For almost 30 years, from 5587/1827 to 5616/1856, Russian and Polish Jews were terrorized by the horrific Cantonist laws of Czar Nicholas I. His fanatical goal was to wrench as many Jews as possible from their ancient heritage.
The Jewish Problem
Originally, the word Cantonists (Prussian for “recruiting district”) did not apply to Jewish youngsters at all, but to the sons of Russian conscripts who were educated in special military schools. Only later did it gain its sinister Jewish connotation. The promulgator of this horror was, of course, the wicked Nicholas I who was actually not meant to be Czar at all. He only took over the driving wheel after the abdication of his older brother, Constantine.
Due to his autocratic, non-liberal policies, Nicholas is known as the emperor who froze Russia for 30 years. In addition, he had a longstanding deep hatred for Jews, which was well articulated during a tour of White Russia in 5576/1816 when he jotted his illogical view of the Jews in his diary:
“The ruin of the peasants of these provinces are the Zhyds [Jews],” he wrote. “By their commercial pursuits they drain the strength of the hapless White Russian people…. They are everything here: merchants, contractors, saloonkeepers, millowners, ferry-holders, artisans…. They are regular leeches, and suck these unfortunate governments to the point of exhaustion. It is a matter of surprise that in 1812 [during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia] they displayed exemplary loyalty to us and assisted us wherever they could at the risk of their lives.”
Once in the driver’s seat, Nicholas soon implemented his evil plan by conscripting about one percent of the Jews a year in lieu of the extra taxes they had paid until then. On August 26, 5587/1827 he signed his Ustav Rekrutskoi Povinnosti (Ukase on Conscription Duty) that would “equalize military duty for all estates.” Thanks to this, his document announced, “The training and accomplishments, acquired by the Jews during their military service, will, on their return home after the completion of the number of years fixed by law [a quarter century hence!] be communicated to their families and make for greater usefulness and higher efficiency in their economic life and in the management of their affairs.”
However, Nicholas’s real intention was revealed in a confidential memo he wrote at the time, “The chief benefit to be derived from the drafting of the Jews is the certainty that it will move them most effectively to change their religion.”
Most terrible of the decree’s 62 clauses was clause 8 that read, “The Jewish conscripts presented by the [Jewish] communes shall be between the ages of twelve and twenty-five.” Jewish minors would be placed in preparatory establishments for military training until the age of eighteen, and only then would the 25 years of recruitment begin ticking. Accordingly, a Jewish boy entering the Russian army at the age of 12 had the unenviable prospect of serving the Czar until he hit 43. Later, the 25 years of service was reduced to 20 years of service and 5 years in the reserve.
Trying to Dodge the Draft
Cruelly, the job of enlisting the unfortunate Jewish recruits was forced upon each Jewish Kahal represented by three elected trustees, who, if they failed to fill the quota were liable to recruitment themselves. Certain people such as artisans, members of mercantile guilds, mechanics, rabbis and suchlike were exempt at payment of a thousand rubles, and more than one impoverished parent begged from door to door in order to have money to register his boy in a guild.
The decree announced that to ensure the Jews’ allegiance, new recruits were to be gathered before an aron hakodesh, wrapped in tallis and tefillin, and to swear an oath of allegiance to the Czar to the accompanying of burning candles and blasting shofars. Although most Jews indeed fought the Czars’ wars faithfully, only eight (non-baptized) Jews reached the rank of officer during the entire nineteenth century.
Shocked as they were at the recruitment decree, there was little Jews could do about it except cry out to their Father in Heaven. The only mutiny against the decree that was reported was in the town of Old Constantine, yet it turned out, on closer scrutiny, to be a religious rally. Local Chassidim had gathered in shuls to fast and pray and afterwards placed a petition in the hands of a niftar to carry up to Hashem after his burial.
Some 1,800 Jews were conscripted the first year, half of them below 18, and for most of Nicholas’s rule, the recruitment figure of Russian Jews stood at about two-three thousand a year, reaching a total of about 70,000.
To escape the army, young men fled, many of them to the United States. According to a 5610/1850 report, this trend reached drastic proportions.
