From: The Karaite Encyclopedia by Nathan Schur (Frankfurt, 1995)
Karaite tradition relates that the Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania defeated the Tartars in 1392 and among the prisoners he carried away were 330 Karaite families, whom he settled in Troki. The Karaites spread from there to other towns in Lithuania, such as Vilna, Birzai and Nowe Miasto, but Troki has remained their main centre.
The Karaites (and Rabbanites) were needed in order to serve as a middle class, between the aristocracy on one hand and the serfs working the land on the other, and therefore were granted privileges in order to induce them to settle and stay. Thus, in 1441, King Casimir IV of Poland (and Lithuania) granted them the same rights as those of the city of Magdeburg (in Germany). But there occurred also setbacks. In 1495 the Karaites (and Rabbanites) of Lithuania were expelled by the Grand Duke Alexander, but admitted into Poland by his brother King John Albert. His successor permitted in 1503 their return to Lithuania.
A council of all the Karaites of Lithuania was set up, which was dominated by the representatives of Troki. In 1533 it met in Troki. It cooperated with the Rabbanite Council of Lithuania, which met in 1586 at Grodno. Both worked together on taxation and the Karaites paid their taxes through the Rabbanite council. They suffered severely during the wars between Russians and Poles in the years 1654-1667, and could no longer meet the demands for taxation by the authorities as a result of their diminished numbers. Further, some of them moved in 1688 to Kukizow, in Galicia. Troki was devastated early in the eighteenth century by the wars of Charles XII of Sweden and by the ensuing famine and plague. Still, Lithuania was relatively less affected by the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 and the Haidamack pogroms of the eighteenth century and the local Karaites and Rabbanites acquired as a result a feeling of relative stability and security. Thus they developed no desire, till the later nineteenth century, to adopt the language and culture of the surrounding peoples.
Students from Lithuania had studied already in the fifteenth century with Elijah Bashyazi in Istanbul. Through the Hebrew translations prepared in Byzantium the Karaites of Lithuania could draw freely on the classical sources of the Karaite Golden Age. They accepted most of the innovations of the Bashyazis, such as the lighting of Sabbath candles, the beginning of the annual circle of Pentateuch readings in the month of Tishri (instead of Nissan), the arrangement of astronomical tables of moladot, etc. In Lithuania, in addition new customs of defilement were introduced, regarding the touching of the dead, with the Karaites shirking the obligation of helping with the burial of their own coreligionists, in order to avoid defilement. The Karaite religious writings in Lithuania were initially in Hebrew, but later they prepared translations into Karaimsk and wrote also original works, such as prayers, hymns and songs of mourning for departed leaders in that language. They were influenced by the spiritual flowering among the Rabbanites of Lithuania from the later sixteenth century onward. Some of the main Karaite writers and thinkers there were Isaac ben Abraham Troki (1533?- 1594?); his pupil, Joseph ben Mordecai Malinovski; Zerah ben Nathan of Troki (1576-1620); the physician Ezra ben Nisan (d. 1666); and Salomon ben Aharon of Troki, late in the seventeenth century.
In 1793 Lithuania was incorporated by Catherine the Great in Russia. The local Karaites shared in the nineteenth century the fate of the Karaites of that vast country and participated in the Karaite National Movement of that period. Many of them moved in due time to larger towns, such as Vilna or St Petersburg, while such old centers as Brizai and Nowe Miasto were abandoned. Still, Troki continued to be their main centre, and life there saved them from the extremes of assimilation which threatened them in some of the large cities. Late in the nineteenth century the Hakham of Troki was in charge of all the Karaite communities of Lithuania, Poland and western Russia. In 1897 the number of his charges amounted to 1443 (377 of them in Troki and 155 in Vilna).
During World War I the front line passed through Lithuania and the German High Command had the Karaites of Troki transferred early in 1918 to the Crimea. They were able to return home, after the German defeat and evacuation late that year. Some 250 Karaites lived in the 1920's in Vilna and some 300 in Troki, but both these places belonged between the wars to Poland. In Panevezys barely a hundred Karaites continued to live in Lithuanian territory. During World War II the Nazis did not exterminate the local Karaites, in line with their policy elsewhere. After the war the Soviets settled in Troki thousands of Karaite refugees from the Crimea and else where. In 1959 the census mentions an amazing 5700 Karaites there, but this number declined sharply in the years after. By 1991 M. El-Kodsi reported 150 Karaites in Vilna, 50 in Panevezys and just 80 in Troki. Some of those in Vilna held senior positions in the government of newly independent Lithuania or in the liberal professions.
Lithuania Cities with Karaim Settlers
- Troki (Trakai)
- Vilna (Vilnius)
A small town in Lithuania. According to Karaite tradition the first 330 Karaite families were settled there in 1392 by the Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania. They hailed from the Crimea and brought with them their Tartar dialect and many of their customs. Witold gave them a charter of rights, assuring them the status of freemen, religious liberty, the right to their own jurisdiction and commercial freedom. Later Lithuanian dukes and Polish kings extended these privileges from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In 1441 King Casimir of Poland granted them the same rights as those of the German city of Magdeburg. Half of Troki was by then settled by Karaites and they were allowed a court of law of their own.
Some outstanding Karaite scholars were active in Troki in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Isaac ben Abraham Troki, Joseph ben Mordecai Malinovski, Zera ben Nathan Troki, Salomon ben Aharon of Troki, Ezra ben Nissan (d. 1666) and Josiah ben Judah (d. after 1658).
