The Evil Cantonist Decree
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
When Nikolai I, Aleksander's brother, ascended the Czarist throne, a very bitter time for Jews in Russia began. The era of Nikolai I (1825-1855) belongs to the darkest in Jewish history, mainly because of the Cantonist Decree. On the 26th of August 1827, he issued the cruel recruiting law that had a very bad, actually a destructive effect, on the life of the individual and on the community at large. Jews were completely free of military service under the Polish regime. No general personal military duty existed in Poland. Military service was a privilege for the Polish nobility and compulsory for the peasantry, the property of the nobility. All Jews were considered as the merchant class and, therefore, were free from military service. For this the Jews had to pay 500 rubles for each recruit who would have been taken, according to the orders of September 1794 and January 1796.
According to the state order that was promulgated on the 26th of August 1827 (5587), the Jewish kehile [organized community] had to fill the debt of military service with people, not with money. According to the 34th paragraph of military service and according to the supplement to the 37th, the kehile had the right to provide as a recruit each Jew at that time [punishable] for irregular payment of taxes, for roving (for being a vagrant), for not having a passport and for other disorders that the kehile did not have to tolerate. This statute was a terrible means in the hands of the influential people to provide whoever they wished for military service. And although according to the government law of 1827, the kehile was obliged to maintain books that showed the rank of the recruit, books in which all candidates for recruitment should be entered in a certain order, as a result of which there would have been a just division for military service among all of the classes, the kehile actually did not observe it in order to take care of the children of the rich and aristocratic families.
Since these recruit books were not in order, the government demanded of the Jews more recruits than were justified based on the size of the Jewish population. This caused the kehile in 1850 to begin to take all young men as recruits and even small children as well as old people and, in accordance with the law of 1853, even those from other communities. The rich would ransom themselves from military service with the recruit receipts, which cost 300 rubles.
Military service then amounted to 25 years, beginning at 25 years of age. The government would send away those young children who were caught to the Russian villages, to the peasants, to be raised and the older children were placed in, what were referred to as, Cantonist schools in order to convert them.
The most bitter of the cruel laws for Jews that Nikolai I issued and which places him in the ranks of the greatest enemies of the Jewish people was the ukase about military service for Jews that had a particularly hideous and ruthless purpose for them: conversion. The evil ukase was issued as a result of the report and the project of Nikolai's right hand, the leader of the secret police, Benckendorff, who had two purposes for taking the Jewish young for military service: first, decrease the number of Jews in general and secondly, force the Jews to convert. According to this ukase, Jews aged 12 to 25 should be taken as soldiers and child-recruits should be held in Cantonist institutions until their 18th year.
The institutions for Cantonists had been founded in the year 1725, [in the time of] Peter the Great. Children who were born to soldiers were all considered as Cantonists. Cantonist battalions were in Novgorad, Smolensk, Woroniec, Troitsk, Uralsk, Omsk, Petrovsk, Tobolsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and Semipalatinsk. If there was no place for them in the battalion, the children were given to the peasants or artisans to work. It was worse for them there than in the battalions.
The kehile was responsible for presenting the required number of recruits, declaring that denouncers who revealed the hidden young Jews would receive 100 rubles a head as a reward.
This terrible edict touched only the poor class of children. They were not taken from the wealthy and powerful. It stands the hair on end when one reads the descriptions of the cruel deeds that were done by the Jewish snatchers employed by the kehile who would steal away small, weak, trembling children from their mothers. In certain cases children of only 5-6 years of age. The children would be deported to the Siberian Cantonist battalions, where they would be forced to convert by frightening persecutions and torture. The children would die by the thousands on the way to Siberia or in the barracks for the young Cantonists. The edict was regularly strengthened; up to 36 decrees were issued until the year 1855. The most ruthless decrees concerned catching Jews without passports and taking double the number of recruits as a punishment for holding out recruits. The Jews had to provide double the number of recruits than the Christians. The heads of the kehilus also had the right to provide as soldiers everyone whom they found sinful and who did not find favor with them. They would also catch Jews from other kehilus to cover the number from their kehilus.
In 1856, Aleksander II repealed the edict permitting the taking of children up to 18 as soldiers, that is, the actual Cantonist edict. But the edicts concerning the responsibilities of the kehile for providing the demanded number of recruits remained in effect and because of this the sorrowful well known snatchers, denouncers and Sborshchikes [collectors] continued to rampage until the year 1874.
According to the figures that are known for the years 1833-1854, it is calculated that approximately 70,000 Jewish children fell as victims of the Cantonist edict.
The Jewish soldiers having served 25 years did not have the right in Nikolai's time to remain living in their places in deep Russia, but they were sent back to their birthplaces. But in Alek-
sander II's time, in 1867, they were given this right. And later, almost all of the Jewish kehilus consisted of these veteran Nikolayver soldiers in the city of that area of Russia where Jews were prohibited to live. In Poland, the Russian regime first brought in military service in 1844 with less harsh regulations.
Bialystok and the Evil Cantonist Decree
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
In Bialystok, military service created the greatest distress in the Jewish families. The Bialystok wives gave religious divorces to their husbands who were taken as recruits. The general-governor inquired about two such cases, asking whether such divorces were genuine. He asked the War Minister about it. The matter was forwarded for a decision by the Minister's Jewish Committee, which replied that if the rabbis acknowledge that the divorces are legal according to religious law, then they are lawful for the government and the divorced wives can be struck from the list of the battalion wives.
