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Before Crimea Was an Ethnic Russian Stronghold, It Was a Potential Jewish Homeland

Jews have lived in the area since ancient times, and leaders from Catherine the Great to Stalin encouraged their settlement there

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Three young men in a wheat field at the Ḥakla’i (Farmer) settlement, Dzhankoi, Ukraine, USSR, ca. 1920s. (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)
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In one verse of the song, Abrasha rides his tractor like a train, Auntie Leye is at the mower, and Beyle is at the thresher, all symbols of progress in the revolutionary era. Nowhere does the song mention the 25,000 Red Army soldiers and factory workers who forced villagers into the collective farms, shooting or arresting those who resisted. As many as 15,000 families were sent to “special settlements” in the Soviet east, while thousands were shot on the spot.

Those we interviewed preferred to remember the Crimea the way the song described it, as a Jewish utopia. They spoke fondly of attending the Yiddish language schools, where they studied mathematics, history, Marxism-Leninism, and farming techniques in Yiddish, and they remember evenings out at the Crimean Yiddish State Theaters. Others emphasized how Jews lived alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Muslim Tatars, and Germans.

When we interviewed Tatiana Marinina in 2002, for example, she told us about how her family had moved to the Lunacharskii Collective Farm, named after the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, in 1931. She fondly remembered the cows, the horses, the sheep, and the vineyards. She described how her mother, who was a “shock worker”—the Soviet term for a worker who over-fulfills her quota—would work the cotton fields. She recounted friendly relations between the Jews on the farm and the ethnic Germans, who lived in the nearby villages, and between the various religious sectarians who made the peninsula their home. The Yiddish school was closed by the time her younger sister, Sofia Palatnikova, started her schooling; Palatnikova told us she went instead to a Russian language school in a nearby Tatar village.

Many people we spoke with remembered the tractors and farm equipment that American Jewish philanthropic organizations sent to the Jewish settlements. Zorekh Kurliandchik, whom we interviewed in 2003, told us of the collective farm he lived on for three years in the early 1930s. “The first combine was on the Jewish collective farm,” he boasted, “the Tatars would come and stare at it.”

The names of the agricultural settlements established during this decade reflect the optimism of the times and the multilingual nature of their communities: Fraylebn (Yiddish: Free Life); Fraydorf (Yiddish: Free Village); Yidendorf (Yiddish: Jewish Village); Ahdut (Hebrew: Unity); Yetsirah (Hebrew: Creation); Herut (Hebrew: Freedom); and Pobeda (Russian: Victory), to name but a few.

Today there are some 17,000 Jews still living in the peninsula. One of the few remaining synagogues, in Simferopol, was vandalized last week, when the slogan “Death to Jews” and swastikas were painted on its door. Now it’s Russian tanks on the road to Sevastopol, not too far from Simferopol, and the Jewish tractors that once filled the road are just a fading memory.

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Before Crimea Was an Ethnic Russian Stronghold, It Was a Potential Jewish Homeland

Jews have lived in the area since ancient times, and leaders from Catherine the Great to Stalin encouraged their settlement there

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