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Virtual Jewish World: Crimea, Ukraine

Crimea (Heb. קְרִים) is a Ukrainian peninsula located on the northern coast of the Black Sea. From 1954 until 1991, Crimea was an oblast of Ukrainian S.S.R., and following the breakup of the Soviet Union, it became part of the Republic of Ukraine.

Late Antiquity & Middle Ages
Tatar Times
Czarist Rule
Crimea as a Potential Jewish Homeland
Soviet Union
Jewish Community Today

Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages

Jews first settled in the southeastern area, and a Jewish Hellenistic community existed there by the end of the first century C.E. (based on inscriptions). Jerome (d. 420; on Zech. 10:11, Obad. 20) heard from Jews that the Jewish settlers by the Bosporus were descended from families exiled by the Assyrians and Babylonians and from deported warriors of Bar Kokhba; the Bosporus was called by the Jews "Sepharad." In ancient and medieval times southeastern Crimea was linked to the Taman Peninsula, across the Kerch Strait.

In the seventh to tenth centuries, the Khazar conquerors maintained their regional center there, from which they ruled much of the Crimea and confronted the Byzantine coastal base of Cherson, near the present Sevastopol. The Arab geographers Idrīsī and Abu al-fidāʾ call the Khazar city merely Khazariyya (Khazaria); it was located on the site of the town Sennaya (formerly Phanagoria), adjacent to the Jewish settlement mentioned by the Byzantine historian Theophanes, and is probably identical to the port Samkush (Samkerch) "of the Jews," referred to by the Arabic geographer Ibn al-Faqīh. Tombstones of Jews and Khazar proselytes have Jewish Hellenistic ornamentation. Similar Jewish tombstones have been found in Kerch and Partenit (Parthenita), near Yalta. The Byzantine chronicler Cedrinus relates that in 1016 a Byzantine Russian-assisted fleet subdued the region of Khazaria ruled by Georgios Tzoulos. The Russians were henceforth represented by a prince at Tmutorokan (Taman), while the Byzantines overlooked most of Crimea from Cherson. The Khazars served as the prince’s military auxiliaries in an inner Russian conflict in 1023, and in 1079 intervened with Byzantium in the competition for the princely office; this led to their massacre in 1083.

From the 9th to 15th centuries, the terms "Gazaria" (as the territory) and "Gazari" (as the population) were understood in Western Europe as the Taman peninsula and the adjacent changeable Crimean area. Gazaria is, according to Poliak, the "Kazariyya" mentioned by the 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (in connection with the sea trade with Constantinople and Alexandria) and Pethahiah of Regensburg (the Kuban delta). Isaac Abrabanel commenting on Genesis 10:3, equates the "Qasari" in "Ashkenaz" with Gazaria, "below" (south of) the Azov Sea. In the 16th to 17th centuries, "Gazaria" and "Crimea" were synonymous. This late usage led the Russian historian N.M. Karamzin (1816) to regard the Crimea as the ultimate domain of the Khazar kings, lost in 1016. After C.M.Y. Fraehn (1822) had dated the downfall of the Caspian Khazars to 969, the period 969–1016 was left for the duration of the mythical Crimean kingdom, considered from that point forward as Jewish. The early draft of H. Graetz’s "History of the Jews" (1860) included the history of the kingdom, written according to the manuscript discoveries claimed by the Karaite collector A. Firkovich. After these claims had been attacked, the story was partly, but mechanically, deleted: in the late version, the Crimean kingdom has a beginning but no end (Eng. ed., 3 (1949), 222ff.). Graetz’s original coherent description continued to influence Jewish historians, notably S. Dubnow (History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 1 (1916), 28ff.). Firkovich also is the source of the idea that Crimea was the cultural center that influenced the conversion of the Khazar royalty to Judaism and that the Crimean Karaites were descended from ancient Israelite settlers and Khazar converts. The rival Karaite historian M. Sultanski (d. 1862) regarded the Crimean Karaites as purely medieval Jewish immigrants from various parts, while later Karaite authors held that they were basically Khazars-Turks. The Rabbanite Krimchaks (i.e., "Crimeans") were also sometimes considered basically Khazars. All these views are founded on the late meaning of "Gazaria." Foreign Karaites (contrary to Rabbanites) in Khazar times never claimed that the Khazars had converted to Judaism and sometimes displayed intense hatred toward them (even expecting them to fight the Messiah in Ereẓ Israel): the sect was then seeking to uphold the Palestinian descent of the Jews and Judaism. In late antiquity and the early medieval period, Crimean Jewish tradition and records indicate that Jewish settlement existed in the following units.


