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Karaites In Galicia Part 2

Updated on June 8, 2011

It had none of the benefits the others had in Russia derived from a larger population. A ban of intermarriage with Non Karaite Jews by the Lithuanian and Crimean councils sentenced the Galicz community to eventual extinction. Not even the Empress Maria Theresa’s royal decree of October 24th, 1774 exempting the Karaites in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from payment of the marriage tax and half of the poll tax could save it. Without a supply of young available women there weren’t going to be any marriages or any children not to pay taxes for. The community was slowly dying from its inability to repopulate. So ultimately it had to defy the ban in order to continue.But then layered on top of this situation came a far more serious dilemma, that being the Nazis.

According to the theories developed by Seraja Szapszal (1873-1961) the head of the Polish-Lithuanian Community between the two World Wars, said that the Karaites were not really Jews at all but instead Turko-Khazar nomadic proselytes. The evidence he used was falsified but it had its advantage to avoid Nazi persecution. And for that reason, the Nazis themselves declared Karaites not to be Jews and therefore even with Hitler’s final solution, the Jewish people always would have continued to exist. The Rabbanites have used Szapszal’s declaration as a tool to level accusations against the communities, accusing them of cowardice, abandonment, collusion and the worst accusation of all, ‘not being Jewish’ in support of Szapszal’z statements which were made primarily to avoid persecution.

In spite of this opportunity to avoid the persecutions, the Galicz Karaites never abandoned their Jewish Heritage or accepted Szapszal’s theories as the Russian communities did. The Turkicization process of this early twentieth century Karaites of Poland and Lithuania was quite widespread and in their minds they probably thought of themselves as non-Jewish in many respects whereas the Galicz community preserved their Judeo-Karaite identity both through the war and after it. But as a result of the Szapszal theory, it still served enough to confuse the Nazis that they were not as heavy handed against the Galicz Karaites and I can count the number of family members sent to the death camps on my two hands instead of enumerating them in the hundreds as was the case in many Jewish families. Probably one of the more notable family members was Rakhil Iosifovna Goldenthal, who despite the knowledge of her Karaite background, chose in her role of medical doctor in Odessa not to abandon the fate of the Jews and still tended to them after the Nazi invasion only to be sent to the camps along with them in 1942. But hers is a story for another day.

Karaite Tombstone from Halicz
Karaite Tombstone from Halicz

Life in the Galicz Community

Some of the most important stories regarding the Galicz Karaites were by Reuven Fahn, a Rabbanite Jew, who described many of the day to day existences, oral stories and family traditions he found there. But Fahn’s work, and that subsequently of Majer Balabian describing the Galicz community were criticized in general by the other Karaite communities primarily because of the differences. The other communities were offended that in our isolation, we had become dissimilar in many ways from the mainstream Karaism that they considered themselves. Reactively, they distanced themselves from our community, avoided contact and worse of all, refused to send their daughters in marriage to the Galiciano men. As far as they were concerned we were to be the disinherited child, abandoned and forsaken.

As mentioned in the previous article, the origins of the community in Galicia have become an almost mystical tale. After the annexation of Galicz by Austria, the community said that they had originally come in the sixteenth century from Constantinople but this seems to be a myth generated by Mordecai ben Nisan Kukizow who said the King of the Ishmaelites let them leave to go to Russia. A century later someone assumed the King of the Ishmaelites was the Ottoman Sultan but this was a conclusion only drawn from the present political atmosphere and not based on any factual evidence. The Galicz Karaites spoke what was referred to as Karaim which was entirely different from Ottoman Turkish and therefore entirely different from the Turkomen language of the other Karaite communities.

In 1647 the Karaite Sage David ben Yeshua Hazzan visited the Halicz community. He described the community as being in complete religious obscurity and ignorance in spite of the fact that the community was more creative in its writings, theological studies and wealth of traditions than any other Karaite community. This served as the first cause of isolation between the Galicz and other Karaite communities in the Russian Empire as some of what ben Yeshua described was determined to be paganism and heresy by the other communities. In particular a spring festival that resembled Sadie Hawkins day in which young unmarried women chased after available bachelors. So in an effort to diffuse the growing antagonism between ours and the Russian communities,Hazzan Aaron ben Samuel came to rescue our community, but it is said that he had too many friends amongst the Rabbanites and introduced the Kabbalah as part of his routine studies. Then the brothers Joseph ben Samuel (Mashbir) and Yeshua ben Samuel arrived in Halicz to save the community from the wayward rescuer that had come before. Yet tradition says that it was Mashbir that was the first to use Karaim as a living language and he too was a follower of Kabbalah. The census of 1765 recorded that there were 99 Karaites and 258 Rabbanites in Halicz. As this was the centre of the Karaite community in Galicia, then other communities can only be assumed to have been markedly smaller. When the community of Kukizow (OStrowicz) was established, the first shofet (judge) was Abraham ha-Shofet (1688-1715) who was succeeded by his son, Isaac Ben Abraham. Simcha ben Moses Firko, one of several Hebrew piyyutim donated the Torah scroll in 1730. The establishment of the community in Brody may have been in a similar time period but no record confirms its date of origin. As can be seen from the names, they were more traditionally Hebrew and therefore more in alignment with the Rabbanite communities.

