Jewish genealogy in Argentina
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jewish genealogy in Argentina



by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


There was yet one domain in which the squeezing and pressing power of Tzardom could fully employ its destructive energy. We refer to military conscription. This genuine creation of the imperial brain became more and more intolerable, serving in Jewish life as a penal and correctional agency, with its "capture" of old and young, its inquisitorial regime of cantonists, its deportation for a quarter of a century and longer into far-off regions. Even the Russian peasants were stricken with terror at the thought of Nicholas' conscription, which in the reminiscences of the portrayers of that period is pictured as life-long deportation, and they frequently shirked military duty by fleeing from the land-owners and hiding themselves in the woods. How much more terrible must then conscription have been for the Jew, whose family was robbed both of a young father and a tender son. No means was left unused to evade this atrocious obligation. The reports of the governors refer to the "immeasurable difficulties in carrying out the conscription among the Jews."

  Apart from innumerable cases of self-mutilation--to quote the words   of one of these reports written in 1850--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.

Those in hiding were hunted down like wild beasts. Their life, as a contemporary witness testifies, was worse than that of galley slaves, for the slightest indiscretion brought ruin upon them. Many resorted to self-mutilation to render themselves unfit for military service. They chopped off their fingers or toes, damaged their eyesight, and perpetrated every possible form of maiming to evade a military service which was in effect penal servitude. "The most tender-hearted mother," to quote a contemporary, "would place the finger of her beloved son under the kitchen knife of a home-bred quack surgeon."

This evasion resulted in immense shortages which pressed heavily upon the Jewish communities, since the latter were held collectively responsible for supplying the full quota of recruits. The reports about the unsatisfactory conscription results among the Jews filled the Government in St. Petersburg with rage. The persistent reluctance of human beings to be parted almost for life from those near and dear to them, or to see their little ones carried off to an early grave or to the baptismal font, was regarded as a manifestation of criminal self-will. Accordingly, the former measures of "cutting short" and "curbing" this self-will were improved upon by new ones. In December, 1850, the Tzar gave orders that for every missing Jewish recruit in a given community three men of the minimum age of twenty from the same community and one more recruit for every two thousand rubles ($1000) of tax arrears should be impressed into service. A year later the following atrocious measures were issued for the purpose "of cutting short the concealment of Jews from military service": the fugitives were to be captured, flogged, and drafted into the army over and above the required quota of recruits. The communities in which they were hidden were to be fined. The relatives of a recruit who failed to present himself in proper time were to be taken in his stead, even if these relatives happened to be heads of families. The official representatives of the communities were equally liable to being sent into the army if found convicted of any inaccuracy in carrying out the conscription.

A reign of terror followed in the Jewish communities upon the promulgation of these laws. The Kahal elders--it will be remembered that they continued to exist after the abrogation of the Kahals, acting as the fiscal agents of the Government [1]--now faced a terrible alternative: to become, in the words of a contemporary, "either murderers of martyrs," i.e., either to capture and send into the army any youth or boy, without discrimination, or themselves to don the gray uniform and be impressed into military services as "penal" recruits. In consequence, a fiendish hunt after human beings was set afoot in the Pale of Settlement. Adults were seized and, regardless of their being the only mainstay of their families, were taken captive, and children of eight were captured and presented to the recruiting authorities as being of the obligatory age of twelve. But despite all this hunting, many communities were not able to furnish their quota of soldiers, and the number of "penal" recruits from among the Kahal elders was very considerable.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 60.]

Weeping and moaning resounded in the neighborhood of the recruiting stations in the Jewish towns where parents and relatives took leave from their dear ones who were doomed to a perpetual barrack life. And yet the fury of the Government was not satisfied. In 1853 new "temporary rules" were issued, "by way of experiment," whereby not only communities but also individuals among Jews were granted the right of offering as their substitutes any fellow-Jew from another city than his own who was caught without a passport. Any Jew who happened to absent himself from his place of residence without a passport could be seized and drafted into service as a substitute for a regular recruit due from the family of the captor. The "captive," regardless of age, was made a soldier, and the captor was given a receipt for one recruit.

A new ferocious hunt began. The official "captors" employed by the Kahals were no longer the only ones to prowl after living prey. The chase was now taken up by every private individual who wished to find a substitute for a member of his family, or who simply wanted to turn a penny by selling his recruiting receipt. Hordes of Jewish bandits sprang up who infested the roads and the inns, and by trickery or force made the travellers part with their passports and then dragged them to the recruiting stations as "captives" to be sent into the army. Never before had the Jewish masses, yielding to pressure from above, sunk to such depths of degradation. The Jew became a beast of prey to his fellow-Jew. Jews were afraid of budging an inch from their native cities. Every passer-by was suspected of being a captor or a bandit. The recruiting inquisition of Nicholas inflicted upon the Jews the utmost limit of martyrdom. It set Jew against Jew, called forth "a war of all against all," threw the tortured and the torturers into one heap, and sullied the Jewish soul.

All this took place while the Crimean War was going on. The Russian army, on the altar of which so many human sacrifices had been offered in the course of thirty years, marched to save "the honor of Russia," in truth, to save the old regime. Squadron upon squadron issued from the inner recesses of Russia, and marched towards the battlefields of the South, marched to the slaughter, into the mouths of the cannons of the English and French, who knew how to conquer without penal conscriptions and without inflicting tortures upon tender-aged cantonists. The "gendarme of Europe," who, armed to his teeth, had contemptuously threatened to "finish the enemy with his soldier caps," could not hold out against the army of the "rotten West." Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers fell beneath the walls of Sevastopol, upon the heights of Inkerman. Thousands of Jewish soldiers were laid among them in "brotherly graves." The Jews, enslaved by pre-reformatory Russia, died for a fatherland which treated them as pariahs, which had bestowed upon them a monstrous conscription, the unexampled institutions of cantonists, penal recruits, and "captives." However, it soon became clear that those who had fallen under the walls of Sevastopol had sealed by their death not the honor but the dishonor of the old regime of blood and iron. Beneath the rotting corpse of an obsolete statecraft, built upon serfdom and maintained by soldiery and police, the germ of a new and better Russia began to stir.

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