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jewish genealogy in Argentina



by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


The ways and means by which the provisions of the military statute were carried into effect during the reign of Nicholas I. we do not learn from official documents, which seem to have drawn a veil over this dismal strip of the past. Our information is derived from sources far more communicative and nearer to truth--the traditions current among the people. Owing to the fact that every Jewish community, at the mutual responsibility of all its members, was compelled by law to supply a definite number of recruits, and that no one was willing to become a soldier of his own volition, the Kahal administration and the recruiting "trustees," who had to answer to the authorities for any shortage in recruits, were practically forced to become a sort of police agents, whose function it was to "capture" the necessary quota of recruits. Prior to every military conscription, the victims marked for prey, the young men and boys of the burgher class, [1] very generally took to flight, hiding in distant cities, outside the zone of their Kahals, or in forests and ravines. A popular song in Yiddish refers to these conditions in the following words;

[Footnote 1: Compare on the status of the burgher in Russian law Vol. I, p. 308, n. 2. Nearly all the higher estates were exempt.]

      _Der Ukas is arobgekumen auf judische Selner,       Seinen mir sich zulofen in die puste Waelder.....       In alle puste Waelder seinen mir zulofen,       In puste Gruber seinen mir verlofen_..... Oi weih, oi weih!_....[1]

[Footnote 1:

      When the ukase came down about Jewish soldiers,       We all dispersed over the lonesome forests;       Over the lonesome forests did we disperse,       In lonesome pits did we hide ourselves.... Woe me, Woe!]

The recruiting agents hired by the Kahal or its "trustees," who received the nickname "hunters" or "captors," [1] hunted down the fugitives, trailing them everywhere and capturing them for the purpose of making up the shortage. In default of a sufficient number of adults, little children, who were easier "catch," were seized, often enough in violation of the provision of the law. Even boys under the required age of twelve, sometimes no more than eight years old, were caught and offered as conscripts at the recruiting stations, their age being misstated. [2] The agents perpetrated incredible cruelties. Houses were raided during the night, and children were torn from the arms of their mothers, or lured away and kidnapped.

[Footnote 1: More literally "catchers"; in Yiddish _Khappers_.]

[Footnote 2: This was the more easy, as regular birth-registers were not yet in existence.]

After being captured, the Jewish conscripts were sent into the recruiting jail where they were kept in confinement until their examination at the recruiting station. The enlisted minors were turned over to a special officer to be dispatched to their places of destination, mostly in the Eastern provinces including Siberia. For it must be noted that the cantonists were stationed almost to a man in the outlying Russian governments, where they could be brought up at a safe distance from all Jewish influences. The unfortunate victims who were drafted into the army and deported to these far-off regions were mourned by their relatives as dead. During the autumnal season, when the recruits were drafted and deported, the streets of the Jewish towns resounded with moans. The juvenile cantonists were packed into wagons like so many sheep and carried off in batches under a military convoy. When they took leave of their dear ones it was for a quarter of a century; in the case of children it was for a longer term, too often it was good-bye for life.

How these unfortunate youngsters were driven to their places of destination we learn from the description of Alexander Hertzen, [1] who chanced to meet a batch of Jewish cantonists on his involuntary journey through Vyatka, in 1835. At one of the post stations in some God-forsaken village of the Vyatka government he met the escorting officer. The following dialogue ensued between the two:

[Footnote 1: Hertzen, a famous Russian writer (d. 1870), was exiled to the government of Vyatka for propagating liberal doctrines.]

  "Whom do you carry and to what place?"

  "Well, sir, you see, they got together a bunch of these accursed   Jewish youngsters between the age of eight and nine. 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 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. 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....

The great Russian writer saw the Jewish cantonists on the road, but he knew nothing of what happened to them later on, in the recesses of the barracks into which they were driven. This terrible secret was revealed to the world at a later period by the few survivors among these martyred Jewish children.

Having arrived at their destination, the juvenile conscripts were put into the cantonist battalions. The "preparation for military service" began with their religious re-education at the hands of sergeants and corporals. No means was, neglected so long as it bade fair to bring the children to the baptismal font. The authorities refrained from giving formal instructions, leaving everything to the zeal of the officers who knew the wishes of their superiors. The children were first sent for spiritual admonition to the local Greek-Orthodox priests, whose efforts, however, proved fruitless in nearly every case. They were then taken in hand by the sergeants and corporals who adopted military methods of persuasion.

These brutal soldiers invented all kinds of tortures. A favorite procedure was to make the cantonists get down on their knees in the evening after all had gone to bed and to keep the sleepy children in that position for hours. Those who agreed to be baptized were sent to bed, those who refused were kept up the whole night till they dropped from exhaustion. The children who continued to hold their own were flogged and, under the guise of gymnastic exercises, subjected to all kinds of tortures. Those that refused to eat pork or the customary cabbage soup prepared with lard were beaten and left to starve. Others were fed on salted fish and then forbidden to drink, until the little ones, tormented by thirst, agreed to embrace Christianity.