Karaite Street in Halicz
Karaite Street in Halicz

The Community Rewarded

In 1789 the law in the Austrian Empire was passed that all Jews would serve in the military. The conservative Rabbis approved of this treatment considering it affirmation that the Jews were regular citizens but the orthodox rabbis were horrified by this demand. But on 16 March 1790 The Austrian government released decree 6245 which exempted all Karaites from military service which again sent a wedge between the two Jewish communities. Though we studied together, went to school together, exchanged interpretations of the Torah together, this exemption from the military, this favoured status was too much for the Rabbanites to tolerate. Later on there was a reversal of the 1790 Decree but the initial military exemption was a source of conflict between the two communities that would never disappear. Even when the reversal was made it only stated that new Karaite converts and those migrating to Austria would serve thereby excluding any members of the original communities. But again in 1818 the Austrian government exempted all the Karaites from all sorts of duties related to military activity and in 1821 they were given same standing as Christian citizens being only responsible for all regular taxes. The residents of the Karaite communities were even given permission to own land and this served as a major bone of contention with the Rabbanites. During this time, in 1805 the Rabbanites launched an appeal saying that Karaites were still Mosaic Law believers, essentially Jews, and therefore should pay all the same taxes as Rabbanite Jews and should be forced to observe all Austrian Jewish restrictive laws against the Jews and made to serve in the military like all other Jews. An interesting demand since one would have assumed that the Rabbanites should have been wiser and requested to share all the same benefits as the Karaites rather than to ask the Crown to make the Karaites suffer all the same persecutions. So intent were they on causing the demise of the Karaite community that they failed to seize the opportunity that was presented to them by officially declaring to the Crown that they as Rabbanites would attempt to follow Karaite social norms rather than remain an isolated and resistant anomaly within the Empire. Had they done so, Jewish history of the 20th century may have been entirely different.

Rohrer an Austrian aristocrat wrote, No Talmudic Jew wants to live next to a Karaite saying that even the term Karaite is a term of abuse meaning “castrate”. He also wrote that Karaites were not engaged in usury and did not enrich themselves at the expense of other people and their property. Although they were often engaged in horse trading, the most common occupation was agriculture and the cartage trade. A Karaite never pretended to work but worked with application and energy. He lived in friendly peace with his Christian neighbours, disturbed and condemned nobody, was most uncommonly modest and behaved in such a peaceful manner that not a single complaint was made against him or was likely to be laid before the Christian courts. Obviously a much overstated opinion that ignored the fact that in any community there will always be ‘bad apples’ but one which had become common place within the Empire. I will talk more on the agricultural nature of the community because land and horses always remained an inbred love within the Galician Karaites and played a major role in men of the community joining the Austrian cavalry. But all that again will be in a later article and I leave the reader to digest this wealth of information provided today.

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana


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    • Kahana profile image

      Kahana 6 years ago

      I think we must take into consideration that when the Jewish professors were asked by the Nazis to confirm whether or not Karaites were of an alternative origin from the Ashkenazi Jew it was with the knowledge that they held the lives of all those people in the balance. Had they said there was no truth to the Turik origin, then every Karaite would have been rounded up and sent to the camps. As I see it, they did the most honourable act of ensuring the Karaites would survive Hitler's final solution by denying any Levant origin of the Karaites.

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      Kefeli 6 years ago

      I agree with many statemens of this article but Halic Karaites beside their religion had turic origin language, custums , food and cloth. Halic Karaites helped Jews with their Aysweisses for life protection . The Jewish Professors but not omly Szapszal confirmed Karaite Turik origin. It were Balaban , Kalmnovich and oth. Thi was a way of surviving of Halic Karaites