of the Karaites’ Identities in Poland

by Julia Gainski 

Julia Gainski is a senior in Integrative Biology and German Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Julia's future plans include traveling, applying to physician assistant programs, and learning new languages. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

Poland has struggled time after time to survive as its borders consistently shifted due to unlawful rulers that have come to power. From Germany’s occupation of Poland in the Second World War to Poland being under Communist rule, Poland’s resilience, and ability to uphold their traditions, culture, and religion in the midst of dark times has shown the irrepressible strength that Poland portrays. Undoubtedly, Poland was drastically affected by these historical events and as a result, ethnic minorities have been further divided and impacted as well. There are four ethnic minorities that exist in Poland today which are: Karaim, Lemko, Romani and Tatar. The Karaites are the smallest ethnic minority that exist in Poland today. This blog post will explore the Karaites’ history, culture, discrepancy of their origins, present effort of preservation of their identities in Poland, and the current status and population of Karaites in Poland today.

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The Karaites speak Karaim which is a Turkic language with Hebrew influences. They are descendants of the Crimean Karaites and follow the Karaite Judaism religion, which emerged from Judaism in the 8th century. The Karaites rejected the central Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh and therefore split off from Judaism. “Karaimi” is the specific Polish name that denotes the Karaites that live in Poland. Many Karaites immerse themselves in writing about science, culture, and religious dissertations. Karaites are known for their conservativeness and cleanliness, especially their clean kitchens. Also, within the Karaite community, “uncle” and “auntie” are warmhearted and compassionate terms used to describe older people who are not related by blood.

Ethnologists divide Karaites into three groups in accordance with their roots from the Crimea, Kuban Cossacks, or Muslim countries. There is large controversy surrounding the matter of the descendants of Crimean Karaites as ethnologists have conjured different theories. One hypothesis speaks to the idea of their Jewish ancestors arriving to the Crimean Peninsula, which was Khazar-ruled at the time, not long after their break from Judaism. Around the 8th century, the Jewish ancestors prospered with their attempts to spread Karaism to the Khazar people which consequently became integrated in their society along with the Kipchaks and they came to the Crimea in the 10th century.

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Another hypothesis revolves around the idea that all three Karaites have distinct origins with no overlap. With that, the Polish Karaites generally believe that they do not share any ties with the Jewish people from the Middle East and therefore only give recognition to the Turkic provenance. The ethnogenesis of the Polish Karaites is a long and convoluted topic with several complex hypotheses. Many deliberate that these hypotheses were in result of the anti-Semitic stereotypes that were prominently spreading in Europe during the 19th-century. To this day, there is still no definitive answer or prominent traces of the Polish Karaites.

However, it is well known that the arrival of the Crimean Karaites in Poland and Lithuania stemmed from the extended invitation made by Prince Vytautas in the 14th century. The prince asked them to settle in Trakai and it is speculated that Prince Vytautas needed a new loyal group of close collaborators to serve as his protectors. Many Karaites gained an entrance into his inner circle as they became members of his court and went beyond serving as bodyguards and additionally served other important roles like being doctors, accountants, and translators. These higher positions were an underlying indicator that they gained entitlement within their administration and regions outside of Trakai.

Progressing from the 14th century to the 20th century, the Polish borders were drastically altered and the Karaites were divided because of Germany’s invasion of Poland in World War II. From 1938 to 1944, Nazi Germany was faced with the question on whether the Karaites are of Jewish descent and if they should be regarded in the same manner as Jews. Despite this, many Karaites died in the Holocaust. After the war, the Karaites were outside of Poland’s borders and shifted west.

In addition to the tremendous dramatic impacts of World War II and shifts in borders, assimilation poses a tremendous hurdle as Karaites strive to preserve their identity, religion, and culture. It is difficult to gather information of Karaites in Poland as they are dispersed all throughout the country. The combination of the Karaites having a very small community and being distributed throughout the country makes it very difficult to have Karaite reunions or conduct teachings on the Karaites. Despite these obstacles, the Karaite community continues to prevail in the face of difficult divides and circumstances. In Trakai, Lithuania, a kenesa and a wooden house on Karaim Street is a remnant of the Karaite architecture and is one of the few places to exist that preserves typical Karaite houses and is the place where Polish Karaites have reunions in the summers where they can reconnect with their families and ancestors.

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Today, Polish Karaites’ descendants are post-war repatriates, and it is estimated that there are around 100 Karaites living in Poland, which places them as the smallest out of the four total ethnic minorities to exist in Poland. With that, the largest group of the Polish Karaites, which is around 40, live in Warsaw. When determining the Karaite population in Poland and when people answer the National Population and Housing Census, it is important to understand that people answer based on how they feel about their roots. Regarding the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Poland ratified it on February 12, 2009, and became the twenty-fourth state of the Council of Europe to support the charter. Poland has formally recognized fifteen languages, four of which are ethnic minority languages: Karaim, Lemko, Romani and Tatar. In addition, the document establishes Karaim as a non-territorial language.

The resilience and strength of the Karaites has demonstrated that even dramatic impacts such as war, border shifts, and assimilation cannot prevent them from continuing to preserve and uphold valuable traditions that keep their community united.

References

Oleksiak, Wojciech. “The Disputed Origins of Poland's Smallest Ethnic Minority.” Culture.pl, Culture.pl, 23 July 2015, https://culture.pl/en/article/the-disputed-origins-of-polands-smallest-ethnic-minority.

Rostkowska, Agnieszka. “The Karaites: Poland's Forgotten Ethnic Minority.” Przekrój Magazine, Przekrój, 21 July 2021, https://przekroj.pl/en/society/the-karaites-polands-forgotten-ethnic-minority.

Troskovaite, Dovile. (2013). Identity in Transition: The Case of Polish Karaites in the First Half of the 20th Century. Codrul Cosminului. 19. 207-228. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286057073_Identity_in_Transition_The_Case_of_Polish_Karaites_in_the_First_Half_of_the_20th_Century

“Poland Ratifies European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.” Nationalia, CIEMEN, 25 Feb. 2009, https://www.nationalia.info/new/8870/poland-ratifies-european-charter-for-regional-or-minority-languages.

Feferman, Kiril. “Nazi Germany and the Karaites in 1938–1944: between Racial Theory and Realpolitik.” Nationalities Papers, vol. 39, no. 2, 2011, pp. 277–294., doi:10.1080/00905992.2010.549468. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/nationalities-papers/article/abs/nazi-germany-and-the-karaites-in-19381944-between-racial-theory-and-realpolitik/45E3DB5BC65211106249DC5A70932F2B

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