Krasnaya Sloboda (Qırmızı Qəsəbə)
What might be largest completely Jewish town in the world outside of Israel now faces dwindling numbers and empty streets.
Long before the holocaust and subsequent creation of the free state of Israel, disenfranchised Jews along the shores of the Caspian sea fought for, and succeeded in, the establishment of a protected settlement where they could live and thrive free of persecution.
More than two centuries prior to World War II, what were formally known as the Highland Jews in Azerbaijan lived in fear of their own neighbors and members of competing religious factions. Unable to gain a foothold in any majorly settled area, the Highland Jews found themselves unsupported and disproportionally scattered throughout the region.
A decision was made to form a purpose-built settlement across the river from the region of Quba, where the strength of community and larger numbers might protect the Jews from undue hardships. Not long after the settlement began, an official status was formally proposed as the state of Yevreiskaya Sloboda, or Jewish Town, and the Khan of Quba granted the town protected status, allowing the continued organization and settlement of Jewish citizens in large numbers without fear of discrimination, retribution, or clashes with neighboring towns and states.
The ensuing history of the town would closely follow the major events of Eastern Europe as a whole, with citizens once again fearing for the worst as renewed fighting and waves of persecution swept through the Jewish communities of the continent at large.
At the outset of World War II, the Jews of Yevreiskaya Sloboda were relatively shielded from the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe due to the town’s location inside the newly-formed Soviet Union. To reflect that association, the town’s name was officially changed to Krasnaya Sloboda, or Red Town.
Today, Yevreiskaya Sloboda faces the new and daunting challenge of a dwindling population, as a majority of its citizens have left for Israel or other now-safe locations in Europe or North America. At its height, nearly 18,000 Jews inhabited Yevreiskaya Sloboda, but the town’s numbers now barely surpass 3,500. As a result, many of the beautifully architectured buildings, with their long and rich history, sit abandoned or in disrepair.