Jewish agricultural settlements in southern Ukraine and Crimea, 1920s–1930s. (Based on Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924-1941 [New Haven, 2005], by permission of the Cartographic Laboratory, Geography Department, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem [Tamar Soffer])

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A peninsula in the Black Sea with a multiethnic population. Since 1992, Crimea has been an autonomous republic within independent Ukraine. Russia annexed the region from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. From 1921 it was an autonomous republic of the Russian SSR; it was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. Jews have lived there since at least the first century CE, consisting of Karaite, Krymchak, and Ashkenazic elements. The Jewish population remained below 10,000 until the 1880s.

Karaites of Theodosia (Caffa). Auguste Raffet, 1837. Print. The illustration depicts Karaites in Kefe (Feodosiya), on the Crimean Peninsula, a key center of Karaite life. (Image courtesy Golda Akhiezer)

The tsarist regime permitted Jews to settle in Crimea in 1791 as part of the gradual inclusion of “New Russia” into the Pale, but later expelled most Jews from the peninsula’s major cities. Flight from the pogroms sweeping over the Pale in 1881–1882 and Crimea’s increasing promise as a hub for Russia’s agricultural export catalyzed growth of the Ashkenazic population; it reached 28,703 by 1897 (5.1% of the total population), in addition to 5,400 Karaites and 3,300 Krymchaks. Notwithstanding discriminatory legislation, standards of living and the official treatment of Jews at this time were usually better in Crimea than in other parts of the Pale. Institutional life expanded from the 1880s, with an influx of religious functionaries (rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers, etc.) and political activists. The community was mostly urban, its livelihood deriving mainly from agriculture-related businesses.

Crimean Jews suffered greatly from the Russian Civil War (1918–1920), which reduced the Jewish population from 60,000 to 30,000. Nonetheless, the peninsula became a center of Zionist activity during these years as pogroms in Ukraine brought refugees who were searching for routes to Palestine or elsewhere. Yosef Trumpeldor trained a group of ḥalutsim (pioneers) there in mid-1919 and three He-Ḥaluts communes existed in northern Crimea between 1922 and 1929.

Starting in 1924, a foreign-funded agricultural settlement movement of Jews from the former Pale brought significant population growth and a shift in residence patterns. According to the 1939 Soviet census, 65,452 Jews lived in Crimea (5.8% of the population). Of these, 19,000–20,000 resided in 86 agricultural colonies, most of which were located in two Jewish autonomous districts (see map).

The German army occupied Crimea from autumn 1941 until spring 1944. It appears that the Soviet regime evacuated approximately half of the colonists and many urban residents to Central Asia before the German invasion. The Nazis gathered and murdered the remaining Ashkenazis and Krymchaks by late 1942; some of the former had fled to Crimea from southern Ukraine and Odessa. In total, the Nazis murdered 30,000–40,000 Crimean Jews.

Three young men in a wheat field at the Ḥakla’i (Farmer) settlement, Dzhankoi, Ukraine, USSR, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

After liberation, the Jewish community began anew, but with far fewer farmers; the Soviet regime had abolished the Jewish autonomous districts and non-Jews had occupied the colonies. In 1959, Jews constituted 2.2 percent (or 26,374 persons) of the total population, almost all in the cities.

What was to be known as the “Crimean Affair” became a focus of postwar tragedy for Soviet Jewry. Encouraged by the willingness of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to return to Russia, leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee promoted a new colonization project in Crimea in 1944. The Kremlin at first ignored the proposal but later used it to fabricate accusations and to convict the committee’s leadership on charges of conspiring with Americans (namely, the JDC) to take over Crimea and induce its secession from the Soviet Union. Although the regime refuted the “plot” in the late 1950s and gradually rehabilitated its victims, the concocted image of Crimea as a potential American Jewish bridgehead has persisted.

As of 2004, approximately 10,000 Jews remained in Crimea; half of these reside in the capital city of Simferopol’. The community has a number of religious, educational, and welfare institutions, most of which are affiliated with philanthropic agencies from abroad.

Suggested Reading

Yeḥezkel Keren, Yahadut Krim mi-kadmutah ve-‘ad ha-sho’ah (Jerusalem, 1981); Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds., Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (New Haven and London, 2001); Ella Isaakovna Solomonik, ed., Evrei Kryma: Ocherki istorii (Simferopol’, Ukr., 1997).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 358, Joseph A. Rosen, Papers, 1921-1938 (finding aid); RG 84, Maxim Vinawer, Papers, 1918-1923.