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    Karaims and Tatars - 600 years in Lithuania

    Tapani Harviainen

    At the end of June last year (1997) two Turkic minorities, the Karaims and Tatars, celebrated the 600th anniversary of their settlement in Lithuania. 1397 - the year of the arrival to Lithuania has been repeated in writing and speech over a long period and has thus received the status of a national legend. No document indicating the date has been preserved; it would also be an interesting task to investigate the development of this tradition. Nevertheless, it is evident that both the Karaims and the Tatars have been living in present-day Lithuania since at least the 15th century.

    Both communities derive their origin from the Turkic lands in the steps north of the Black Sea and on the shores of it. The Tatars are Muslims, the Karaite religion derives its origin from Judaism, although, from a national viewpoint, the Karaims are independent of Jewish connections. Due to their common background and the good contacts existing between the communities, it was decided several years ago that the 600th anniversary celebrations would be arranged by both nationalities jointly and the event was set for 26-29 July 1997.

    First, some words about these communities at the present day. The Tatars of Lithuania (and of neighbouring areas of Poland and Byelorussia) lost their native Turkic vernacular by the 18th century. Nevertheless, Islam has been a sufficiently strong denominator to maintain the community in existence until this very day. According to the official presentation National Minorities in Lithuania (Vilnius 1992) approximately 4,000 Tatars were living in Lithuania in 1992; however, in the census of 1989 their number was 5,135. The difference goes back to the fact that is a very difficult task to distinguish between "native" Tatars and more recent Tatar immigrants in statistical surveys. The Tatars have been living in villages in the south-eastern and central parts of Lithuania. At present their sociological status is rather prominent - an important investigation of this theme was presented by Mr. Ramunas Janusauskas in a paper read at the jubilee conference.

    The "old", native Tatars are once again culturally active in Byelorussia and Poland, too - in Minsk the monthly journal Zhizn' of the local Tatars has appeared in 30 issues and plans for rebuilding the destroyed mosque are well in progress. Their representatives participated in the celebrations in Lithuania with an exhibition of their recent publications.

    The Karaim community is small indeed. It consists of 260 members living in the former capital city of Trakai (Troch in Karaim and Troki in Polish; 65 persons), in Vilnius (138 persons), Panevezys (31 persons) and a few other places; Trakai is their traditional home in Lithuania. Their religion is the reformed Karaite version of Judaism, their sacred language has been Hebrew, knowledge of which is on the verge of extinction, and their vernacular is the Turkic Karaim language, which is still spoken by 40 or 50 members of the community. Since the second half of the 19th century Karaim has been the language of literature and at present it is also used in the liturgy in the kenesa temples. Polish has served as the lingua franca of the Karaims for centuries, the vast majority of them being trilingual (Lithuanian, Polish, Russian), while Karaim may be a fourth language. And despite these peculiarities the Karaims have enjoyed the reputation of being good Lithuanians.

    An important study of the demography of the Karaims was published in Lithuanian and English in connection with the celebrations. In addition, the completion of two other Karaim books solemnized the feast. These are a general description of the Karaims, entitled Lietuvos karaimai, by Halina Kobeckaite and Cypvychlej ucma Trochka. Lietuva karajlarnyn jyrlary - I Trakus pauksciu plasnosiu. Lietuvos karaimu poezija ('I Shall Fly to Trakai like a Bird - Poetry of the Lithuanian Karaims'), an anthology of Karaim poetry from Trakai in the original language with Lithuanian translations by several well-known Lithuanian poets; the elegant book is compiled and edited by Karina Firkaviciute. A new Karaim calendar for the period 1996-2000, calculated by Mykolas Firkovicius, was also distributed to the participants in the celebrations. It is amazing how active this tiny community has been in the field of publications: during eight years after the restrictions of the communist period a score of books, articles and translations have appeared.

    In the public life of Lithuania the 600th anniversary was commemorated at a high level. It is worth mentioning that the Tatars and Karaims enjoy the reputation of being an organic part of Lithuanian society. In a way they have been considered to be national Lithuanian minorities - in contrast to the Poles, Russians and Jews who have been more or less viewed as foreigners in the popular imagination.

    A number of signs of official attention were granted to the event: In the National Museum of Lithuania an extensive Karaim exhibition was on display from spring 1997. In March 1997 a commemorative 50-litas silver coin was issued by the Bank, and two first-day covers were released during the celebrations by the Lithuanian Post Office. At the festive soirŽe at the Academic Drama Theatre Mr. Algirdas Brazauskas, President of Lithuania, awarded a great number of medals to prominent representatives of these communities; the feast was also attended by the Chairman of Parliament, Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis, who delivered a speech in honour of the occasion.

    The anniversary programme consisted of two main parts: a joint international conference lasting two days (26-27 June 1997) in the Main Hall of the Academy of Sciences in Vilnius, and national, ethnic programmes arranged by the Karaims in Trakai and by the Tatars in Kaunas.