The Chersonese (Cherson) Jews were living there at least in the 9th to 11th centuries. Excavations have shown that the locality never recuperated from a devastation in the late 10th century by the Russians (988?) and was ultimately destroyed at the end of the 14th (by Tamerlane’s raiders, 1395–96?). The Hebrew letter attributed to the Khazar King Joseph (long version) lists among his tributaries in the 950s localities from Samkerch to "Gruzin" (Cherson?), including Kerch and "Bartenit." The Hebrew "Cambridge Document" claims that under him, "Shurshun" was made tributary by a counteroffensive against Byzantium after the Byzantine-instigated Russian raid on Samkerch.


This is the medieval name for the rugged mountains north of Cherson, so-called after a Teutonic tribe that had remained there following the great migrations. The city of Partenit was the coastal mart of Gothia; a Jewish tombstone inscription there mentioned "Her(i)f(r)idil [a Teutonic name] ha-kohen [priest]." Around 787, the Khazars placed their garrison in Doros, the capital of Gothia; the Life of Bishop John tells of the unsuccessful revolt he instigated. Doros is assumed (despite temporary doubts of archaeologists in 1928–38) to be the "eagle’s nest," later called Mangup (first in Joseph’s Letter, as his tributary). In Ottoman-Tatar times (1475–1783) it increasingly became an all-Jewish (mostly Karaite) town.


More to the north, a similar fortress town, known under the Tatars as Qirqyer (Qirqer), became referred to more frequently as Chufut-Kale ("the Jews’ Fortress," Heb. Sela ha-Yehudim). Excavations of 1946–61 showed that it existed on the site from the 10th or 11th century; a Christian cemetery (late 5th to early 9th centuries) attests to the corresponding beginnings of the enormous Jewish cemetery. Here, also, it was under Tatar rule that the town definitely became all Jewish (mostly Karaite); it later had a Hebrew printing press (1734).

Tatar Times

The conquest of Eastern Europe by the Tatars (Mongols) in 1236–40 made Crimea the foremost link for the trans-Asian caravans with the Mediterranean and Western trade. The Crimean Tatar center was Solkhat or Qyrym (from which the name "the Crimea" derives); now Stary Krym, inland near the port of Kaffa (now Feodosiya), the city was made by the Genoese the center of their activities in Gazaria and on the Black Sea. The contact of the Crimean Jews with the outside world grew. The Jew "Khoza Kokos" was Muscovy’s representative there in 1472–75.

According to a Russian tradition, Jews from Crimea were among the instigators of the movement of Judaizers in 15th-century Muscovy. There was a Jewish revival in Taman, by then ethnically Circassian and ruled by the Genoese Guizolfis (1419–82), who were considered Jews in modern Jewish historiography and Christians in Russian. In Muscovite documents, the last ruler is called a "Jew" and "Hebrew" as well as "Italian" and "Circassian"; if so-called after the environment, this significantly emphasizes the Jewish resurgence. However, the Tatar decline commenced early. The Karaites of Poland (western Ukraine) and Lithuania later considered that they had been deported from Solkhat by Lithuanian raiders under Witold (Vitort), 1392–1430. The Genoese extended their possessions from Kaffa, and their relatively mild attitude toward other communities (including the Jews) maintained prosperity in the area despite the shrinking geographical extent of trade.

From around 1420, the Tatar realm of inner Crimea developed into a split kingdom. After the Ottomans conquered the Genoese possessions in 1475, they made the inland Tatars vassals, used them for raiding Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania, and protected them from reprisals by a vast belt of scorched earth (depopulated steppe). This led to a sharp economic decline and massive emigration. The remaining population was basically Tatar, which was then a Muslim Turkish-speaking blend under the leadership of Mongol descent. The remaining Krimchaks and Karaites shared their tongue and many customs, though the two communities differed somewhat in these respects both from each other as well as from the Tatars. Their divergent existence is certain from Tatar times only. The Mongol influence, which made the Karaite anthropological type distinct, must be attributed to conversions but of the early Tatar conquerors, a point unknown to former scholars who disputed the matter. Conversions to Judaism even took place at the home of Genghis Khan. Only this can explain the transfer of strategic strongholds to Jews (mainly Karaites) and the establishment by the Crimean Tatar kings of the unfortified valley suburb of the "Jews’ Fortress" as the new capital Baghche-Saray (Bakhchisarai, 1454). It officially became a distinct town only in the 17th century.

