How the Jews of the Caucasus Used a Fake Pandemic to Save Their Religious Treasures from the Nazis

January 28, 2021 | Alissa Abramov
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When German forces arrived in the eastern parts of the Caucasus Mountains in 1942, they encountered two distinct Jewish populations: Ashkenazi Jews who had migrated there in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the “Mountain Jews,” who spoke a language called Judeo-Tat (related to Persian and Kurdish) and whose ancestors had settled there in ancient times. The SS swiftly set about massacring both groups of Jews, but the Jewish community of a city called Nalchik was able to preserve the lives of most of its members, as Alissa Abramov writes:

A group of local Jewish leaders, headed by Markel Shaulov, tried to save the community from the threat of annihilation by attempting to convince the Nazis that the Mountain Jews weren’t actually part of the Jewish race. . . . As part of this effort at benevolent deception, the Jewish leaders made use of their excellent relationship with the local Muslim community. The head of the Kabardino-Balkarian National Council appealed to the Nazi command and requested that they treat the Mountain Jews as one of the ethnic communities of the Caucasus.

The German army, which, for political and military reasons, adopted a cautious approach toward the local Muslim population, delayed execution of the order to annihilate of the city’s Jews for a period of two months. [Meanwhile], the entire Jewish community tried to cover up any indications of its true identity. Many Jews hid and buried books and sacred objects in the courtyards of their houses.

During this period, . . . a group of men, led by the city’s chief rabbi, Nachmiel Amirov, staged a funeral in order to conceal the Torah scrolls and bury them in the ground, [as custom dictates], while wrapped in funeral shrouds. The fictitious funeral procession advanced toward a cemetery which was located near German headquarters. In order to keep the Nazi SS officers away, the funeral organizers convinced them that the deaths were the result of a typhoid epidemic, which had indeed become widespread during World War II. These rumors of disease caused the SS soldiers to keep their distance.

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