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The Kyrgyz Muslims who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust

Note: this article was originally published in Hebrew on Ynet, May 3, 2024 by Issac Tesler.

Tens of thousands of Jews who fled Eastern Europe survived thanks to the aid of local residents in Kyrgyzstan. Descendants of the survivors seek to commemorate this forgotten story. "Without help from the villagers, who themselves had little, my mother undoubtedly would not have survived," shares Robert (Ron) Singer. "Especially today, it's important to remember the shared chapters in the history of Jews and Sunni Muslims."

"Official estimates state that during the Holocaust, around 28,000 Jews fled to Kyrgyzstan, but the actual number is believed to be closer to 50,000, saved by the brave locals who assisted them throughout the war." Singer, chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact and himself a descendant of a family saved by the residents of Kyrgyzstan, reveals the remarkable story of tens of thousands of Muslim who went unrecognized.

Most of Singer's family perished in Eastern Europe during World War II, but during the Holocaust, his mother and sisters lived for four years in the country. "They lived in the same village with Sunni Muslim families, and their lives were saved thanks to them," he explains. "In a world of rising antisemitism on one hand and developing relations with the Gulf states on the other, it is worthwhile to remember that we have shared chapters in history between Jews and Sunni Muslims, who knew how to live together during the darkest and most difficult times of humanity. The communities knew how to assist each other in standing together during the tough times of war and the Holocaust."

Zigmund and Hancha Zinger, parents of Robert Singer, in 1972, shortly after their immigration to Israel (Photo: Center for Jewish Impact).
Zigmund and Hancha Singer, parents of Robert Singer, in 1972, shortly after their immigration to Israel (Photo: Center for Jewish Impact).

Regarding how the small Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan, where 7 million people live, 90% of whom are Muslims, is doing today, Singer says, "At this stage, there hasn't been a significant impact in Kyrgyzstan from the events of October 7 and the war. However, in the last two years, there has been a campaign with antisemitic elements against the Jewish school, but with the intervention of the authorities and foreign embassies in Bishkek, the issue has been addressed at this stage."

"In a world rife with racism, antisemitism, and inter-religious conflicts, it is worthwhile to remember the humanity revealed in this story thanks to the people in Kyrgyzstan who saw the person before the religion. They saved my family in one of the darkest chapters in history. Indeed, thanks to their good hearts, I came into the world"

So far, only my immediate family is familiar with our rescue story," Singer notes. "Before the Holocaust, my mother, Hancha Leibovitz Prizment, lived with her family in an area in Bessarabia (today's Moldova), which was one of the first areas conquered by the Nazis following their invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The Romanians who controlled the area cooperated with the Nazis and forced a significant part of the Jewish community to flee."

He recounts that "a single bridge over the Dniester River near the town of Rybnitsa in Moldova was the key to escaping the cruelty of the Nazis and their Romanian collaborators. Many Jews failed to cross the location and were murdered, including four of my mother's sisters, her parents, and many other family members. My mother and three of her sisters, who survived the massacre, began to wander. Along with them moved refugees of various nationalities who fled from battle zones in Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova that had been conquered by the Germans. When she was 25, they arrived in Kyrgyzstan."

Singer (left) and Kritzman (right) standing wearing suits and smiling at a Jewish Community event in Bishkek
Singer (left) and Kritzman (right) at a Jewish Community event in Bishkek (credit: Center for Jewish Impact)

What memory did she keep from that period?

"She told us they arrived in a very poor village called Seretenka, and because of the war, food supplies were stopped. They mostly lived off the crops in the fields. Without help from the villagers, who also didn't have much – there's no doubt they wouldn't have survived."

And what happened after the Holocaust?

"Some of the Jews continued to live there. Others, like my family, tried to return to Eastern Europe. In 1954, my mother married my father, Zigmund Singer, in Chernivtsi. I was born in Ukraine in 1956, and when I was 15, my family immigrated to Israel."

The mystery of the Lost Tribes and Kyrgyz customs

Kyrgyzstan, situated between China and Uzbekistan, has an area nearly ten times that of Israel, but its population is smaller. Previously part of the Soviet Union, it gained independence in 1991.

Plaque at the Seretenka memorial, "With deep appreciation to the Kyrgyz people that during World War II absorbed and adopted Jewish refugees from the European side of the Soviet Union, and they lived here together in harmony and friendship. Thank you Friends"

The historic Silk Road, which has seen traders pass between the Far East, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa for thousands of years, runs through Kyrgyzstan. Among these traders were Jews, and a significant Jewish community developed in the region over a millennium ago. Initially, these Jews were primarily from Persia, but some researchers believe that parts of the local population may be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Local customs reflect Jewish traditions. When Kyrgyz people slaughter meat, they ensure to drain the blood in a manner similar to Jewish practice and also feed it to dogs, as commanded in the Bible to give carcasses and carrion to dogs. Kyrgyz people also do not eat the sciatic nerve of lamb and, when cooking lamb, they do not break its bones, as the Israelites were commanded during the preparation of the Passover sacrifice.

