A forgotten genocide: The sad history of the Krymchaks

The story of the Krymchak Jewish community in Crimea is especially pertinent to the present story unfolding in Europe, as we remember their genocide at the hands of the Nazis 77 years ago.

A photograph of Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, considered the ‘Chacham’ of Krymchaki Jews, with his wife, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, taken shortly before he returned to Palestine in 1899 (photo credit: COURTESY OLEG KUZNETSOV)
A photograph of Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, considered the ‘Chacham’ of Krymchaki Jews, with his wife, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, taken shortly before he returned to Palestine in 1899
TODAY WE are witnessing attempts by various European countries to pass legislation whose purpose is to rewrite what happened during World War II and the Holocaust.
Democratic Poland has adopted one antisemitic law after another; post-Soviet Armenia has erected a monument to a Nazi accomplice in its capital’s central square; and there have been parades of former SS legionnaires in the Baltic region. All these are fearsome warnings: We need to remember history as it really was.
The story of the Krymchak Jewish community in Crimea is especially pertinent to the present story unfolding in Europe, as we remember their genocide at the hands of the Nazis and their henchmen 77 years ago.
Some 6,000 Krymchaks, about 90 percent of their total population, were murdered during the Holocaust. The Krymchaks were indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula, where Jews began to settle in the period of the Hellenistic diaspora following the conquest of Alexander the Great in 333 BCE.
When the Soviet Union took control of Crimea after World War II, it deported most of the remaining Krymchaks to Central Asia. By 2000, only 600 Krymchaks were living in the former Soviet Union, half in Ukraine and the rest in Georgia, Russia, and Uzbekistan. An estimated 700 Krymchaks live in the United States and Israel.
The bulk of Krymchaks lived in Crimean cities on the northern coast of the Black Sea in eastern Europe; they spoke a Turkic dialect of the Crimean-Tatar language and Russian, and were anthropologically not very different from Crimean Tatars.
Krymchaks always were and remained Jews, but did not significantly stand out among other ethnic groups of the Crimean Peninsula. Because of this, the action taken against Krymchaks during the Holocaust required a much more sophisticated organizational effort in comparison with the systematic destruction of European Jews. Nazi crimes against the Krymchaks would have been impossible without the assistance of local collaborators.
No studies known to us answer the question of who specifically “surrendered” the Krymchaks to Hitler’s executioners. With a high degree of certainty, we can assert that before the German capture of a large part of Crimea at the very beginning of November 1941, Nazis from the “D” SS and the police, led by Standartenfuhrer Otto Ohlendorf, did not even suspect the existence of the small community of Jews who called themselves “Krymchaki.” Therefore, until the spring of 1942, Adolf Hitler’s extermination forces did not touch the Krymchaks.
A report that a significant number of the Krymchaks who lived in Simferopol were shot together with other local Jews and buried in an anti-tank ditch on the Feodosiya Highway on November 11-13, 1941, seems unlikely to be true. There has been no confirmation of this claim with objective data. None of the Krymchaks can confirm or refute it, since most of them were exterminated.
The actions of the German occupation authorities in Crimea in November-December 1941 convincingly attest to the fact that until a certain time, the Nazis definitely did not equate Krymchaks and Jews. Documents of the Nazi administration that the Soviet troops and NKVD received later confirm this assertion.
Thus, while on November 24, 1941, the order of the Hitler Commandant’s Office obligated all Jews to register at the local city hall, only on November 26 was a similar order issued against the Krymchaks. Moreover, while all Jews were obliged to sew a six-pointed yellow star on their clothes, the police commandant’s office never gave similar orders to the Krymchaks.
On December 5, 1941, the request was sent to Berlin, asking what policy should be carried out with regard to Krymchaks. And the response from the Imperial Chancellery stated that the Krymchaks should be exterminated together with all other Jews.
The commandant’s office in Kerch, a city in the east of Crimea, and the municipal authorities planned to begin the extermination of the city’s Krymchaks on January 3, 1942, a month after the executions of local Jews began.
Obligatory registration of the local population by ethnicity at the territorial police offices and local administration offices concerned not only Jews but also representatives of other ethnic groups slated for extermination by the Nazis because this bureaucratic measure was conceived to reveal the general picture of ethnicities on occupied territory.
Such a “census” was conducted in Crimea throughout November and the beginning of December 1941. Germans, Italians and Bulgarians who lived on the peninsula immediately received rights and benefits similar to those of members of the occupation ad- ministration and soldiers of the occupation forces, since Italy and Bulgaria were allies of Hitler’s Germany. All other residents received, depending on their ethnicity, access to rights in the following sequence: first Crimean Tatars, then Armenians, then Greeks, Russians and Ukrainians.
It is not surprising that Crimean Tatars supported the Nazi occupation administration: collaborators from this community were the most active assistants to the new government. Secondly, Nazi Germany wanted very much to enlist Turkey to be one its allies. Turkey had already declared its neutrality, but Berlin did not lose its hope of making Ankara an intermediate point on the “Berlin-Rome-Tokyo” axis, and demonstrated to the best of its ability its loyalty to Muslim peoples and Islam in general.
