In the Luts’k archive (a city in western Ukraine), I recently came across a great file with letters written by Luts’k citizens to the local Gebietskommissar during the Second World War and Nazi occupation of Ukraine. The Gebietskommissar was a German civilian leader who ruled over an administrative parcel of land known as a Gebiet during the occupation of the Soviet Union. Gebietkommissars played an intimate role in perpetrating the Holocaust, not to mention countless other such crimes in the wild East. One Germany military advisor described the relationship between a Gebietskommissar and his citizens as a “lordship”, if that gives you an indication as how they ruled their territories.
The letters were written by local Ukrainians who were seeking help of some sort from the man in charge, Heinrich Lindner. One such letter was written by Kristina Pavlovska, originally from Stepan’ (a mid-sized town in neighbouring Rivne oblast’) and resident of Luts’k. In her first letter to Lindner on March 5, 1942, Pavlovska wrote that she was a Karaite-Jew during her childhood, but in her teenage years she was baptized with the help of some local peasants. At the present moment, she was a devout Orthodox Christian and had married an “Aryan” before the war. They both routinely went to church and are followers of Archbishop of Luts’k and Kovel’, Polikarp (Sikorsky). She writes the GK can check these facts with Polikarp himself. At the end of letter we learn the reason for its existence: at present, authorities are trying to take her from her husband, put her in the ghetto and force her to wear the Jewish star.
There is a lot going in this first letter. First, who are Karaites? The Karaites are a sect of Judaism that reject the Rabbinic tradition of interpreting scripture and instead believe in a strict following of Tanakh alone. What is important about Karaite identity in relation to the Holocaust is that the Nazis did not consider Karaites to be Jews and thus did not kill them. The Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families made the final decision on the Karaites and a letter from the Reichsstelle fur Sippenforschung provided the key ruling on the matter:
The Karaite sect should not be considered a Jewish religious community within the meaning of paragraph 2, point 2 of the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law. However, it cannot be established that Karaites in their entirety are of blood-related stock, for the racial categorization of an individual cannot be determined without … his personal ancestry and racial biological characteristics. (Source: YIVO archives, Berlin Collection, Occ E, 3, Box 100, letter dated January 5, 1939.)
The majority of Karaite Jews in Ukraine were Crimean Karaites, known as Karaim by locals. While they lived in Crimea for centuries, no one is entirely sure from where this Turkic speaking Jewish group originated. Some have argued they are Khazar by origin (of Koestler fame) who converted to Karaite Judaism when they arrived in Crimea, while others claim they are Jews in origin who left Levant before the canonization of the Talmud. The level to which members of this community self-identified as “Jews” and “Judaism” (sometimes they deemed their belief system the “Mosaic Religion”) fluctuated over the last two centuries, varied from town to town, and certainly was something influenced by external events.
Due to their unique status, many non-Karaite Jews in Eastern Europe tried to claim they were Karaite to save themselves during the war. Even if one succeeded in this identity change, the results were not always as desired. Despite the official Nazi ruling on Karaites, some Karaites were killed in the Holocaust since military units did not always know the rules. At least 200 were killed at Babi Yar. Whether Pavlovska was claiming to be of (or was of) Crimean Karaite origin is unclear.
The second intriguing aspect of the letter is the appearance of Archbishop Polikarp. Polikarp was well-known for pro-German attitude during the war and also his rabid anti-Semitism. He often wrote fawning letters to his German masters, in which he would write about the dangers of the “Muscovite-Kikes.” (A solid supporter of Jesus, I suppose.) So in this letter, we have a woman of alleged Jewish origin, who becomes a follower of an anti-Semitic Orthodox priest, asking a Nazi leader to talk to the priest to determine her ethnicity and right to live.
The third notable aspect of the letter is her appropriation of the occupiers’ language. Her letter, which was written in German (did she get help?), notes that she married an “Arier” or Aryan before the war. During the short period of occupation to this point, Pavlovska already learned some of the key phrases needed to speak the occupiers — a talent many had in this borderland region during the first half of the 20th century. Needless to say, the Germans would not have considered her Slavic husband an “Aryan.”
Over the course of the next month it seems the Germans went to some effort to confirm her identity. They first ask the Luts’k Judenrat about her status and the Judenrat responds that she is registered as a Jew. Following this correspondence, they then check with Stepan’ – her place of birth. The raion chief replies that her name shows up in the Orthodox population list, though other residents of Stepan’ attest to her Karaite identity. Odd.
In her next letter on April 2, 1942, she tells the German authorities that even though she’s registered as a “Jew”, she should only be registered as a Karaite. Following her letter, there is more paperwork from various agencies trying to find more info on her origins — none of which seem to turn up anything new or useful.
Finally, without knowing if there was any deliberation or how much or by whom, the last document from the Gebeitskommissar’s office reads: “To the Luts’k Judenrat: It could not be properly confirmed that Kristina Pavlovska has Jewish heritage. Her name should therefore be deleted from the list of inhabitants of the ghetto.”
Pavlovska was fortunate. Four months later, the Luts’k ghetto was liquidated and its 14,000 residents killed. The Jewish women of Luts’k were taken to Hirka Polanka outside of Luts’k, where they knelt in front a mass grave and German military and Ukrainian police shot them into the pits.
Was Pavlovska really a Karaite? Was she Orthodox? Did she survive the remainder of the war? We’ll probably never know.