Krymchaks - Orientation



Identification. The Krymchaks are a Jewish ethnic group located on the Crimean Peninsula on the northern Black Sea shores who spoke vernacular Crimean Tatar. Before the Russian conquest of the Crimea in 1783, the entire Jewish population there was identified, including by the Krymchaks themselves, by the Tatar word "Yakhudiler." During the nineteenth century and possibly earlier, the Krymchaks at times also called themselves "Sral Ballary" (the sons of Israel). Among various references to the Krymchaks in Russian documents from the first half of the nineteenth century are "Karasubazar Jews," "Crimean Jews," "Tatar Jews," and "Turkish Jews." In the second half of the nineteenth century the name "Krymchaks" became dominant. The Krymchaks themselves began to use this name as their ethnonym at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Until the 1950s the Krymchaks always considered themselves a Jewish group, although different from other Jewish groups like the Ashkenazim, and they were perceived as such by other Jewish and non-Jewish groups and by the Russian and Soviet authorities. After World War II, the shaky status of the Jews in the Soviet Union prompted the informal leaders of the Krymchak community to insist on a different origin for themselves as compared to the rest of Jewry. An ethnic myth was created and propagandized: that the 8Krymchaks were descended from those groups of the ancient Crimean peoples, such as the Tavrians, Scythians, Sarmatians, and others, who converted to Judaism. For purely political reasons this claim was accepted by the Soviet authorities, who recognized the Krymchaks as a separate and distinct ethnic group who had nothing in common with other Jews, except religion. Nevertheless, this shift in the Krymchak ethnic self-identification is still incomplete. Although the majority of Krymchaks now reveal much ethnic conformity and prefer to point out their alleged non-Jewish origin when dealing with the authorities, they do recognize their affiliation with the rest of Jewry and in specific situations reveal an awareness of their Jewish identity.

Location. The historical center for the Krymchaks was the town of Karasubazar in the piedmont part of the Crimea. During the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries a majority migrated to Crimean cities on the Black Sea shores, or to Simferopol', an administrative center of the Crimea in the steppe zone. At present, the majority live in the major Crimean cities. They also live in Sukhumi and Novorossiisk on the Caucasian side of the Black Sea shores and in small numbers in Moscow, Leningrad, and Central Asia. Krymchaks also live in Israel and the United States.

Demography. According to the 1989 census, the number of Krymchaks in the Soviet Union was 1,559; it is expected that their number will continue to decrease because of their assimilation into other ethnic groups. The Krymchaks never constituted a numerous group, however. On the eve of World War II their number was estimated as 8,000, but about 70 percent perished during the Holocaust.

linguistic Affiliation. In the past the Krymchaks spoke an ethnolect of the Crimean Tatar language that belongs to the Kipchak (Qïpchaq) Group of the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Language Family. Minor differences with the Crimean Tatar vernacular are found mostly in pronunciation and vocabulary. The pronunciation differences occur because the Krymchak ethnolect was based not on the dialects of the southern coastal area but on the northern steppe dialects of the Crimean Tatar language. Differences in vocabulary stem mainly from the existence of a relatively large number (about 5 percent of the total vocabulary) of Hebrew words in the Krymchak ethnolect.

The mass transition of the Krymchaks to the Russian language began after the Bolshevik Revolution and intensified in the 1930s. At present, only a few elders use Crimean Tatar as their vernacular. A significant number of people of the intermediate generation demonstrate some knowledge of it, although they use it only from time to time and do not consider it their mother tongue. The youth have no knowledge of it.

Unlike the Crimean Tatars who used the Arabic script, the Krymchaks had always used the Hebrew one until 1936, when they were ordered to substitute the Russian script.


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