On January 5, 1939, the Reich Office for Genealogical Research issued a written opinion stating that it did not view the Karaite community as being racially connected to the Jews.
Although this was hardly the last word on the subject from within the vast Nazi hierarchy, which was obsessed with pseudo-scientific questions of this type, the statement served as the basis for what became the fundamental German policy toward these descendants of this ancient non-Rabbinic Jewish sect. As a consequence, most of the approximately 7,000 Karaites living in those parts of the Soviet Union occupied by Germany were spared annihilation by the Nazi killing machine, even as their Jewish neighbors were deported or simply murdered on the spot.
Distinct from the Jews
The history of the Karaites, who differ ideologically from Jews in that they do not recognize the authority of Jewish oral law, extends back at least to the seventh-century, C.E., Middle East. For Karaites, only the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) has divine authority, whereas in the normative Judaism that came about in the centuries following the first-century, C.E., destruction of the Second Temple, the Talmud and other works of rabbinic interpretation of the Bible also have the status of holy writ.
Jumping ahead to the 20th century, Karaites – whose name derives from the Hebrew root “kara,” meaning “read” – broke down into two basic ethnic groups: those living in the Middle East, mostly in Egypt, who saw themselves as Jews, and who as a group mostly immigrated to Israel after 1948; and the Karaylar Karaites, whose presence in what became czarist Russia can be traced back to 1278. Although the Karaylar Karaites also believe in the divine origin of the Hebrew Bible, and they share a number of holidays with the Jews, they do not see themselves as Jews and racially seem to be descended from the Turkic or Tatar peoples of eastern Europe.
Already during the 19th century, the Karaylar Karaites of what are today Lithuania and Ukraine appealed to the Russian czarist government to be recognized as distinct from the Jews, who were subject to a wide variety of restrictions and punitive policies. For the most part, this recognition was forthcoming.
Serving with the Waffen SS
The subject became relevant to the Nazi Germans as early as 1937, when a group of 18 Karaites living in Germany requested official exemption from the Nuremberg Laws, passed in 1935, which placed severe limitations on Jews’ participation in public life. This request was passed on to the Reich Institute for Genealogical Research.
In his response, issued on this day in 1939, the head of the office wrote that “the Karaite sect is not considered a Jewish religious community.” At the same time, however, he noted that “it is impossible to determine that, as a group, the Karaites belong to another race.”
The question continued to occupy the Germans, however, particularly after the occupation of Lithuania, in June 1941, with up to 1,000 Karaites, and then, five months later, with the occupation of Crimea, where approximately 6,500 Karaites lived.
Although different opinions were voiced, the bottom line was that, on December 8, 1941, an oral order emanated from SS head Heinrich Himmler confirming that Karaites were not to be classified as Jews. The fact that Himmler’s order was not written left room for a possible future change in policy.
Scholar Kiril Feferman, an expert on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, noted in a 2010 article that the Germans had political reasons to spare the Crimean Karaites, who were under the protection of the local Tatar population. Both the Tatars and the Karaites in Crimea volunteered for local police forces, and when the Germans withdrew from Crimea, writes Feferman, some 500-600 Karaites left with them and continued to serve in the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht.
According to Feferman, there were only two cases of Karaites being murdered during the war, in Kiev – where Karaites were killed together with Jews at Babi Yar; and in Krasnodar – where local Russian police murdered several dozen local Karaites, without their German overlords going to the trouble of undertaking a supposedly scientific inquiry into their Jewishness. These groups were the exception to the rule, however.
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