Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Crimean Tatar writer’s life is celebrated at the Library

Summer is a slow time here at the library. Many staff workers take their annual four-week vacation. Most stay at home and work on “home projects,’ much as we do in America. Others travel—my office mate Refika just returned from a trip to Uzbekistan with her daughter to visit her sister and other relatives there. Four-days, coming and going, on a hot, unairconditioned train. “Next time, I’m flying,” she said.
I spent a week in Belarus, accompanying a friend from America. Her parents were Holocaust survivors and were from Belarus (then Poland). She wanted to see the villages they lived in and talk to people who knew them, to find out what she could about the lives of her family before the Holocaust that killed almost all of them. It was an unforgettable experience, and I returned to Simferopol with a greater insight into some of the tortured history of this part of the world.
A Crimean Tatar writer’s life is celebrated at the Library
The Library holds many events throughout the year in its reading hall. Last spring there was a gathering to celebrate the life of Crimean Tatar novelist Cengiz Dagic on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Though Dagic was not in good enough health to attend (he lives in London), his sister was present, as were many scholars and friends. There were several speeches talking about his life and work, and performances of his poetry.
Cengiz Dagci is best known for the descriptions in his novels, poems, and writings about the Crimean Tartar life in Crimea from 1932 to 1945. Published in Turkey with some translation into Russian (unfortunately, I have not found any of his longer works translated into English), Dagci writes of the difficult life of the Crimean Tatar people during those years as they tried to find a way to survive the war between Nazi Germany and Russia, culminating in their eventual mass deportation in 1944. His work has been widely read in Turkey and is considered to be very important in keeping alive the plight of the Crimean Tatar people among Turkish people.
Cengiz Dagci was born in 1920 in Kiziltash, a village near Yalta. He attended school there and in Ak Mechet (then the name of Simferopol), and after finishing his secondary education in 1938, he went to the Crimean Pedagogy Institute where he studied for two years. In 1940 he was drafted into the military where he eventually served at the Ukrainian front and was captured by the Nazis. He escaped the prisoner camp and sought asylum in Great Britain. He settled in London in 1946 and has lived there ever since.
Here is a poem by Cengiz Dagci:
Aren't Crimean Tatars
a tree which is
supposed to die,
not to get greener
and not to give
new branches?
Since the day that they
lost their independence,
there wasn't any day
passed without
chopping the branches
of this tree, but
again new branches
came out of its body.
These branches were
not allowed to grow
and were chopped
again. But branches
came out again.
At the end,
this tree is chopped
at its root,
and thrown away
on a lonely, desert land.
But again new branches
come out of this body
and get longer and
longer, and they reach
to the land where
this tree was planted
one thousand years ago.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Visit to the Krymchak Museum

A late 19th century Krymchak family.
This is a beautiful triptych painting that depicts in detail the history of the Krymchaks in Crimea.
Traditional Krymchak clothing
The entrance to the museum, located only a few blocks from the Gasprinskiy Library.
After the museum tour, we had tea with Qrimzalar Society members. The man in the middle with the white shirt is the artist of the triptych.
This week, Nadjie Yagya, my counterpart at the library, and I visited the Krymchak Museum in Simferopol and met members of the Qrimzahlar Crimean Republic Society for Culture and Enlightenment. A few weeks earlier I had met Rabbi Misha Kapustin, Rabbi of the Reformed Judaism synagogue here in Simferopol, and he had told me about the Krymchaks and offered to take me to the museum. I invited Nadjie to come along because although, of course, she knew about the Krymchaks, she was unaware of the museum.
The Krymchak Museum is a small but very well organized museum that gives the history of the Krymchak people in Crimea. The Krymchaks are a Jewish community that developed in Crimea in the medieval period of Crimean history. No one seems to know for sure what their origins are or how they adopted Judaism, but they were an established ethnic-religious group on the peninsula for many centuries, numbering approximate 7000 in 1913. Their dress, music, appearance, and customs were very closely tied to the Crimean Tatars, and they spoke a similar Turkic based language.
As professed Jews, approximately 80% of the Krymchak population was killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Some Krymchaks were also deported along with the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Today, there are very few Krymchak people left, living mostly in Crimea and Israel, and according to the museum director, only one fully fluent native speaker. The Qrimzahlar Crimean Republic Society for Culture and Enlightenment was formed in 1989 to promote the preservation of the Krymchak cultural heritage.
One of the main goals of the Gasprinskiy Library is the preservation of the Crimean Tatar language, also an endangered language, with only 5% of Crimean Tatar children able to speak their native tongue. Nadjie and I have been discussing the possibility of a language training center devoted to the threatened Crimean languages of Crimean Tatar, Krymchak, and Karaite (another Jewish ethnic minority in Crimea), because they are all very similar Turkic based languages. Visiting the museum and meeting members of their preservation organization helped to give us the impetus we need to continue work on this important project. And I found out later that two of the museum staff want to come to my little English class at the library! So I look forward to future collaboration with the Krymchak people and learning more about their culture and how they coexisted side by side with the Crimean Tatars--Jews and Muslims together--for centuries.
For more information about the Krymchaks, see their website,