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From the years 1825-1855, Russian Jews were subjected to a number of repressive laws during the regime of Czar Nikolai I. The harshest of these was the "Cantonist" law, in which Jewish boys from the age of 8, were required to serve in the Russian army. The conscription period of 25 years amounted to a literal death sentence for many of these youngsters.

From: The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, January 1863.

NOTE.--At the time we were told that twenty thousand souls were rendered miserable through a forcible conversion, the thing almost appeared like a fable; for how can one imagine that even a Russian despot should have the barbarity of forcing converts into his church by the vilest arts which an ingenious cruelty can invent. But after a period of fifteen years we find a full confirmation of all that has been said, and more besides in the annexed portion of an article on the Russian Jew which we find in the London Chronicle. Let the readers ponder over the unspeakable agony to which our suffering brothers were exposed through the outrageous tyranny of Nicholas the first; over the thousands who died prematurely through the hardships they had to encounter in their military schools before they could enter the ranks; the horrors they had to endure and have still to bear in their forcible and violent separation from the synagogue. "Give us back our God" was the exclamation of those who had been alienated by acts of mortal man from the service of the Most High, and to this day this prayer has been denied to them. O shall Israel never cease to suffer? Is our cup of misery never to be full? And we are to join in the fulsome praises of modern civilization, as if they who have tears for all sufferers would embrace the Jew amidst those they pity and cherish! Out on such false sentimentality; we are yet in captivity, and ever and anon "the voice of Jacob" is heard in its complaint and lament, and tyrants mock our groans and tears. And this should be our Messianic period? We should not wait for the arriving of the redeemer in whose reign there shall be peace and security for the outcasts of Israel? Give us our old Jewish faith, its hopes and aspiration; call us bigot if you will; but the hope is sweet and cheering, that God's work will prosper despite the machinations of man, and that in Zion there will be safety for the remnant that will lave escaped all the sore trials to which our race is still exposed as in times gone by. May the Lord in His mercy give us grace to bear all for the sake of His Holy Name, and that it may be sanctified through us before the eyes of all the nation. -- Isaac Leeser, Philadelphia, 1863.

The accession of the emperor now reigning [Czar Alexander II] held out reasonable hopes that the time of Egyptian bondage would soon pass away. It was a case which strongly reminded all of us of the first chapter of Exodus: "And when the King of Egypt died" (ii.23) A bright beam of Divine mercy broke through the dark clouds of fate, hovering over the heads of two millions of men, women, and children. The most cruel atrocities then yet practiced were:

The recruiting of infants, in the literal sense of the word. The fact is that there existed an Ukase, according to which the Jews had to furnish four times as many recruits for the army as all other Russian subjects, the whole country being divided into western and eastern parts, and every decree for recruiting requiring only five per 1000, the east and the west alternately every year to complete the army. but the Jews, on the other hand, were required to supply recruits annually and simultaneously with the east and the west, although in the east there are no Jewish inhabitants, and moreover, they were compelled to give ten per 1000 every time, instead of the other's five per 1000. This system of decimation produced the natural consequences: after a lapse of some years--during which not one of the soldiers could return to his family, the Russian military service covering a period of 20 to 25 years--almost all the young men had been drafted away for the army, and there only remained aged men and children. Yet the government was not inclined to release the victims. It issued orders that the boys should be taken away from their homes and families, and should be brought up in the interior of Russia during all the time that would elapse till their attaining the proper age for entering a regiment (eighteen years being the proper age for that purpose), and then only began for them the period of regular military service, all the previous years not being reckoned as belonging to it. those wretched children, driven to baptism by fire and water (in the literal sense, as we shall soon explain), ordinarily wasted away to one-half their number before attaining the age required, and almost every day the synagogue resounded, before day-break, with the melancholy reading of the martyrs' prayers for one poor child or another, who had preferred submitting to all imaginable tortures rather than betray his religion. Thus the Bible established its mournful truth in regard to the Pharaonic horrors practiced upon those unfortunate children of Israel who were thrown into the Nile, and the reader may imagine with what bitterness of heart the Russian Jew would read the hyper-rationalistic deductions of a German historian, to whom neither Moses, nor Israel, nor the Law existed before about the birth of Professor Ewald in Goettingen and his fellow scholars, who "restored" and explained philosophically the "ancient incoherent traditions, legends, and myths of the Bible."