The first case involved a certain Yankl Gelbart from Bialystok, who was taken as a recruit. His wife, Dwoyra, at first agreed and went with him. But in Grodno, she had regrets and received a religious divorce from him at the Grodno beis-din [religious court] and came back and married a certain Leib Roczan in Bialystok. The Bialystok kehile was afraid to erase the divorced wife from the list of the military wives on its own responsibility, until it received permission from the general-governor.
Another case took place in Bialystok with a second woman who did not want to follow her husband, a recruit, to the city where his regiment was stationed. Bialystok police turned to the general-governor with a question, asking if the woman could be sent, despite her opposition, to her husband along with a procession of convicts. The matter was sent to Constantyn Pawlowitch (Nikolai's brother) and he answered that because of her hostility, the woman could not be sent.
The veteran Nikolai soldiers as well as the small number of Cantonists who remained Jews and returned to Bialystok were not treated with respect. They received the respect that was coming to them as Jews who resisted the greatest temptations and remained Jews. They sacrificed for the glory of God with this, but living for so many years among gentiles, separated entirely from Jews and Yidishkeit [Jewish way of life], they became very ignorant. They could not even speak Yiddish well. Consequently, a Nikolai soldier was a curse word among Bialystok Jews. They had absolutely no esteem in the prayer houses and minyonim [10 men required for prayer].
Therefore they came together and themselves created their own soldier's minyon with the name Mesilat Yesharim [Path of the Just]. There they would study between Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] every day and Shabbos and holidays with a rabbi. The minyon still exists today with their children on Koluszinka (Yeshiva) Street number 26 in the small private residence of a friend.
They have a Pinkes [book of records or register], Registry of Military Men and Map of Where They Lived in Bialystok, 5631 (1871). There is a beautiful drawing on the title page of a golden crown supported by guns and a lion with other animals. There are also many precepts whose purpose was to motivate the members to go in the way of rectitude (righteousness) and would uphold the Jewish religion, innocence and honesty. They should also have love of friends, they should not come to quarrels, should support each other with interest-free loans and visit and care for sick members. The aliyahs [the act of being called up for the reading of a section of the Torah] for the weekly Torah portions Beshalach and Chukat belong to the members. Each member is obligated to give five guldn weekly to the group treasury. The language of the Pinkes is a very beautiful Hebrew, but it is a shame that the author of the Pinkes did not provide something about its history instead of florid language. As I was told by a member, there were several Cantonists among the members his father was also a Cantonist.
Military service was despised among the Jews in Russia because of this. For a certain time one could be freed [from service] during the era of Aleksander with money. All of the rich children were freed with [the payment of] money. And for others, rabbis collected money for the ransom of prisoners and also to free poor, genteel children. Other remedies were used, also not legal. Even
causing oneself to be crippled, so as not to serve. They would bribe members of the conscription commission because one was not obliged to serve a state in which Jews did not receive any rights as citizens and persecuted them with various restrictions; according to Jewish law it was a predatory regime. However, there were Jewish denouncers who would reveal all of this to the authorities if the kehile or those freed did not give them hush money. These denouncers were a plague on the Bialystok Jews.
The rabbis and community workers of that time groundlessly blamed the heads of the kehile for not standing against the Cantonist edicts, the snatchers and the denouncers. This was an impossibility, as with the Spanish Jews who in their time could not oppose a Torquemada. Nikolai I was a similar type a tyrant, a foe of the Jewish people and a sadist. Converting Jews was a task of a lifetime for him, an idée fixe. The Russian Jews did everything possible to turn aside the edict, with taxes of great sums for all of their confidants ministers, senators, high officials. One senator received 20,000 ducats and Count Mordvinov, 100,000 rubles, just for staying quiet. But nothing helped, the tyrannical czar personally employed all means to convert the Jewish Cantonists.
It is worthwhile to present a case of Kiddish-haShem [Sanctification of God's name martyrdom] exhibited by the secret practitioners of Judaism. Several hundred Jewish child Cantonists were led out to the Volga [River] during a military parade before Nikolai in Kazakh [Kazakhstan], and spirituality in full parade awaited the Czar at the conversion ceremony. When he arrived, the Czar told the children to enter the river to immerse themselves to change their names. The children fulfilled his order. But according to an earlier agreed upon decision they all drowned themselves. Nikolai reached for his head with terror.
The rabbis could do nothing against the snatchers, the influential people, the leaders of the kehile; if they [the rabbis] had been pointed out as at troublemakers they would have felt the czar's ukase and they would all have been sent to Siberia for hard labor (see further Reb Lipele's biography). Still, many rabbis showed self-sacrifice by rescuing poor Jewish children from their hands, such as Reb Elihu Drecziner, Reb Yankele Boysker, Reb Elinke Lider, Reb Yakov Berlin and Reb Lipele in Keidan. They would sentence informers to death according the law in The Breastplate of Judgment and this judgment on them was carried out, as was shown in the story of The New-Uszicer Judgment that for killing two Jewish informers, 70 esteemed Jews were sentenced to penal servitude, lashes with a riding crop and losing their possessions, among them rabbis (among them, the Ruzshiner Rebbe, who then escaped to Austria).
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