Czarist Rule (1783–1917)

During the Russian conquest of Crimea from the Turks, the Jewish communities suffered severely. Many Jews left for Ottoman territory. In 1783, when Russia annexed Crimea, there were 469 Jewish families (Rabbanite and Karaite) living on the peninsula. Tatar raids into the Ukraine and neighboring districts of Poland-Lithuania in the 16th century, in particular during the Tatar alliance with Chmielnicki in 1648, brought into Tatar hands many Jewish captives, who were usually ransomed by Jews. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, it was included in the Pale of Settlement (1791), although the major centers of development were later excluded, among them the military port of Sevastopol (1829–59, later admitting wealthier Jews), and the resort of Yalta (1893). Jewish settlers from Russia soon outnumbered the small local communities (Krimchaks, Karaites). There were 2,837 Jews living in the Crimea in 1847.

The Karaites’ successful struggle for exemption from the anti-Jewish czarist legislation (1863) and the abandonment of the common fortress towns (now ruins) because of the economic revival in the lowlands definitely estranged the Karaite society from the rest of Jewry. From 1867 to 1900, Ḥayyim Hezekiah Medini officiated as chief rabbi of Crimean Jewry and did much to raise the level of the spiritual and cultural life of the community. Among the few scholars of Crimean Jewry notable were Abraham Kirimi, author of Sefat Emet, a commentary on the Torah, in the 14th century, and David Lekhno, author of Mishkan David, in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the archaeological discoveries of the Karaite scholar A. Firkovich, part of which were found to be forgeries, caused a sensation among scholars. There were 28,703 Jews living in Crimea in 1897 (5.1% of the total population) and 5,400 Karaites. The Krimchak Jews numbered 3,300. The large communities were in Simferopol (8,951 persons); Kerch (4,774); Sevastopol (3,910); Karasubazar (Belogorsk; 3,144, nearly all Krimchaks); Feodosiya (3,109); and Yevpatoriya (Eupatoria).

Crimea as a Potential Jewish Homeland

The Crimean peninsula was, for decades, a potential Jewish homeland. After Catherine the Great conquered Crimea from the Ottomans in 1783, she encouraged Jewish settlement in the region. In the following century, tens of thousands of predominantly young Jews moved to this part of "New Russia." By the late 1800s, Crimea had become a thriving training center for future Zionist pioneers who used the land to test agricultural techniques before they relocated to Palestine. In fact, Joseph Trumpeldor once trained potential migrants in Crimea. The Soviet Politburo was even behind the idea and accepted a proposal to establish a Jewish Autonomous Region in Crimea in 1923, though it later reversed the decision. Even so, from 1924 until 1938, the Joint Distribution Committee - through the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation and its American Jewish financiers - supported Jewish agricultural settlements in Soviet Crimea.

The 1941 Nazi invasion of the USSR seemingly squashed the Zionist possibility in Crimea, and most Jewish colonists fled east to avoid the war’s front, and some even traveled as far as Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. These Jewish migrants reestablished their collective farms in new areas, though, and helped the Red Army fight Hitler’s Nazis. After the Red Army’s routing the Germans out of the Crimea in 1944, tens of thousands of Jews returned to the peninsula from the east and resettled in their abandoned communities. Somolon Mikhoels and Itsik Fefer, Yiddish actor and poet, respectively - whom Stalin had earlier appointed to represent the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee - met with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to discuss the prospect of establishing a Jewish homeland in the Crimea. (The Stalin-appointed Molotov had signed the nonaggression pact six years earlier that enabled Germany to invade Poland.) Mikhoels and Fefer left their meeting thinking Molotov would support their plan and send Stalin a memo about the proposal.

Instead, Stalin used the Crimean proposal to attack Soviet Jewry. After the 1947 UN vote to establish the State of Israel, Stalin grew suspicious yet again of Jewish national aspirations because the UN vote rendered the Crimea proposal moot. On January 12, 1948, Stalin started his vicious anti-Jewish campaign by murdering Mikhoels, and in the next year or so, he arrested and or exiled members of the Jewish Antifascist Committee. He secretly tried fifteen other Jewish people for allegedly conspiring with the U.S. to establish a Jewish republic in Crimea. After the War, in 1952, thirteen of the defendants, including Fefer and other Yiddish thinkers, writers, and actors, were executed in Moscow on the infamous Night of the Murdered Poets. In 1954, the Kremlin transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, officially extinguishing the flicker of its hope as a Jewish homeland.

