The Cantonist Saga

May 9, 2009

11 min read


A horrific era when Jewish boys were forced into 25 years of Russian military service.

In 1827, Czar Nicholas published the Recruitment Decree calling for conscription of Jewish boys between the ages of 12 and 25. These boys were known as cantonists; derived from the term 'canton' referring to the word 'military camps' to which they were sent. Conscripts under the age of 18 were assigned to live in preparatory institutions until they were old enough to formally join the army. The 25 years of service required that these recruits be counted from age 18, even if they had already spent many years in military institutions before reaching that age.

Czar Nicholas strengthened the cantonist system and used it to single out Jewish children for persecution, their baptism being a high priority to him. No other group in Russia was expected to serve at such a young age, nor were other groups of recruits tormented in the same way. Nicholas wrote in a confidential memorandum, "The chief benefit to be derived from the drafting of the Jews is the certainty that it will move them most effectively to change their religion." Historian Simon Dubnov wrote, "The barrack was to serve as a school, or rather as a factory, for producing a new generation of de-Judaized Jews, who were completely Russified, and if possible Christianized."

50,000 Jewish children were taken by force from their homes and inducted into the Russian army.

During the reign of Nicholas I, approximately 70,000 Jews, some 50,000 of them children, were taken by force from their homes and families and inducted into the Russian army. The boys, raised in traditional Jewish villages, were pressured via every possible means, including torture, to accept baptism. Many resisted and some managed to maintain their Jewish identity. The magnitude of their struggle is difficult to conceive.

This 30-year period saw the Jewish community in an unrelieved state of panic. Parents lived in perpetual fear that their children would be the next to fill the czar's quota. A child could be snatched from any place at any time. When a child left for school in the morning, parents did not know if they would ever see him again.

Though a significant proportion of young men found ways to avoid conscription, government quotas of recruits remained in force. It was the duty of the Kahal (Jewish communal organizational leaders) to ensure the quotas were met. The Kahal was thus under tremendous pressure and had a serious moral dilemma. If they did not provide recruits to fill the quota, the government would punish the Jewish communities with more severe measures, such as increasing the quota of recruits. What was the least damaging way to meet their community's quotas? Should they force the young married men, still in their teens and already supporting a wife and children, to be cantonists?

Faced with this agonizing decision, the Kahal often chose to conscript the very young on the basis that they did not yet have dependants. Needless to say, this policy did not provide a trivial solution, since no family would volunteer its child for the draft. The Kahal therefore resorted to the infamous institution of the chapper (Yiddish for 'grabber'). The Kahal paid a fee to the chapper for each child he abducted and turned over to the army toward fulfillment of the community's quota. Jewish chappers, familiar with the community's language and habits, proved most effective in locating and abducting these children.

The Story of a Cantonist Soldier

In 1853 when Israel Itzkovich was seven years old, his family moved to the city of Polotzk in the Vitebsk District. They somehow managed to support themselves. Israel's mother sent his 12-year-old brother to live somewhere safe from the draft. Israel and his 9-year-old sister remained at home with their mother.

One October morning, three chappers burst into their apartment, tied Israel up and carried him off. His mother's cries and screams fell upon deaf ears. Itzkovich was taken to a house holding several dozen captive children. The chappers kept them there for a few weeks. Where Israel's mother and relatives were able to visit him.

A few weeks later, the children were hauled to the receiving station where they were inducted and handed over to an army commander. They were housed temporarily in military barracks and issued military garments: underwear, overcoats, sheepskin coats, and boots (none of it the right size) and a cloth knapsack in which to store their belongings.

Two weeks later, Itzkovich, with a detachment of boys, was sent off to the battalion. Six or more boys were placed in each of a long line of carts. Most of the cantonists said goodbye to their families -- forever -- that day. The entire town also came to bid them farewell. The children and adults frantically screamed and wept. Even after traveling several miles, Itzkovich and his companions still heard their relatives' cries.

The wagons traveled until evening when the boys arrived at a village and were assigned to quarters in cold houses with dirt floors. The children were frozen and their hands and feet were stiff with cold. A boy could not remove his knapsack because he could not unfasten the cloth buttons. If the boys cried, they were beaten. Many became ill and died before they arrived at their next destination, Petersburg.

From Petersburg, Itzkovich and his detachment were forcibly marched to the Siberian city of Archangelsk. The march lasted from November 1853 to June 1854. En route, the children were beaten and harassed and many perished. The road was littered with their corpses. Finally, they entered the "Promised Land," Archangelsk. The officers took the boys to a building occupied by other cantonists.

In Archangelsk, life for Itzkovich and his unit was one of extreme hardship, full of torture and suffering. Beatings and pressure to accept baptism occurred throughout the day. Even after Itzkovitch contracted an eye disease, a non-commissioned officer beat him with his fists.

The officer wanted to fulfill the wish of his godfather -- to convert all the Jews.

A non-commissioned officer was in charge of Itzkovich and his detachment, a converted Jew named Yevgraf Vasilyevich Gulevich, who was the godson of the battalion commander, Dyakonov. At the first inspection of the detachment, Dyakonov declared to the battalion that as long as he lived, no one would leave his battalion as a Jew. Gulevich endeavored to fulfill the wish of his godfather.

