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Karaim in the Holocaust

The story of the Eastern European Karaites in the Holocaust is convoluted, to say the least. Did Karaim emerge from the Holocaust unscathed? Were the Karaites Nazi sympathizers? Does the truth lie somewhere in between? There are many unclear facts, and questions that surround the role of the Karaites during the Holocaust. The truth is that like any other people, the Karaites did not emerge from the Holocaust unscathed. The best judge is the facts.


The beginning of the story of the Karaites and the Holocaust traces its roots to Simha Babovitch and Avraham Firowitch, both of whom were driving forces behind the Dejudaization of the Karaites in the Russian legal system. This is a very involved topic, and has been covered at great length by both Dr. Phillip Miller (Karaite Separatism in 19th Century Russia, HUC Press), and Dr. Roman Freund. The most significant item to emerge out of the work of Babovitch and Firkowitch is the fact that the Tsarist Russian government officially recognized the Karaim as being of Turkic, not Jewish origin. This ruling was the most important factor in the treatment of the Karaim by the Nazis.

There is evidence that as early as 1934 the Nazis recognized the Karaites as Turkic, not Semitic. The Nazis first came up against the problem of the Karaites when they published the regulations for enforcement of the Nuremberg laws. The heads of the Karaite community in Berlin asked the authorities to exempt them from the regulations; on the basis of their legal status in Russia. After examination of the claim, the Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families determined that the Karaites should not be considered Jewish with regard to those regulations. The letter from the Reicsstelle fur Sippenforschung gave the official ruling in a letter which stated:

The Karaite sect should not be considered a Jewish religious community within the meaning of paragraph 2, point 2 of the First Regulation to the Reich's Citizenship Law. However, it cannot be established that Karaites in their entirety are of blood-related stock, for the racial categorization of an individual cannot be determined without ... his personal ancestry and racial biological characteristics (YIVO archives, Berlin Collection, Occ E, 3, Box 100, letter dated January 5, 1939)

This ruling set the tone for how the Nazis dealt with the Karaite community in Eastern Europe.

At the same time, it must not be thought that the Karaites were welcomed by the Nazis with open arms. In a letter by SS Obergruppenfuhrer Gottlob Berger, dated Nov 24 1944, Berger states:

Their Mosaic religion is unwelcome. However, on grounds of race, language and religious dogma... Descriminiation against the Karaites is unacceptable, in consideration of their racial kinsmen. However, so as not to infringe the unified anti-Jewish orientation of the nations led by Germany, it is suggested that this small group be given the opportunity of a separate existence (for example, as a closed construction or labor battalion)

Furthermore, the Karaites were not the only group of Jews who were provided exemptions from the Nazis racial cleansing. Judeo-Tats, Georgian Jews and the Jews of Bukharan were also spared. Each of these groups, as the Karaites, alleged to the Nazis that they were not of Jewish racial origin.

Despite the work of Babovitch and Firkowitch the Karaim could not fully escape their Jewish origins. The first German troops to come across Karaim in Russia, not aware of their legal status under German law, attacked and killed 200 of them at Babi Yar; and, for a period of time, the Vichy republic required the Karaites to register as Jews. On dictate from Berlin, however, the Karaim in France, who claimed not to be Jews, were given non-Jewish status.

Very simply, Karaites served on both sides of the war. As the war in Europe raged on, the German army made concessions to its standards of racial policy with regard to whom it admitted into its ranks. The Ostturkische Waffenverband was created as a special milirary formation within the Waffen SS that contained, among other groups, Crimean Tartars. According to a letter of September 27 1944, penned by Chancellor Gerhard Klopfer, an estimated 500-600 Crimean Karaim were fighting in the Wehrmacht, Waffen SS and Tartar Legion. In the same letter, Klopfer states that until such a time as the exact racial origin of the Karaites can be determined a list of all members of the sect enrolled in the legions should be dilligently kept. These Karaim were most likely recruited around the same time that the 8,000-20,000 Crimean Tartars were. One clue to the role of Karaim in the German army comes from German War Documents, T-175 163/163 2697899-900, which states that the Karaim were builders and members of labor crews.

Aleksandr Fuki, in his book of Karaite military heroes in Russian history, "Karaimy : synov'ia i dochteri Rossia (Karaims : sons and daughters of Russia)" details accounts of many Karaim who fought the Germans. Some estimate that 90% of the Karaite community in Russia was casualties, wounded or killed. In Poland proper, where the general population hated the Nazi occupiers, it is reported that Karaites joined the Polish underground.

Sadly, as there were people accross the spectrum who worked in collusion with the Nazis (Kapos, Judischer Ordnungsdienst among the Rabbanites), so there is evidence of Karaite collusion with the Nazis. In Lithuania, there are reports that the Nazis placed a sadistic Karaite in charge of the Vilna Ghetto.

In Lutsk the Karaites cooperated with the Nazi treatment of the local Jews, and in Vilna and Troki Karaite Hakham Seraj Szapszal gave precise lists of the members of their community, which enabled the Nazis to ferret out those Rabbanites who had false Karaite papers. Today, the topic of the Karaim and the Nazis in Lithuania is strictly verboten in Vilnius and Trakai. No one wants to discuss what the Karaite community did or did not do.

There were no organized massacres of Karaites in the Crimea. Of the Rabbanite Krimchaks, yes, but not the Karaites. This is not to say that the Karaim were exempt. Many Karaites were executed by the Nazis. However, they were killed because they were high Communist Party members, or teachers, lawyers, journalists - Just the people any totalitarian regime targets when they wish to deprive a people of their elite. On the whole, however, the Karaim did not suffer nearly the fate of the Rabbanites, or the Gypsies or other targeted groups.


Philip Friedman wrote the classic work on the Karaim during the Holocaust. It first appeared in a festscrift and was later reprinted in his collected writings "Roads to Extinction" (Philadelphia, 1980). There is also mention of the role of Eastern European Karaites in the "Encyclopedia of the Holocaust."

Also by Friedman, "The Karaites Under Nazi Rule" in Max Bellof's "On the Tracks of Tyranny" (London 1960)

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