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jewish genealogy in Argentina



by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


With all its discriminations, the promulgation of this general statute was far from checking the feverish activity of the Government. With indefatigable zeal, its hands went on turning the legislative wheel and squeezing ever tighter the already unbearable vise of Jewish life. The slightest attempt to escape from its pressure was punished ruthlessly. In 1838 the police of St. Petersburg discovered a group of Jews in the capital "with expired passports," these Jews having extended their stay there a little beyond the term fixed for Jewish travellers, and the Tzar curtly decreed: "to be sent to serve in the penal companies of Kronstadt." [1] In 1840 heavy fines were imposed upon the landed proprietors in the Great Russian governments for "keeping over" Jews on their estates.

[Footnote 1: A fortress in the vicinity of St Petersburg.]

Considerable attention was bestowed by the Government on placing the spiritual life of the Jews under police supervision. In 1836 a censorship campaign was launched against Hebrew literature. Hebrew books, which were then almost exclusively of a religious nature, such as prayer-books, Bible and Talmud editions, rabbinic, cabalistic, and hasidic writings, were then issuing from the printing presses of Vilna, Slavuta, [1] and other places, and were subject to a rigorous censorship exercised by Christians or by Jewish converts. Practically every Jewish home-library consisted of religious works of this type. The suspicions of the Government were aroused by certain Jewish converts who had insinuated that the foreign editions of these works and those that had appeared in Russia itself prior to the establishment of a censorship were of an "injurious" character. As a result, all Jewish home-libraries were subjected to a search. Orders were given to deliver into the hands of the local police, in the course of that year, all foreign Hebrew prints as well as the uncensored editions, published at any previous time in Russia, and to entrust their revision to "dependable" rabbis. These rabbis were instructed to put their stamp on the books approved by them and return the books not approved by them to the police for transmission to the Ministry of the Interior. The regulation involved the entire ancient Hebrew literature printed during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, prior to the establishment of the Russian censorship. In order to "facilitate the supervision" over new publications or reprints from older editions, all Jewish printing presses which existed at that time in various cities and towns were ordered closed, and only those of Vilna and Kiev, [2] to which special censors were attached, were allowed to remain.

[Footnote 1: A town in Volhynia.]

[Footnote 2: The printing-press of Kiev was subsequently transferred to Zhitomir.]

As the Hebrew authors of antiquity or the Middle Ages did not fully anticipate the requirements of the Russian censors, many classic works were found to contain passages which were thought to be "at variance with imperial enactments." By the ukase of 1836 all books of this kind, circulating in tens of thousands of copies, had to be transported to St. Petersburg under a police escort to await their final verdict. The procedure, however, proved too cumbersome, and, in 1837, the emperor, complying with the petitions of the governors, was graciously pleased to command that all these books be "delivered to the flames on the spot." This _auto-da-fe_ was to be witnessed by a member of the gubernatorial administration and a special "dependable" official dispatched by the governor for the sole purpose of making a report to the central Government on every literary conflagration of this kind and forwarding to the Ministry of the Interior one copy of each "annihilated" book.

But even this was not enough to satisfy the lust of the Russian censorship. It was now suspected that even the "dependable" rabbis might pass many a book as "harmless," though its contents were subversive of the public weal. As a result, a new ukase was issued in 1841, placing the rabbinical censors themselves under Government control. All uncensored books, including those already passed as "harmless," were ordered to be taken away from the private libraries and forwarded to the censorship committees in Vilna and Kiev. The latter were instructed to attach their seals to the approved books and "deliver to the flames" the books condemned by them. Endless wagonloads of these confiscated books could be seen moving towards Vilna and Kiev, and for many years afterwards the literature of the "People of the Book," covering a period of three milleniums, was still languishing in the gaol of censorship, waiting to be saved from or to be sentenced to a fiery death by a Russian official.

It is almost unnecessary to add that the primitive method of solving the Jewish problem by means of conversion, was still the guiding principle of the Government. The Russian legislation of that period teems with regulations concerning apostasy. The surrender of the Synagogue to the Church seemed merely a question of time. In reality, however, the Government itself believed but half-heartedly in the sincerity of the converted Jews. In 1827 the Tzar put down in his own handwriting the following resolution: "It is to be strictly observed that the baptismal ceremony shall take place unconditionally on a Sunday, and with all possible publicity, so as to remove all suspicion of a pretended adoption of Christianity." Subsequently, this watchfulness had to be relaxed in the case of those "who avoid publicity in adopting Christianity," more especially in the case of the cantonists, "who have declared their willingness to embrace the orthodox faith"--under the effect, we may add, of the tortures in the barracks. Sincerity under these circumstances was out of the question, and, in 1831, the battalion chaplains were authorized to baptize these helpless creatures, even "without applying for permission to the ecclesiastical authorities."

The barrack missionaries were frequently successful among these unfortunate military prisoners. In the imperial rescripts of that period the characteristic expression "privates from among the Jews _remaining in the above faith_" figures as a standing designation for that group of refractory and incorrigible soldiers who disturbed the officially pre-established harmony of epidemic conversions by remaining loyal to Judaism. But among the "civilian" Jews, who had not been detached from their Jewish environment, apostasy was extraordinarily rare, and law after law was promulgated in vain, offering privileges to converts or leniency to criminals who were ready to embrace the orthodox creed. [1]

[Footnote 1: Under Clause 157 of the Russian Penal Code of 1845, the penalty of the law was softened, not only in degree but also in kind, for those criminals who had embraced the Greek-Orthodox faith during the investigation or trial.]

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