History had taught the Karaites that it was better if the world didn’t find out too much about them. Tiriyaki took my pen and drew a tree in my notebook, its trunk forking into three branches.
‘Those,’ he said, pointing to the roots, ‘are the commandments.’
‘These’ – the three branches – ‘are the New Testament, the Talmud, and the Qur’an.’
‘This’ – the trunk – ‘is the Torah. Our only scripture. Karaites believe in the Jewish faith as it was when Jesus Christ was born and before other things were subsequently added.’
The Karaites had never accepted the Talmud. This had isolated them from all other Jews, who had never really known what to make of the Karaites. This had worked to their advantage in the Russian Empire – unlike other Jews, the Karaites had not been subject to restrictions on the professions they could pursue. A few of them had made large fortunes, especially in the tobacco trade. This wealth was visible in the old kenesa – the Karaite synagogue in whose hall I was sitting with Tiriyaki, a sumptuous religious complex with vine-draped colonnades, marble tombs, carved wooden interiors, and warm stained-glass windows.
When the Nazis invaded Crimea in the war, they didn’t know what to think of the Karaites either. Were they Jews? The Nazis commissioned an assessment by a Polish Jewish historian who, against his better judgement, declared the Karaites to be non-Jews, clearly to spare them the fate he would later suffer himself: he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. His scheming paid off, however. The Nazis murdered the Crimean Jews but they spared the Karaites, whom they classified as a Turkic people.
Not long afterwards, the Karaites had a second stroke of luck. Their lenient treatment by the Germans could well have been a good reason for Stalin to have them deported alongside the Tatars, especially as the two minorities spoke very similar languages. Yet this cup too passed over them. For Stalin, the Karaites appeared to be Jews.
The kenesa in Yevpatoria had been closed down after the war, just like Crimea’s churches, mosques, and Jewish synagogues. The historic religious complex had been converted into a ‘museum of atheism’, and the outbuildings were used as grain silos. The community hall had become a nursery, which Tiriyaki had gone to as a boy, knowing full well that his grandmother had still been praying in the kenesa only a few years earlier.
There were now only a few hundred Karaites living in Crimea. Many had emigrated to Israel in the 1990s. The devout core of his community, Tiriyaki said, consisted of forty people.
We had been talking for less than half an hour when the old community leader began to give me signals that he’d said everything he was prepared to say. ‘If you have no further questions …’
But I do, I longed to cry, hundreds of them. Yet Tiriyaki’s expression was so forbidding that I confined myself to the central question whose insolubility had saved the Karaites’ lives twice. Where were they from? Were they a Turkic people that had converted to Judaism in the distant past? Or were they Semitic immigrants who had only become Turkicspeaking in Crimea? I knew that this matter was controversial among the Karaites too.
Tiriyaki stared at me impassively. His face was hard to read – not so much as the twitch of a muscle.
‘Origins are a card that politicians love to play. They are of no consequence to the faithful.’
He stood up and offered me his hand. I was already halfway to the door when he uttered a few final words as a send-off.
‘The Karaites lived here under the Tatar khans, under the tsars, the Soviets, the German occupiers, the Ukrainians, and now the Russians again. No one could drive us out. We are still here. That is all that counts.’