CRIMEAN ARMENIANS’ second place in the hierarchy of accomplices of the Ger - man occupation regime is understandable because the RMSA (Reich Main Security Office) and the Armenian nationalist party, Dashnaktsutyun, established close contacts in the winter-spring of 1940. After that, the ramified structure of Armenian nationalists around the world practically served the im- perial security organs of the Third Reich.
The first Dashnak leaders contacted by the SD and the Abwehr were Garegin Ter-Harutyunyan, better known under the pseudonym Nzhdeh, and Arshak Jamalyan-Isahakyan, who led the Dashnak party structures in Bulgaria and France, later joined by Sarkis Araratyan and Drastamat Kanayan (aka Dro), who were leaders of the Romanian Dashnaks. Finally, the European branches of the Dashnaktsutyun moved to the service of the SD in April 1940 and began working for the Abwehr in August 1941. Together with the Crimean Tatars, Armenians were regarded as proven and reliable allies of the Nazis.
The German occupation authorities organized the massacres of Jews and Crimeans, and the Crimean Tatars were among the most active perpetrators of these crimes, but none of the murderers could act effectively and efficiently without a wide circle of accomplices. Who were these collaborators?
All known historians leave this question unanswered. Let us note that practically the entire personnel of the German civilian occupation administration of Crimea consisted of representatives of the Armenian community. It is no accident that on May 29, 1944, almost immediately after the liberation of the Crimea by Soviet troops, secret documents were issued by the State Defense Committee of the USSR (No. 5984ss) titled “On Eviction from the Territory of the Crimean USSR of Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians.”
According to this document, more than 20,000 Armenians were deported from the peninsula – practically the entire Armenian community. In the eyes of the Soviet authorities, Armenians along with the Crimean Tatars were implicated in total collaboration with the German-Romanian occupiers.
Surprisingly, the modern Armenian political elite, represented by the Republican Party of Armenia and President Serzh Sargsyan, does not deny Armenian collaboration with the Nazis, including their crimes in Crimea. In the booklet “Garegin Nzhdeh and His Teachings,” published in Yerevan on behalf of this party in 2004, it is explicitly stated that in 1940, in agreement with the SD and Abwehr from Bulgaria to Germany, a group of young Armenians arrived for training in reconnaissance and sabotage activities.
Upon completion of their training in 1943, they moved to Crimea, where they formed the basis for the creation of a special Abwehr school for the training of agents for sabotage in the rear of the Soviet army in the northern Caucasus. The initiator and organizer of this Nazi project was the previously mentioned Garegin Ter-Harutyunyan (Nzhdeh), whose monument was recently erected in Yerevan.
According to current Armenian state ideology, Armenian cooperation with the Nazis is perceived as a heroic chapter in their history. Hitler’s collaborators appear not as criminals , but as national heroes. Unfortunately, modern Armenia, following some other countries in the post-Soviet era, has become a place for which Judeophobia has become an acceptable norm in political life.
The destruction of the Krymchaks in the first half of 1942 should be thoroughly studied and filled with facts and testimonies, indicating the specific names of the executioners. For the State of Israel, it is important to record and study the history of the almost forgotten genocide of the Krymchak people by Nazis and their collaborators.
Roman Gurevich, an entrepreneur and political strategist , who is one of the most influential people in Israel’s Russian-speaking community, asks, “Why are some people in today’s Europe striving to distort history? Because of the shame for what their fathers and grandfathers did? We know one thing for sure: One who forgets history is doomed to repeat it.
“Israel is the state of Jewish people and we are obliged to stand guard against any manifestations of antisemitism, against any attempts to distort historical facts and to glorify the Nazis of all countries as well as their accomplices. We honor the memory of our heroes and Nazi victims, and we will not allow anyone to forget the crimes of murderers and their accomplices.”
There were heroes and righteous people in every nation who fought against fascism and helped Jews, Gurevich says, but in some nations there were those who collaborated with the Nazis.
“How dare you today present as heroes those who sought to help Hitler’s victory and forget the heroes who gave their lives in the fight against the fascist plague?” he says. “Pathetic words that they helped Hitler in order to help their people do not explain this. There is evil and there is good. There are those who sought to plunge the world into darkness and their accomplices. And there are those who resisted evil.”
Gurevich does not understand how the world can be silent when a monument to a Nazi collaborator is erected in the central square of the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
“This is a monument to the person who said, ‘By helping Germany win this war you are helping the victory of Armenia.’ Why make a monument to him, and not to the heroic marshal of the Red Army, Bagramyan? Why did Poland adopt a law allowing for the criminal prosecution of anyone who suggests that some Poles helped the Nazis, but decline to pass a law on perpetuating the memory of those who saved Jews, often at the cost of their lives? Why in Lithuania is Ruta Vanagaite, the author of the book “Ours,” which addresses the extermination of the Jews by Lithuanian people, considered an enemy of the people and a traitor?” he asks.
“What do all these facts tell us about the modern world? We will never forget and will not forgive. And we must do everything to ensure that our descendants and the next generations know the truth about those monstrous atrocities, including the sad history of the Krymchaks,” he says.
The writer, who holds a doctorate in history, is a specialist in war crimes.