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Karaites Collection

Identifier: RG 40

Scope and Content Note

This collection contains articles and portions of books originally written in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish, and translated into German by three Jewish scholars supervised by Zelig Kalmanowicz. The original works from which the translations were made were authored by: Julius Brutzkus (1870-1951); Reuben Fahn (1878-1939?); Abraham Kahana (1874-1946); Toviyah ben Simhah Levi-Babovich (1879-1956); Raphael Mahler (1899-1977); Seraya Szapszal (1873-1961); and Ananiasz Zajaczkowski (1903-1970). Levi-Babovich, Szapszal, and Zajaczkowski were Karaite scholars. The other authors were scholars from the Rabbinite Jewish community.

Among the topics covered in this translated material: the precursors of the Karaite movement; the origin of the Karaite sect; the ethnic and social character of the Karaite movement during its early period; the national and social foundations of the religion of Anan (an early Karaite leader); sectarian movements in early Karaism; the Karaite community in medieval Palestine; the Karaites of Crimea; the relationship between the Karaites and the Tatars in Crimea; the origin and history of the Karaites in Lithuania and Poland; the Karaite cemetery in Halicz, Poland; Jewish Maskilim and Karaite scholars in 19th century Lithuania and Poland.

One folder in this collection does not relate to the Karaites or to the Karaite movement. Folder 8, titled, Kalmanowicz, Zelig, (1881-1944) contains portions of two articles relating to Jewish medieval commentaries on the Books of Genesis and Exodus. These two articles were selected by Kalmanowicz and translated by him from the original Hebrew into German under orders from Dr. Gotthard of the Einstatzstab Rosenberg. The Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, Part I: Vilna Ghetto (RG 223.1, Part I), folder 625.1, held in the YIVO Archives, refers to this work carried out by Kalmanowicz.


  • Creation: 1942-1943

Language of Materials

The collection is in German.

Access Restrictions

The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.

Use Restrictions

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Historical Note

This collection consists of a small group of translations of articles and chapters of books dealing with Karaites and the Karaite movement. The Karaites were Jewish sectarians who broke away from the main body of Rabbinic Jewry during the eighth century. The Karaites disputed the authority of the rabbis, negated the value of their traditions (the "Oral Law"), and felt that the only authoritative source for Jews was the Biblical text itself, which any Jew could legitimately interpret on his own. From the eighth through the sixteenth century, the Karaites were a socially, economically and culturally significant group.

The earliest Karaite settlers in Eastern Europe appeared from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century in Crimea, Lithuania, Volhynia, and Galicia. They continued to use Hebrew as their language of prayer and religious studies, but adopted a Kipchak Turkic dialect, now called "Karaim," as their native tongue. By the early seventeenth century their population had diminished considerably. By then, the largest Karaite population centers were in Egypt, Turkey, and the Crimean Peninsula.

In 1441, Grand Duke Kazimierz Jagiello of Lithuania, and King of Poland, granted the Karaites of Troki (Trakai) Magdeburg rights which allowed them self-government privileges. This was followed by additional privileges granted to them in charters by various monarchs in subsequent years. By the sixteenth century, we find keen economic competition in Lithuania between Karaites and Rabbinite Jews. Notwithstanding this competition, both communities got along well, and collaborated on many issues of mutual interest.

After the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648, the largest settlement of Karaites in Lithuania, that of Troki (Trakai), 17 miles east of Vilna, was completely devastated. The Vilna Kahal wrote to the leaders of the Lithuanian Va’ad Arba Aratsot (Council of the Four Lands), requesting them to help the Karaites reestablish their community there. The Rabbinite Jews valued their relationship with the Karaites, and often benefited from the charters of privileges the Karaite leaders had obtained from the Lithuanian and Polish monarchs. The massacres led to great impoverishment of both Rabbinite and Karaite communities, which were to be rebuilt with a new tax burden placed on both communities. The Karaite community of Troki paid its taxes to the government through the Lithuanian Va'ad Arba Aratsot (Council of the Four Lands), a situation which then developed into a constant source of friction between the two groups.

Following the second partition of Poland, the Russian occupation of Lithuania in 1793 resulted in major changes in the fates of both communities. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Karaites began to receive preferential legal treatment. In 1795, they were relieved of the double tax imposed on the Jews. In 1837, the Karaites were able to create the Karaite Religious Consistory, which was officially recognized by the imperial Russian government. Motivated by economic and political concerns, they successfully disassociated themselves from the fate of the Rabbinite Russian Jews. In 1863, the Tsar formally recognized the Karaite community as a separate nationality, and ended its legal identification with Judaism. The Karaites were now granted full citizenship in the Russian Empire.