In the castle of Troki a Karaite regiment was reportedly stationed, till 1655. In 1625 some Rabbanite families tried to settle in Troki, but in 1646 the Karaites obtained from Ladislas IV an order banning them from the city and forbidding them to compete commercially with the Karaites. Some of the Karaites of Troki became very wealthy. Relations with the local population were good, till the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648. The Karaites suffered severely during the wars between Russia and Poland in the years 16541667. In 1680 only thirty of their families were left in Troki. The town was devastated again early in the eighteenth century, by the wars of Charles XII of Sweden, and by the ensuing famine and plague, till only three Karaite families were left, and the sectarians could no longer block the settlement of Rabbanites there. 150 Rabbanites lived in Troki by 1765, and so did 300 Karaites. Catholic missionaries made serious attempts to convert the local Karaites, but failed in the end.
In the nineteenth century Troki continued, under Tsarist rule, to be an important Karaite centre, while many of the other old Karaite communities disappeared as their previous inhabitants settled in larger towns. The Karaites of Troki participated in the National Karaite Movement and enjoyed the resulting improvement of their legal status. They numbered 600 in 1879. The growing of cucumber continued to be their main occupation. The Hakham of Troki was appointed in 1840 as the head of all Karaites of Russia outside of the Crimea. Relations with the Rabbanites continued to be hostile as the Karaites persisted in trying to limit the number of Rabbanites in Troki, but eventually they were unsuccessful. In 1897 the Karaites of Troki numbered 377 and the Rabbanites 1112.
During World War I the front line passed through Lithuania and the German High Command had the Karaites of Troki transferred early in 1918 to the Crimea. They returned however later that year. In the 1920's they numbered some 300 souls. In 1940 Troki came under the Soviets, and a year later under the Germans. While the local Rabbanites were massacred, the Karaites were not touched. At the end of the war the Soviets seem to have settled there many of the displaced Karaites of Eastern Europe, and their 1959 census mentioned in Troki an amazing 5700 Karaites. As only 16,5% of them were able to speak their dialect, according to this census, it should be treated with some caution. In 1970 4571 were counted, but by 1991 nearly all had left and only 80 remained. There existed a scientific society for the study of Karaism and the old synagogue was kept up. In the nearby cemetery the inscriptions were initially in Hebrew, later mostly in Polish, and finally generally in Russian.
Touristic information: Environment and Monuments
Trakai is the city of South-Eastern Lithuania, 29 km to West from Vilnius, district center with 6000 inhabitants on 1150 ha territory (550 ha of them take up lakes). 4502 ha area in and around Trakai is the landscape reservation.
Tourists coming to Vilnius are likely to visit Trakai, the ancient capital of Lithuania. Trakai is one of the oldest Lithuanian settlements spreading over unique glacial terrain. The relief of Trakai features moraine hills and numerous lakes. Many hills emerge from water like islands. The lakes of Trakai lie in the highest enervations of a hilly massif and have a very small feeding area. The latter feature makes the whole environmental complex quite a specific phenomenon from the geo-ecological point of view.
To see a map of Trakai and its Karaim momuments, click here.
The settlement appeared in this convenient and secure place as early as the 1stmillennium A.D. After the establishment of the centralized Lithuanian state. Trakai was one of its first capitals. In the 14th century a fortified castlewas built on the peninsula of the Lake Galve and the construction of an insular castle was begun which in the 15th century became the residence of Lithuanian Grand Dukes. It is believed that in the 15th century Trakai enjoyed the Magdeburg Rights. At the end of the 14 century, then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded its territories reaching as far as the Black Sea, the Grand Duke Vytautas brought some 400 families of Karaites (a small ethnic group) from the Crimea to serve as his castle guards. Thus, in 1989, the 600th anniversary since the arrival of the Karaites to Trakai was marked.
Several dozen of Karaite families still live in Trakai up to the present time. They have retained their language and customs. The whole Karaite heritage deserves special protection. Trakai is a unique monument of glacial landscape, Lithuanian history and of the Karaite culture. As an original combination of nature and history, and an object of great aesthetic significance, Trakai is visited by about 350 thousand people annually.
To read more about Beautiful Trakai, its environment and history, click here.
Lithuanian town, which held a Karaite community in recent centuries. Between the world wars the city belonged to independent Lithuania (while nearby Vilna and Troki were under Polish rule) and housed about one hundred Karaites, who lived in a quarter of their own. M. ElKodsi counted there 50 Karaites in 1991.
The capital of Lithuania. Karaites settled initially in nearby Troki, while Vilna had a large Rabbanite congregation. Some Karaites moved however also to Vilna, and their synagogue was built of stone, in the Crimean style. During the nineteenth century their numbers increased, while such old communities as Brizai were abandoned. In 1899 they numbered 155. The than those of Troki and congregation of Vilna had a more urban character.
A few Karaites studied at the local Academy, which had been founded by the Jesuits. Between the two world wars Vilna belonged to Poland. Quite a few of the Karaites of Troki moved to Vilna, but the Hakham continued to reside in Troki. They numbered some 250. They did not have a quarter of their own, and their centre was in the Zwierzymiec quarter, where their synagogue stood. They cooperated with the Germans in World War II, and one Rabbanite survivor reports that some of them played an unedifying role in the Vilna ghetto. On the other hand, some Rabbanites there are reported to have survived the Holocaust by posing as Karaites. After the war their synagogue was confiscated by the Soviets, but returned under Gorbachev. M. ElKodsi found there in 1991 150 Karaites, their largest community in Lithuania. The street next to their synagogue is called Karaite street. Their cemetery is also used by Muslim Tartars.
Signs of New Life in Karaim Communities by Tapani Harviainen, University of Helsinki. (An article which describes the cultural revival of Karaims of Lithuania.)
Recent Publications of Lithuanian Karaims, from the article of Tapani Harviainen.
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