You are here: Home / Users / Mikhail Kizilov / The Sons of Scripture
Social Media Buttons fb twitter twitter twitter
  • Metadata

    • Document type
      Presentation (monograph)
      Author (Presentation)
      • Kizilov, Mikhail
      Language (Presentation)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Kizilov, Mikhail
      The Sons of Scripture
      The Karaites in Poland and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      De Gruyter Open
      Number of pages
      Subject classification
      Historical Demography, History of religion, Social and Cultural History
      Time classification
      20th century, 21st century
      Regional classification
      Europe → Northern Europe → Baltic states → Lithuania, Europe → Eastern Europe → East-Central Europe → Poland
      Subject headings
      Karaite Studies
      Jewish Studies
      Polish-Lithuanian Karaite community
      Ethnische Identität
  • Citation rules

  • Terms of licence

    • This text is subject to the creative-commons-licence Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC-BY-NC-ND), which means that it may under these conditions be used electronically, distributed, printed, and provided for download. Here you can read the licence’s text:
  • Links

Mikhail Kizilov: The Sons of Scripture. The Karaites in Poland and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century (presented by Mikhail Kizilov)

Show table of contents

1 Introduction
2 Between the Israelites and the Khazars: 1900–1918
3 Interwar Period (1919-1939): the Victory of the Khazar Theory
4 Ḥakham (Ḥakhan) Seraja Szapszał (1873–1961) and His Role in Shaping of the Turkic Identity of the Polish-Lithuanian Karaite Community
5 Between Scylla and Charybdis: Polish-Lithuanian Karaites between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (1939-1945)
6 From the Soviet Stagnation to the Post-Soviet Renaissance (1945-2014)
7 Conclusion

In the twenty-first century – the era of fast-growing globalisation, which tends to erase differences between the states and nations inhabiting the planet – the position of small ethnic entities, such as various ethno-religious, sub-ethnic, and confessional minorities, is becoming more and more endangered. A growing number of representatives of such ethnic entities prefer to simply forget about cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions nourished by their forbearers.

This, however, was not the case of the Karaites (alias Karaite Jews, Karaims or Karaylar): this tiny ethno-religious Jewish minority managed to preserve its ethnic identity and ethnographic tradition up until today. The historical development of the Karaite faith-world began in the eighth – ninth centuries A.D. as a non-Talmudic alternative to Rabbinic Judaism. It is apparent that the Karaites derive their name from the Hebrew word for Scripture. The Hebrew term qaraim (sing. qarai) should be translated as “Scripturalists” or “readers,” in the sense of “experts in Scripture.”

The earliest Karaite settlers appeared in Crimea, Lithuania, Volhynia and Galicia in the late Middle Ages, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. At present, their numbers are extremely small: according to various estimates, at the time of writing there are only about 45 Karaites living in Poland, several individuals in Western Ukraine and 257 in Lithuania (about 2,000 live in the rest of Europe and Russia and ca. 25,000-30,000 in Israel). As is demonstrated in this study, in the course of the twentieth century the Polish-Lithuanian Karaite community underwent the process of complete dejudaization (Turkicization) of their ethnic, cultural and religious identity. As a result, the local Karaites almost completely lost their Judeo-Karaite identity, and developed a new Turko-Karaite one. Their dejudaization reforms helped the Karaites to survive the Holocaust: the Karaites were surveyed by several Nazi commissions and recognised as a non-Jewish population. The post-war period, when the Polish-Lithuanian Karaites found themselves to be inhabitants of three different political formations – Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania – is characterized by the stagnation in Karaite thought and culture. This stagnation, which followed the cultural renaissance of the Karaites in the interwar period, can be explained by the totalitarian ideological control of the Soviet Union, which severely oppressed all manifestations of religious and national feelings. At present, however, one can notice the revival of the Karaite cultural and religious traditions in the region.

The fact that the number of the members of the Karaite community in Poland and Lithuania is slowly, but inevitably decreasing, leads to the conclusions that the Polish-Lithuanian Karaites are one of the most endangered ethno-religious group in Eastern Europe. This book is aimed – in addition to its academic objectives – at reminding the public of the necessity of helping numerous ethnic and religious minorities inhabiting the continent to survive in the twenty-first century.

What can one learn from the Karaite case which is presented in this study? First, the Karaites represent a unique example of a relatively swift and drastic U-turn in the ethnic identity of a seemingly conservative and isolated ethno-religious group. The Karaite case is a highly interesting and unusual example of the complete change of an ethnic identity within about 150 years. By the 1940s, the Karaites, who in the 1790s considered themselves conservative non-Talmudic scripturalist Jews, transformed into an ethnic group with a distinctive Turkic identity and a religion that they defined as the “Karaite faith” – as different from Judaism as it was from Christianity and Islam. In this regard, the Karaite case seems to be unique. World history knows several other examples of “endogenous dejudaization,” that is, conscious loss of Jewish identity: mountain Jews-Tats and Krymchaki Jews who also almost completely lost their Jewish identity after World War II. However, the Karaite case is the only example in which the loss of Jewish identity was so carefully thought out and supported by the wealth of scholarly literature composed by the members of the community.

Second, the Karaite case serves as a warning to the students of ethnic identities: one should always carefully weigh statements and publications of representatives of ethnic groups and communities about their identity, religion, and historical past. Sometimes they provide scholars with genuine data, and sometimes – as in the Karaite case – they deliberately deceive. As has been demonstrated in this study, the Karaite community leaders and scholars (S. Szapszał, S. Firkowicz, A. Mardkowicz, A. Zajączkowski, S. Szyszman and some other) created, in the interwar and postwar periods, a substantial corpus of pseudo-scholarly literature aimed at proving the Turkic origin and identity of the East European Karaites.

Third, somewhat paradoxically, the Karaite case demonstrates that the preservation of original traditions in an unchanged form does not always guarantee the physical survival of an ethnic community. Although the catastrophic demographic situation in the community had been discussed in the Karaite press starting from the beginning of the twentieth century, the Karaite religious authorities in Poland and Lithuania continued to forbid mixed marriages, consistent with their religious laws. As a consequence, the wish to retain the traditional marriage laws led the local community to almost complete extinction and disappearance.

And finally, the Karaite case supports Benedict Anderson’s idea that national identity is a somewhat artificial phenomenon that can be constructed, reconstructed, and deconstructed depending on the current political and ideological agenda.