During the nineteenth century, Western European scholars of Turkic studies concluded that the Karaites were ethnic Turks who had been converted in the past to Karaism. Avraam Firkovich (1787-1875), a well known Karaite scholar, used gravestone inscriptions to support his position that the ancestors of the Karaites were active in the Crimea before the time of Jesus. Firkovich's intention was to demonstrate that in contradistinction to the Jews the Karaites could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus. Firkovich's evidence was questioned by some scholars of Karaite history. Other Karaites claimed that they were descendants of the Khazars. In later years, the Karaites were able to fall back on a variety of such theories, to demonstrate that they were not Jews, whenever they had to negotiate with government authorities who were hostile to the Jews.

During the interwar period, the Karaites had an active cultural and intellectual life in Vilna. A new kenesa (Karaite synagogue) was built and dedicated in Vilna in 1923. A Polish language Karaite journal, Mysl Karaimska, was started in Vilna in 1924. Several introductory pamphlets and books about the Karaite religion were published in Vilna during these years.

When the Nuremberg racial laws were first enacted on September 15, 1935, the small Karaite community of Berlin turned to Nazi officials and requested that they be exempted from these laws, based on their previous designation as non-Jews by the Tsarist government. The Nazis sent Paul Kahle, the prominent German orientalist and biblical scholar, to Leningrad to verify that this was indeed so, which he did by examining the Tsarist government's archival records. He concluded that the Karaites were an independent religious group unconnected to the Jews.

In 1938, a Karaite representative, armed with appropriate documents, addressed the Nazi "Reichsstelle fur Sippenforschung" (Reich Agency for Genealogical Research) with a request that the Karaites should not be considered Jews. A reply was received dated 1/5/1939 that the Karaites are not to be considered a Jewish community, but that their ethnic and racial relationship to Jews was subject to further scientific research. This enigmatic reply, while serving to protect Karaites from immediate destruction at the hands of the Nazis, nevertheless left the racial question open, which led to the issue being dealt with numerous times by various Nazi officials and government agencies.

With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Einsatzgruppen military units which had not been briefed on the special status of the Karaites, entered the Kiev area, and on September 29-30 1941, murdered hundreds of Karaites at Babi Yar. Later that year, Nazi troops approaching the Crimean peninsula once again questioned the Jewish status of the Karaites, and were informed by Heinrich Himmler that they were not to be killed. As a result, the Crimean Karaites in this region were not killed. However, the Krimchak Jews who lived in proximity to the Crimean Karaites and spoke Tatar, were identified by the Nazis as Rabbinite Jews. In December 1941, the majority of the 8,000 Krimchak Jews were executed.

Investigations about whether or not the Karaites were to be considered Jews, continued to be carried out by a number of Nazi ministries with jurisdiction over the occupied Eastern European territories. In 1942 the Nazis turned to the distinguished Jewish historians, Professor Majer Balaban and Dr. Ignacy Schipper, who were in the Warsaw Ghetto and who declared the Karaites to be of non-Jewish ethnic origin. Similarly, in the Lwow Ghetto, Dr. Leib Landau and Dr. Jacob Schall were instructed by the Nazis to compose a report on this matter. After the war, Dr. Philip Friedman wrote that Dr. Schall prepared the report which he reviewed with Dr. Landau. It stressed the point of view that the Karaites were of Turko-Mongol extraction.

On August 9, 1942 the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the "Special Task Force" headed by Adolf Hitler's leading ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, turned to Zelig Kalmanowicz in the Vilna Ghetto, and ordered him to prepare information about the Karaites. Kalmanowicz had been one of the founders of the YIVO Institute and active in its leadership. At that time Kalmanowicz was at the head of a group of Jewish scholars conscripted by the Ensatzstab Rosenberg. These scholars had been ordered to survey and classify books which the Nazi were planning to loot. Kalmanowicz was asked by the Nazis to write an overview of the history of the Karaites and to supervise the translation into German of Karaite source materials in various languages.

The translators working in the YIVO building included Dr. Yaakov Gordin, Dr. Dinah Yoffe, Y. Lamm, and Zelig Kalmanowlcz himself. Kalmanowicz translated the Russian work by the Karaite leader Seraya Szapszal. The Karaite Project took the scholars about half a year to complete, from October 1942 to the spring of 1943.

All the material in this collection was produced in that time and place, under Nazi orders. Additional documents in the YIVO Archives, Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, Vilna Ghetto, Part I, folders 674, 675, and 676, contain reports signed by Kalmanowlcz about the work of the Jewish translators on the Karaite project. These documents provide additional evidence about the Karaite Project and how the German language translations in this collection were produced.

At some point during this period, Nazi authorities arranged for a debate in the Vilna Ghetto between Zelig Kalmanowicz and the Karaite leader Seraya Szapszal, about the ethnic/racial status of the Karaites. Kalmanowicz went out of his way to demonstrate through whatever historical sources and documents he had at his disposal, that the Karaites where correct in their claim that they were not of Semitic origin, and had no racial connection with the Jewish people.