The majority of these children, unable to endure the tortures inflicted on them, saved themselves by baptism. But many cantonists, particularly those of a maturer age (between fifteen and eighteen), bore their martyrdom with heroic patience. Beaten almost into senselessness, their bodies striped by lashes, tormented to the point of exhaustion by hunger, thirst, and sleeplessness, the lads declared again and again that they would not betray the faith of their fathers. Most of these obstinate youths were carried from the barracks into the military hospitals to be released by a kind death. Only a few remained alive.

Alongside of this passive heroism there were cases of demonstrative martyrdom. One such incident has survived in the popular memory. The story goes that during a military parade [1] in the city of Kazan the battalion chief drew up all the Jewish cantonists on the banks of the river, where the Greek-Orthodox priests were standing in their vestments, and all was ready for the baptismal ceremony. At the command to jump into the water, the boys answered in military fashion "Aye, aye!" Whereupon they dived under and disappeared. When they were dragged out, they were dead. In most cases, however, these little martyrs suffered and died noiselessly, in the gloom of the guard-houses, barracks, and military hospitals. They strewed with their tiny bodies the roads that led into the outlying regions of the Empire, and those that managed to get there were fading away slowly in the barracks which had been turned into inquisitorial dungeons. This martyrdom of children, set in a military environment, represents a singular phenomenon even in the extensive annals of Jewish martyrology.

[Footnote 1: A variant of the legend speaks of a review by the Tzar himself.]

Such was the lot of the juvenile cantonists. As for the adult recruits, who were drafted into the army at the normal age of conscription (18-25), their conversion to Christianity was not pursued by the same direct methods, but their fate was not a whit less tragic from the moment of their capture till the end of their grievous twenty-five years' service. Youths, who had no knowledge of the Russian language, were torn away from the heder or yeshibah, often from wife and children.

In consequence of the early marriages then in vogue, most youths at the age of eighteen were married. The impending separation for a quarter of a century, added to the danger of the soldier's apostasy or death in far-off regions, often disrupted the family ties. Many recruits, before entering upon their military career, gave their wives a divorce so as not to doom them to perpetual widowhood.

At the end of 1834 rumors began to spread among the Jewish masses concerning a law which was about to be issued forbidding early marriages but exempting from conscription those married prior to the promulgation of the law. A panic ensued. Everywhere feverish haste was displayed in marrying off boys from ten to fifteen years old to girls of an equally tender age. Within a few months there appeared in every city hundreds and thousands of such couples, whose marital relations were often confined to playing with nuts or bones. The misunderstanding which had caused this senseless matrimonial panic or _beholoh,_[1] as it was afterwards popularly called, was cleared up by the publication, on April 13, 1835, of the new "Statute on the Jews." To be sure, the new law contained a clause forbidding marriages before the age of eighteen, but it offered no privileges for those already married, so that the only result of the _beholoh_ was to increase the number of families robbed by conscription of their heads and supporters.

[Footnote 1: A Hebrew word, also used in Yiddish, meaning _fright, panic_.]

The years of military service were spent by the grown-up Jewish soldiers amidst extraordinary hardships. They were beaten and ridiculed because of their inability to express themselves in Russian, their refusal to eat _trefa_, and their general lack of adaptation to the strange environment and to the military mode of life. And even when this process of adaptation was finally accomplished, the Jewish soldier was never promoted beyond the position of a non-commissioned under-officer, baptism being the inevitable stepping-stone to a higher rank. True, the Statute on Military Service promised those Jewish soldiers who had completed their term in the army with distinction admission to the civil service, but the promise remained on paper so long as the candidates were loyal to Judaism. On the contrary, the Jews who had completed their military service and had in most cases become invalids were not even allowed to spend the rest of their lives in the localities outside the Pale, in which they had been stationed as soldiers. Only at a later period, during the reign of Alexander II., was this right accorded to the "Nicholas soldiers" [1] and their descendants.

[Footnote 1: In Russian, _Nikolayevskiye soldaty_, i.e., those that had served in the army during the reign of Nicholas I.]

The full weight of conscription fell upon the poorest classes of the Jewish population, the so-called burgher estate, [1] consisting of petty artisans and those impoverished tradesmen who could not afford to enrol in the mercantile guilds, though there are cases on record where poor Jews begged from door to door to collect a sufficient sum of money for a guild certificate in order to save their children from military service. The more or less well-to-do were exempted from conscription either by virtue of their mercantile status or because of their connections with the Kahal leaders who had the power of selecting the victims.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 23, n. 1.]

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