    At the conference, entitled Tatars and Karaims in Lithuania: Past and Present, a score of papers were read in Lithuanian, Polish, English and Russian - with an excellent simultaneous translation into the other languages. The presentations dealt with various aspects of the history, languages and culture of the Karaims and Tatars. In particular, I should like to pinpoint the lecture of Dr. Eva Csat— (Mainz) on the Karaim language today in Lithuania and in Halicz; according to her 40-50 speakers know Lithuanian Karaim, while in Halicz, in the Ukraine, only six persons still keep the local dialect alive. Dr. Selim Chazbijewicz's (Gdansk) presentation on the publishing activities of Polish Tatars in the period 1939-1996 (or in fact 1950-1996) shed interesting light on the cultural vigour of the Tatar minorities in Eastern Europe. Above I have referred to the paper by Ramunas Janusauskas (Alytus, Lithuania) dealing with the identity of the Lithuanian Tatars. For my part, I had the pleasure to describe the Firkovich Collections in St. Petersburg as a further source for the history of the Eastern European Karaims. Unfortunately, it seems improbable that the papers will be published in a collected form.

    On Sunday, 29 June, the Tatars held their convention in Kaunas, where a service in the mosque and ethnographic performances constituted the main events of their celebrations.

    In Trakai on Saturday, 28 June, there was a splendid opportunity to enjoy the festival programme arranged by the Karaims themselves and by the city of Trakai. The day was opened in the recently restored kenesa temple of the Karaims. The service was conducted by the hazzan Mykolas Firkovicius in Karaim; a number of young boys also actively participated in the reading of the liturgy. In their religious life the Karaim language has completely replaced Hebrew.

    The kenesa service was followed by a folkloristic procession depicting the arrival of the Karaims in Trakai. The colourful procession was led by mounted Karaim soldiers, members of the bodyguard of the Grand Duke Vytautas, who is said to have brought 383 Karaim families from the Crimea 600 years ago. Families followed the soldiers on horse-drawn carts; ladies and girls wore stylish national costumes and many of them were once again carrying cucumbers and other traditional products of Karaim gardens to Trakai. The mayor of Trakai, the priests of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as all the national groups in the city, i.e. Poles, Russians and Lithuanians, welcomed - yet again - the Karaims to Trakai. The municipality donated a large copy of the traditional coat-of-arms of the Karaims to the community.

    After the procession a concert was held in the magnificent Island Castle of Trakai where the municipality also offered a reception. Later in the afternoon the Karaim museum was reopened after careful restoration, and a memorial tablet fixed on the wall of the house of the former religious leader, scholar and poet Simonas Firkovicius (1897-1982) was unveiled.

    A historical play offered another opportunity to listen to the Karaim language. The play Tirlik jolda, tirlik Trochta ('Life on the Way, Life in Trakai'), written by Simonas Juchnevicius, described in two acts the life of the Karaim forefathers in the Crimea and their settlement in Trakai; a number of beautiful songs lent the play something of the flavour of a musical.

    The sunny festival day was closed by an evening party on the shore of Lake Galve with a picnic, music and dancing. After the arrival of Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis a sparkling fireworks display, reflected in the calm waters of the lake, added an impressive finishing touch to the celebrations.

    Despite a number of pessimistic views with regard to the future, let us wish the Karaims and Tatars numerous centennial anniversaries in Lithuania and in all the lands in which they live.



    More about the Karaims and Tatars in Lithuania:

    Tapani Harviainen: "Signs of new life in Karaim communities" (Ethnic encounter and culture change. Nordic Research on the Middle East 3. Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Bergen 1997, pp. 72-83; on the Internet since 1995: http://www.hf-fak.uib.no/Institutter/smi/paj/HarviainenD.html)

    Karaimai Lietuvoje - Karaims in Lithuania (Statistikos departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos Vyriausybes. Vilnius 1997. 61 pp.).

    Liisi Huhtala - Tapani Harviainen, "Maila Talvio, a Finnish Authoress Visits the Karaims in Trakai in 1894" (Studia Orientalia, 82, 1997, s. 99-109).

    The pronunciation tradition of Hebrew among the Lithuanian Karaims has retained ancient Tiberian features shared elsewhere only by the Yemenite traditions; for details, see my articles "De Karaitis Lithuaniae: Transcriptions of Recited Biblical Texts, Description of the Pronunciation Tradition, and the Peculiarities of Shewa" (Orientalia Suecana, XXXVIII-XXXIX, 1991, pp. 36-44), and "The Karaites of Lithuania at the Present Time and the Pronunciation Tradition of Hebrew among them: A Preliminary Survey" (Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of the International Organization for Masoretic Studies 1989. Masoretic Studies, Number 7, Scholars Press 1992, pp. 53-69).

    György Lederer, "Islam in Lithuania" (Central Asian Survey, 14:3, 1995, pp. 425-448).

    The classical history of the Tatars of Lithuania, Tatarzy Litewscy by Stanislaw Kryczynski (Warszawa 1938), was published in Lithuanian translation (Lietuvos totoriai) by Tamara Bairasauskaite in Vilnius in 1993. In 1996 her study Lietuvos totoriai XIX amziuje appeared in Vilnius.

    S.U. Dumin - I. B. Kanapacki, Belaruskija tatary. Minulae i suchasnasc' (Minsk 1993, 208 pp.).