Soviet Union

There were 39,921 Jews living in the Crimea in 1926 (6.1% of the total population), of whom 17,364 lived in Simferopol (19.6%); 5,204 in Sevastopol, 3,248 in Feodosiya (11.3%); 3,067 in Kerch; and 2,409 in Yevpatoriya (10.6%). In 1939 there were 47,387 Jews (8.1% of the total population), of whom 22,791 (15%) lived in Simferopol; 5,988 (5.5%) in Sevastopol; 5,573 (5.3%) in Kerch; 4,249 (9%) in Yevpatoria; 2,922 (6.5%) in Feodosia; 2,060 (6.3%) in Yalta; and 1,397 (7.1%) in Dzhankoi. In the early 1920s, a movement for Jewish agricultural settlement in the Crimea began, pioneered by members of He-Haluz, who established the hakhsharah groups of Tel Hai (1922), Mishmar (1924), and Ma’yan (1925) in the Dzhankoi area. They were followed by numerous other Jewish groups. In 1924 the Soviet government initiated a large-scale settlement project to be implemented through Komzet with aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

A number of Soviet Jewish leaders were concerned with this project, such as M.(Y.) Larin and A. Bragin regarded it as the nucleus for establishing a Jewish Soviet Socialist Republic in Crimea. However, by the beginning of the 1930s, when it became clear that the unoccupied land available in Crimea was not adequate for large-scale settlement, the movement concentrated mainly on promoting settlement in Birobidzhan. The state allocated 342,000 hectares of land for Jewish settlement in the Crimea, on which 5,150 families had settled by 1931, including a commune named Voya Nova, established by a group of the Gedud ha-Avodah, who had returned from Palestine. Many of the settlers left the colonies when collectivization was introduced in the early 1930s and with increasing industrialization in the Soviet Union. Some of the settlements were organized in two Jewish national districts: Freidorf (in 1930) and Larindorf (in 1935). By 1938 there were 86 Jewish kolkhozes in the Crimea, cultivating an area of 158,850 hectares with 20,000 inhabitants (one-third of the total number of Jews in the Crimea). With the German occupation in 1941, the Jewish settlement and colonies in the Crimea were annihilated. The Nazis organized the systematic liquidation of the Ashkenazi Jews and Krimchaks but did not include the Karaites, who were recognized by the Germans as Jews by faith but not by race. According to a provisional report from the beginning of 1942, 20,149 Jews from western Crimea alone had already been "liquidated." On April 16, 1942, Crimea was declared Judenrein.

After the war, Jewish settlement in Crimea was renewed. Efforts were made to resettle Jews as farmers, but these were quickly abandoned. In 1959, the Jewish population numbered 26,374 (2.2% of the total population), according to the official census, of whom 11,200 lived in Simferopol (6%) and 3,100 in Sevastopol. In 1970 the Jewish population of the Crimea was concentrated in Simferopol, with an estimated Jewish population of 15,000; Sevastopol, where there was one small synagogue in the Jewish cemetery; Yevpatoria, with an estimated Jewish population of 8,000–10,000; and in smaller communities, e.g., Kerch, Yalta, and Feodosia. (See the map "Jews in the Crimea.") Crimea was involved in the affair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which led to the execution of its members.

Jewish Community Today

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine. In February 1992, the Crimean parliament proclaimed self-government and passed a constitution, however by May 1992, Crimea agreed to remain a sovereign territory of Ukraine.

In the 1990s, many Jews from Crimea immigrated to Israel and the West. As of 2014, the Jewish population of Crimea is approximately 15,000 out of a total population of 2 million on the peninsula.

In March 2014, Russian troops invaded the peninsula following an overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected government in Kyiv. Crimea’s parliament decided to hold a referendum asking whether the region should become part of Russia. The small Jewish community, led by the lone clergyman Rabbi Michael Kapustin, was relatively surprised by the action but said it was not unexpected.

Some Jewish residents expressed apprehension about possible anti-Semitic uprisings because the Russian military controls the area. On March 7, a man carrying a backpack arrived at the Ner Tamid Synagogue in Simferopol and spray-painted a large swastika and the words "Kill the Zhids (Jews)." "People don’t hang around this neighborhood at that hour," says Rabbi Kapustin, "and he wasn’t just some random drunk acting spontaneously. This was someone who arrived with the spray in his backpack and had planned it in advance."


A. Harkavy, Altjuedische Denkmaeler aus der Krim (1876); O. Lerner, Yevrei v novorossiyskom kraye (1901); A.N. Poliak, Kazariyyah (Heb., 1942); J. Golde, Di Yidishe Erdarbeter in Krim (1932); B. Nevelshtein, Freydorfskiy Yevreyskiy Natsionalny Rayon (1934); B. West (ed.), Be-Ḥevlei Kelayah (1963), 138–45.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. 
Haaretz, (March 10, 2014).
Times of Israel, (March 6, 2014).
Tablet, (March 4, 2014).