The Talmud contains a story that after the destruction of Bethyra by Hadrian there were found on one stone two Medimnas of Phylacteries, cut off together with the heads of the poor scholars of the synagogue. When a boy at school, the author of these lines could not refrain from comparing this story with Hannibal's having sent to Carthage a Medimna of signets of slain roman noblemen, and consequently to look upon the Talmudic narration as a mere imitation. But in the year 1845, at a party of General Salov's, he was but too strikingly reminded of the truth of such "legends". A basket so large as to be carried by two servants, and filled with the capsulas of tefillin, was placed before him by way of ridiculing the Jewish religious rituals. The people who committed this act of profanation did not suspect that within those capsulas verses from Scripture, written on slips of parchment, were contained. But upon the learned doctor's asking by what means they had been obtained, he received the reluctant reply that they had been taken away from "malodietayeh rekrutov"--baptized Jewish boy conscripts.

Ten years afterwards, in 1855, some of those unfortunate boys happening to be brought to St. Petersburg, called upon the head of the congregation, and asked permission to pray with the members on the Day of Atonement, although they were baptized, since their conversion had been effected against their own free will--and on this occasion we heard of scenes which would drive all of us to madness. The atrocity with which the fulfillers of the "good intentions" of the government, paved hell by these defenseless children, can only be called diabolical. Out of the straps of their tefillin, whips were twisted for flogging the unhappy boys into baptism, for their instructors looked forward to receiving a decoration in reward for having "saved" so many souls. They were driven into the hot Russian baths, where they fainted from the heat, and from there back into ice-holes on the river, until their "stiff-necked stubbornness" was broken. Many preferred drowning themselves, and never reappeared from below the ice crust; but those of a more tender age were crushed and baptized.

Now that they were grown up they protested against that compulsory conversion, and would rather die than remain in the Church. They were told it was impossible to be admitted openly to the synagogue worship; but at the same time they were reminded of the "Kol-Nidre" prayer, which would obtain for them the pardon of their Heavenly Father, who knew their hearts better than men can do. The poor young men fasted and prayed in secret, as they had already been in the habit of doing for many years past. But when the winter came, and no answer to their protest had been received, they watched the Czar's daily ride near the Great Riding School, and on his approach, they threw themselves on the ground before his sledge, crying, "Majesty, oh give us back our God!" It was at the time when the French and English were besieging Sebastopol, and when he had not the time, and perhaps, not the heart, to punish this daring step of the "recruits." The Czar now reigning, who is said to have been near his father on that occasion, promised to see justice done, and they were indeed only sent to the garrison of Sweaborg, where they are said to be kindly treated.

The last awful scene connected with that system of recruiting children, took place at Orel, when one winter's night more than a hundred little boys were taken to town on sledges, but on taking them out they were found to be frozen to death, like poultry carried to market.

Beyond the Pale--History of the Jews in Russia


Glizenstein, Avraham Haim, Sefer Hatoldot Rabbi Menachem Mendel Admor Ha-"Tzemach-Tzedek", New York: Kehot Publications, 1986.

Posner, Zalman, The Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskalah Movement, New York: Kehot Publications, 1969.

Stanislawski, Michael, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews, 1825-1855, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983.

Also from Vitaly Charny comes the following information and bibliography of books written in Russian:

Beilin S. "Iz rasskazov o kantonistakh" (From stories about Cantonists)
Voronovich N. "Iz byta russkoy armii" (About everyday life of Russian Army)
Itzkovich I. "Vospominaniya arkhangelskogo kantonista" (The Memoirs of Arkhangelsks Cantonist)
Leshchinsky N. "Stary kantonist" (Old Cantonist)
Maimion M. "Istoriya odnoy kartiny" (Story of a Picture)
Stanislavsky S. "K istorii kantonistov" (History of Cantonists)
Usov G. "Evrei v armii" (Jews in the Army)
Fliskin E. "Kantonisty" (Cantonists)

After service in Army men of that time got special social status called among common people "Nikolayevsky Soldat". Looking through vital records for my ancestors information I find that Abram Charny (1822-1906) from Ostroshitsky Gorodok, Belarus, was recorded not like all other Jewish population "meshchane" (town dwellers) or "zemledel'tsy" (working on land) but "otstavnoy ryadovoy" (retired private) together with one more man of his age from the town. Such people occasionally had rights to settle out of Pale but generally that was a privilege of converts.