Ahiezer, Golda and Shapira, Dan. "Karaites in Lithuania and in Volhynia-Galicia until the Eighteenth Century." Pe’amim 89.(Autumn 2001): 19-60.

Ankori, Zvi. "Refa’el Mahler ve-ḥelko be-ḥeker ha-Kara’ut." Gal’ed 10 (1987): 11-40.

Arad, Yitzhak. The Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Lincoln, and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Fahn, Reuben. Kitve Reuven Fahn. Sefer ha-karaim, bi-shne sefarim. (Drukarnia "Minerwa," Lwów.) Bilgorai: Va-ad Ha-Yovel, 1929.

Friedman, Philip. "The Karaites under Nazi rule." In Beloff, Max. On the Track of Tyranny. London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1960: 97-123.

Green, Warren Paul. "The Nazi racial policy towards the Karaites." Soviet Jewish Affairs. 1978, 8, no. 2; 36-44.

Kalmanowicz, Zelig. "A Diary of the Nazi ghetto in Vilna," translated from Hebrew. Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science. Vol. VIII, New York: YIVO, 1953: 9-81.

Kizilov, Mikhail (ed.) Karaites through the travelers’ eyes. New York: Al-Qirqisani Center, 2003.

Kizilov, Mikhail. "Scholar, Zionist, and man of letters: Reuven Fahn (1878-1939/1944) in the Karaite community of Halicz." Kwartalnik Historii Zydow (Jewish History Quarterly.) 244, no. 4 (2012): 470-489.

Kizilov, Mikhail. The Sons of Scripture; The Karaites in Poland and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century. De Gruyter Open, Warsaw, July 2015.

Kunz, Norbert. " ‘The Jews are completely destroyed’: The fate of Jewish minorities in the Crimea in World War II." The Holocaust in Ukraine: New Sources and perspectives. Conference presentations, Washington D.C.: Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013: 121-142.

Mahler, Raphael. Karaimer: A Yidishe geule-bavegung in Mitlalter. Farlag Eliyahu Shulman. New York, 1947.

Mann, Jacob. Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, vol. II. Philadelphia: Karaitica, 1935.

Miller, Philip E. Karaite separatism in nineteenth-century Russia: Joseph Solomon Lutski’s Epistle of Israel’s Deliverance. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1993.

Ran, Leyzer (ed.). Bleter vegn Vilne. Lodz: Zamlbukh. 1947.

Seraya Szapsal’s Karaim Collection. Compiled by Zygnitas Bucys; authors: Vitalija Jocyte ... ; edited by Maryte Slusinskaite. ( 2nd rev. edition) Vilnius: National Museum of Lithuania, 2003.

Spector, Shmuel. "The Karaites in Nazi-controlled Europe as reflected in German documents." Pe’amim 29 (1987): 90-108.

Walfish, Barry Dov with Mikhail Kizilov. Bibliographia Karaitica: An Annotated Bibliography of Karaites and Karaism. Leiden: Boston; Brill, Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 2011.

Yeivin, Sh. (ed.) Studies in Jewish History: Presented to Professor Raphael Mahler on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday. Merhavia: Sifriat Poalim, with the assistance of the Tel-Aviv University, 1974.

Zajaczkowski, Ananiasz. Karaims in Poland: history, language, folklore, science. Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe (PWN), 1961.


1.04 Linear Feet


This collection contains translations into German of selections of scholarly works about the Karaites. Done under orders from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the translations were meant to assist the Nazis in determining if the Karaites were to be considered Jewish or not. The work was supervised by Zelig Kalmanowicz in the Vilna Ghetto from 1942 to 1943.


Arranged alphabetically by name of author.

Related Material

The personal archive of Seraja Szapszal survives to this day in the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences as MS. LMAB F. 143, and in the ethnographic collections of the National Lithuanian Museum in Vilna (sign. 805-929). The materials include the manuscript of Szapszal’s monograph "Karaimy Kryma" written between 1930-1942.

YIVO Archives’ Berlin collection, RG 215, contains other materials indicating the ongoing interest of the Nazis in the history and ethnographic background of the Karaites. See Folder OCCE-(CH)-1 and Folder OCCE 3bα-100.

YIVO Archives’ Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, Vilna Ghetto (RG 223.1 Part I), folders 674, 675, and 676, contain reports signed by Kalmanowitz on the work of the Jewish translators on the Karaite project.

Genre / Form



Guide to the Karaites Collection 1942-1943 RG 40
Materials processed, described, prepared for digitization and finding aid encoded by Rabbi Shmuel Klein with the assistance of Ettie Goldwasser in 2016.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional work funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference) (2016). Earlier work funded by the CJH Holocaust Resource Initiative from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (2012).

Revision Statements

  • August 2016: Added dao links by Eric Fritzler for demonstration and review.

Repository Details

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