In the 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews from Russia migrated to the region. During World War I, many Jewish refugees arrived, and the Jewish community reached a peak of more than 40,000 people by the end of World War II.

Old photo of 6 squad members is sepia.
Local defense squad operating in Seretenka in 1941-1942, the first man on the left is Haim Sherman, Robert Singer's uncle and husband of Esther, his mother's sister. (Credit: Center for Jewish Impact)

"Today, there is a monument in the village of Seretenka dedicated primarily to the local Muslim families who saved over 400 Jewish refugees, including my mother," says Singer regarding the commemoration. "Moreover, every year the ORT school in Bishkek holds a ceremony at this memorial on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to express our gratitude. It is our duty to continue telling the stories of our families to ensure that we always remember and never forget."

"In a world full of racism, antisemitism, and inter-religious conflicts, it is crucial to recall the humanity revealed in this story, thanks to those in Kyrgyzstan who first saw the person and then the religion. They saved my family during one of history's darkest chapters. Indeed, because of their kindness, I was born, continued my family's lineage, and established a home in the State of Israel."

After completing his military service as a lieutenant colonel, Singer worked in various roles in the Prime Minister's office during the 1980s and 90s. He later served as the CEO and executive vice president of the global ORT education network and as the CEO of the World Jewish Congress. Today, he is the chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact, among other initiatives aimed at supporting the small remaining Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan, which counts about 1,500 people, mostly elderly living in the capital Bishkek. "We have a dual obligation—to publicize the rescue story during the Holocaust that has not yet received proper exposure and to support the small remaining Jewish community there, after most emigrated to Israel in 1991," he says.

Antisemitism surge amidst political upheaval

Vladimir Kritsman, president of the Jewish community in the country and a resident of the capital Bishkek, is a third-generation Kyrgyz Jew. His maternal grandfather, Yitzhak Kritsman, was a senior engineer in a factory that was relocated from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, over 4,000 kilometers away. In 1941, as part of the Soviet Union's response to the Nazi invasion, vital factories were established or moved to Kyrgyzstan.

Kritsman (left) standing next to the Seretenka memorial (credit: Center for Jewish Impact)
March in Bishkek, early 50s. On the left: Engineer Issac Krizman, Valdimir's Grandfather (Credit: Center for Jewish Impact)

"After the war, many Jews left," says Vladimir, "and following the major wave of emigration in the early 1990s, today, the majority are elderly. Only 20-30 percent of the community are children and youth. Even my daughter emigrated to Israel, where she married and had children."

The issue of emigration to Israel poses a complex dilemma for this community—if the young people emigrate to Israel, the community might disappear. On the other hand, the economic and health situation there is complex and challenging. "It remains the choice of the young people and their families whether to emigrate," Kritsman clarifies, "but in the meantime, we are creating the necessary conditions for Jewish education and their connection to Israel. In Bishkek, there is a kindergarten operating in the synagogue, and the ORT 'Tree of Life' Jewish school is active. There is also informal Jewish education, including a 'Sunday School' and Chabad youth programs operating under the municipal synagogue."

Vladimir Kritzman's mother, Shoshana (center) with her parents, Issac and Malka in 1946 (Credit: Center for Jewish Impact, courtesy of the Kritzman family)

He explains, "In the distant past, there was almost no antisemitism among the Kyrgyz people. During World War II, the residents provided Jewish refugees with shelter and bread. Added to this is the immense contribution of Jews to the economy, science, culture, education, and health in the country." He adds, "Islam, as a religion, did not have deep historical and cultural roots in the area. During the Soviet era, there was 'state antisemitism,' and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamic preachers from various countries came to Kyrgyzstan, and today we cannot ignore this problem."

He shares that during the 2010 popular protests that led to a governmental coup, a surge of antisemitism began through social networks: "This wave intensified because the president had many foreign advisors of Jewish descent. This created a powerful antisemitic campaign, but fortunately, the attitude towards the Jewish community by most of the country's population, as well as the state leadership, remains tolerant and respectful."

As mentioned, Singer notes that in the last two years, there has been a new wave of antisemitism in the country, but it has been suppressed by the authorities. "Especially towards Holocaust Remembrance Day, it's important to remind everyone of our moral debt to the residents of this country, where the vast majority are Sunni Muslims who treat the tiny Jewish community there fairly," he emphasizes. "The State of Israel should assist as much as possible, and Jews around the world need to mobilize to help the remaining Jewish community there, which is indeed one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world."



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