“Apart from innumerable cases of selfmutilation,” it stated, “the disappearance, without exception, of all able-bodied Jews has become so general that in some communities, outside of those unfit for military service because of age or physical defects, not a single person can be found during conscription who might be drafted into the army. Some flee abroad, whilst others hide in adjacent governments.”
At recruiting time, parents would mourn over their lost children as dead, fearful their spirituality might never survive in their long exile, especially if they were deliberately sent to far off regions hundreds of miles from the nearest Jewish communities. Also burned into the collective Jewish psyche is the memory of unscrupulous “chappers” who were most active during the increased recruitment of the Crimean War in the mid- nineteenth century. These head-hunters rounded up youngsters to fill the quota, raiding houses at night and dragging boys as young as eight-years-old from their mothers, and to save them, boys were sometimes dressed as girls. There were incidences where rabbonim made heroic efforts to stem the tide.
Although the law set the official age limit of Cantonists at 12, thousands of younger kids were also netted in. The Russian writer, Alexander Hertzen, described how he met a group of Jewish cantonists in a remote village in 5595/1835.
“Whom do you carry and to what place?” he asked their officer.
“Well, sir, you see, they got together a bunch of these accursed Jewish youngsters between the age of eight and nine,” the cold-hearted beast replied. “I suppose they are meant for the fleet, but how should I know? At first the command was to drive them to Perm. Now there is a change. We are told to drive them to Kazan. I have had them on my hands for a hundred versts [about a kilometer] or thereabouts. The officer that turned them over to me told me they were an awful nuisance. A third of them remained on the road (at this the officer pointed with his finger to the ground). Half of them will not get to their destination,” he added.
“Epidemics, I suppose?” I inquired, stirred to the very core.
“No, not exactly epidemics, but they just fall like flies. Well, you know, these Jewish boys are so puny and delicate. They can’t stand mixing dirt for ten hours, with dry biscuits to live on. Again everywhere strange folks, no father, no mother, no caresses. Well then, you just hear a cough and the youngster is dead. Hello, corporal, get out the small fry!”
“The little ones were assembled and arrayed in a military line,” Hertzen continued. “It was one of the most terrible spectacles I have ever witnessed. Poor, poor children! The boys of twelve or thirteen managed somehow to stand up, but the little ones of eight and ten…. No brush, however black, could convey the terror of this scene on the canvas.
“Pale, worn out, with scared looks, this is the way they stood in their uncomfortable, rough soldier uniforms, with their starched, turned-up collars, fixing an inexpressibly helpless and pitiful gaze upon the garrisoned soldiers, who were handling them rudely. White lips, blue lines under the eyes betokened either fever or cold. And these poor children, without care, without a caress, exposed to the wind which blows unhindered from the Arctic Ocean, were marching to their death. I seized the officer’s hand, and, with the words: ‘Take good care of them!’ threw myself into my carriage. I felt like sobbing, and I knew I could not master myself….”
This was only the beginning. After arriving at barracks, brutal soldiers and priests could subject Jewish recruits to endless tortures in order to convert, such as forcing them to kneel on the floor for hours at bedtime, floggings, and even forcing them to eat salted fish and then withholding water from them.
One of the most famous episodes of messirus nefesh occurred at the city of Kazan where Cantonists were lined up by a river bank to be baptized, ordered to leap into the water, and never came up again.
Steadfastly, most kids clung to their faith. Although official reports sent to Nicholas claimed that of 15,050 Jewish youngsters conscripted between 5567/1827 and 5600/1840, two-thirds refused to baptize, other sources indicate that the refusal rate was much higher.
Among adults, the figures are even more impressive. Despite the opportunities baptism offered, no more than two percent of Jewish conscripts baptized between 5587/1827 and 5634/1874.
The worst of this nightmare finally ended with the death of Nicholas on Purim 5615/1855. His more liberal son, Alexander II, reduced conscription to 12 years plus 3 years of reserve, abolished child conscription near the beginning of his rule, and allowed all conscripted children to return home except those who had baptized.
On the other hand, the number of conscripts increased as the years rolled by, inspiring the Chofetz Chaim to write his sefer Machaneh Yisroel, which would skillfully guide Czarist soldiers through this taxing period of their lives.
(Main source: Dubnow, Simon M. The History of the Jews in Russia and Poland. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1918.)