Every evening at about nine o'clock, Gulevich would lie down on his bed, call a few boys over and order them to kneel down beside the bed. Then he would attempt to persuade the boys with quotations from the Bible, implying that the Jews were in error. Finally, he would demand in a threatening tone that the boys give their consent to be converted to Christianity or else face punishment. Gulevich allowed those boys who agreed to go to sleep. The next day they were given uniforms and an extra piece of bread. The obstinate ones, however, were kept on their knees by his bed all night, and the next day they went to bed without bread and were harassed and whipped on any pretext.

Resisting Conversion

The older cantonists, between the ages of 12 and 15, were tortured for longer durations. They were beaten and whipped so severely that many of them died of their wounds. Under these conditions, most of the boys, understandably, did not resist for long. They finally consented, albeit against their wishes, to accept conversion.

One boy resisted. Every morning he was placed on a bench and given at least 100 strokes of a birch, leaving him bleeding and reeling in agony. After each birching, he was sent to the infirmary where he was treated and then soon beaten again. He absorbed the abuse, did not cry out, and did not relent.

Even after their forced conversion to Christianity, Itzkovich and his fellow cantonists suffered continued abuse. A converted Jew while in an argument with a Christian comrade would still hear the epithet, "Parkhatyy Yevri!" (disgusting Jew). Sometimes they would add, "A Jew who has been baptized is like a wolf that has been fed!" These insults, however, reminded him of his Jewish identity, and strengthened his inner resolve to remain a Jew. He pledged to seek justice and, without allowing fear of penalties to dissuade him, would win back the right to live as a Jew.

Every year in May, the order came from Petersburg to send the cantonists who had turned 18 to join the regular field troops. In 1854, the boys who had reached that age, including those among Itzkovich's detachment, were dispatched to Petersburg, where they were assigned to various units.

When Itzkovich's detachment arrived, it participated in an imperial review in the presence of the czar. During the course of the usual questioning, many of the cantonists complained about their forced conversion to Christianity. That took immense courage, as it put their lives at risk. As a result, the entire unit was placed under arrest, and they were all sentenced to run the gauntlet past 3,000 men. That was a virtual death sentence.

After the death of Czar Nicholas I in February 1855, the new Czar Alexander cancelled the punishment for the rest of the detachment, and only those who had themselves complained were assigned to garrison battalions in Siberia.

Soon after, Colonel Dyakonov, died suddenly. Dyakonov's burial in a hard December frost kept the boys outside for over two hours. They grew stiff with cold, but it was a joyous holiday for them.

Under Czar Alexander II, the situation somewhat improved.

Under Czar Alexander II, the situation somewhat improved. In 1856 he issued a manifesto which forbade the taking of underage Jewish children to be cantonists, and it was soon ordered that all the boys in cantonist battalions be released and returned to their original status. However, Jewish children were not eligible for return to their previous status as Jews. The directive that concerned them ordered that the older cantonists who had reached the age of 18 were to be assigned to serve in the regular forces, while the younger ones were enrolled in the War Department academies.

A new commander, Captain Okulov was appointed to command the First Company. Life changed for the better. The food improved and the brutal beatings stopped. The members of the company, by now adults, were dispatched to central Russia for assignment to troop units. The Second Company of younger boys was assigned to the academy.

Release from Duty

In 1872, 19 years after becoming a cantonist, Itzkovich was released on indefinite leave. At that point he had two goals: to be granted retirement status and the benefits that entailed, and to have his official listing changed back from Christian to Jew.

Itzkovich was informed that to receive retirement status he would either have to serve another 10 months or maintain his status of indefinite leave for an additional three years. He chose the former and enlisted in the Tomsk Province for the purpose of serving out his remaining time.

Soon Itzkovich officially declared that he did not wish to be listed as a Christian, since he had been forced to convert. His new commanders threatened him with a trial that would deprive him of his retirement rights. Despite this, he stubbornly submitted a memorandum which set forth in detail the barbarous treatment he had received as a 7-year-old child, and how he, nevertheless, had served the Czar honestly and conscientiously for 20 years and had received several commendations. Though his earlier commander had tortured him and given him a new Christian name, Itzkovich claimed that his current commanders could not prohibit him from petitioning for the return of what had been taken from him by force. He asked to be put on trial so as to end his torment.

The army commander appealed to Itzkovich to drop his request, but Itzkovich stated categorically that he would no longer betray God and His people, and that he would no longer attend Church or go to confession. Itkovich's memorandum was forwarded up the chain of command. Six weeks later, he received orders from the commander of the forces of Western Siberia. "Non-commissioned Officer Itzkovich, who had strayed from Russian Orthodoxy, is to be presented for exhortation (lecturing) by a priest. If he remains unrepentant, he is to be transferred to another troop unit."

The priest tried his best but could do nothing to sway Itzkovich. In response to his exhortation, Itzkovich just smiled and said that he was no longer seven years old, but 26. Nor was he transferred to another unit, since his term of service had by this time ended.

Itkovich retired in October 1873, after serving exactly 20 years.

The Russian Czar is long gone, as is the Soviet Union. Many descendants of the cantonists have outlived their antagonists, and till today proudly maintain Jewish traditions. The stubborn faith of Itkovich and others proved stronger than any czar or punishment.


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