Literature and the press

Meditating upon the age-long existence of their nation in Lithuania the chief aksakals – Karaim elders – consider that, next to religion and customs, their native tongue was one of the principal factors, enabling the people to preserve their identity and individuality. The nation retained its language, and the language and its records rescued the nation from the assimilation into neighbouring nations. You could call it a miracle, but due to a most extraordinary concurrence of historical circumstances the miracle did become a reality – this small nation has survived and it is to be hoped that this survival will last in future, as well. Therefore to evaluate, record, describe and investigate the phenomena of Karaim culture and in particular the language in all its manifestations (literary works in Karaim language recorded either in manuscripts or in Karaim periodicals) is a matter of utmost importance.

The literary heritage of Lithuanian Karaims is not great; none of its authors were professional writers. The two parts of this heritage – religious and secular works – are closely related and complement each other. Religious literature comprises anthems, ritual hymns, odes and laments. Secular genres are poems, ballads, songs, poetry for children and plays for amateur performances. There are also numerous translations of poetry into Karaim.

The oldest written record of the Karaim language is a hymn translation, published in Venice in 1528. The first book of secular poetry “Irlar” (“Songs”) was issued in Kiev in 1904. The author of those 25 poems, written in the spoken variety of the Trakai dialect, was Simon Kobecki (1865-1933). Later on, these poems and those of other poets were published in Karaim periodicals in the early 20th century and between the two world wars.

At the beginning of 20th century in Vilnius new tendencies of national expression manifested itself through modern artistic, political, philosophical ideas of different nations living here. It was also this time when first Karaim periodicals appeared. Being issued in various places till the very soviet times they witnessed the strong vitality of Karaim nation at that period.

Michail Tinfovich,
a Karaim poet
Title-page of “Koltchalar”, 
1935, a book of short Karaim prayers
Kobeckaitė H. Lietuvos karaimai [Lithuanian karaims]. Vilnius, 1997