Cantonists: Jewish Children as Soldiers in Tsar Nicholas's Army Author(s): Adina Ofek Source: Modern Judaism, Vol. 13, No.

3 (Oct., 1993), pp. 277-308 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 24/05/2011 18:30
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Adina Ofek




In 1827 Tsar Nicholas I legislated an annual conscription quota on Jewish males, ages twelve through twenty five, requiring them to serve in the Russian army for twenty-five years (ten recruits for every thousand inhabitants). Since the formal age for enlistment in the Russian Army was eighteen, boys younger than eighteen (many even younger than twelve), still "eligible" for the draft, were placed in special training and education establishments called Cantonist Battalions. Once they reached the standard draft age of eighteen, they were formally enlisted in the regular military, and only then would they begin their required twenty-five years of service. According to various records approximately 50,000 children, many of them as young as eight, nine, and ten years old, were conscripted between the years 1827 and 1854.' Nicholas, zealous in achieving his goals, set out to baptize the cantonists and make them into "good Russians" before they reached the formal age of enlistment. His actions have rightly been described as the first modern exercise in social engineering-the treatment of human beings as so much raw material.2 Under the "cantonist decrees," money was no longer accepted as a replacement for a draftee, though some exceptions were granted. This is not to say that the draft was now driven by egalitarian principles. Merchants who belonged to the first guild or tlhose who had the money to pay for guild membership were exempted, as were rabbis and their families.3 For the most part recruits were children of poor families. Wealthy families and those with status in the community were virtually always spared, even if they had many sons. The responsibility for filling the quotas of the draft was laid upon the leaders of each community, the kahal. The draft was actually carried out by khappers, Jewish child-recruit abductors, appointed by the leaders of the community to do the dirty work. Typically, the khapperswere indigenous members of the community. Skilled in deception, they lured children with lies, and even on occasion snatched
Modern Judaism 13 (1993): 277-308 ? 1993 by The Johns Hopkins University Press


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children from their homes in broad daylight. Memoirs abound with vivid illustrations of victims of those actions.4 Feared and hated for obvious reasons, the kahal and the khapperswere often blamed for the draft decree itself. Accounts of violence against them are preserved in the historical record.5 The fate of the abducted often ended in tragedy. Many of them never survived the torture and hardship of the journey to battalions in the eastern provinces and died before reaching their destination. Those who survived were billeted in Christian homes and put under the supervision of special Russian officers Contact with Jews outside the battalions and the speaking of Yiddish were strictly forbidden. Contrary to the regulations which explicitly permitted religious freedom in the regular military, Jewish prayer was forbidden, and all ritual articles such as prayer books and talitot were taken away from the children. The decree was in effect for twenty-nine years. During that time thousands of children were forcibly baptized while others endured beatings or starvation when they refused baptism. The conscription laws became more stringent toward the end of Tsar Nicholas's reign and the Crimean War. His belief in the military and his use of the military as an agent for social change irrevocably altered the texture of the Jewish community, whose leaders assisted the Tsar in his plan, and whose poor suffered untold injustices. Demoralized and torn apart by these circumstances, local communities were in turmoil.6 These experiences lingered traumatically in the memory of the people, and found dramatic expression in the few accounts that remain. The existing texts from this era (some are little known) consist of three types: 1. Historical accounts based on archival documents; 2. personal memoirs of former cantonists and eyewitnesses; 3. literary and semiliterary sources: fiction, poetry, drama, folksongs, satiric fables, and essays. Most of the texts were originally written in Yiddish, Russian, or Hebrew, and some are in German.

Documents Some historical accounts of the period are based on the Russian government's archival documents providing details of the law, the official tsarist actions, and above all, the fate of the abducted children. For instance, Abrahham Lewin cites numerous regulations and rulings by Tsar Nicholas I regarding the recruitment of children, their treatment in the battalions, punishment rules for various crimes related to the recruitment, and the fate of the cantonists as grown soldiers.7 Simi-

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larly, archival documents cited by S. Ginzburg raise questions about the startlingly young age of the children at the time of their abduction and forced conversion.8 These include records from trials of former forcibly baptized cantonists who wanted to return to Judaism, among them Binshtok, who was forced to convert at the age of ten while his official age was declared as sixteen, and Itzkowits, who was seven years old when he was taken as a recruit and listed in documents on baptism as twelve.9 Another striking testimony Ginzburg relates is that of the head doctor in the military hospital in Kiev who was asked to explain the large number of sick and dead among the cantonist children as early as 1829. In his report he stated: From the 1600 cantonists that were brought in 1828, more than a half were brought from distant areas. In the lists that accompanied them was stated that they were 10 years old, but when the first 10 dropped, it wasclearthat they were not more than 8 yearsold. There were no monetarymeans to send them back to their parents (in the distant areas), so the battalionhad to keep them and accept the age that was officiallylisted.10 Indeed, the few available official documents remaining present the facts and statistics with chilling accuracy and support the personal stories that are retold in the memoirs of former cantonists.

Memoirsand EyewitnessAccounts Other historical sources are based primarily on eyewitness accounts and memoirs of ex-cantonists. They revolve around several main issues. In addition to details of official actions, they also deal with the reaction of the community and the involvement of its members in the execution of the law, as well as with debates on the dilemma of participation in the military and some about the cantonists as actual soldiers. This part of the literature sheds more personal light on the abducted children and their fate-both the first stages in the battalions and homes and their tragic outcomes in later years. Following are more detailed accounts of some of these issues that will be further discussed later and compared with their literary manifestations. The historian S. M. Dubnov was one of the first to call on excantonists and people who lived in that period to write to journals for Jewish history with any information they had about the "cantonists martyrs," and indeed toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, several memoirs were pub-


Adina Ofek

lished in yearbooks, periodicals, or books. Some of the most famous of these are those of Friedberg, Kotik, Berman, and Itzkowitz. Kotik, Shpiegiel, and Chaim Marimzan were kidnapped as young children during the late years of the law's enforcement and were among the few who remained Jewish and wrote their life stories (in Russian) for Dubnov, and who are quoted in full (in Yiddish) by Lewin."1According to Lewin they were all kidnapped at a young age (between seven and ten years old) toward the end of the cantonist period. Their life stories may be the only complete, true, and unadapted ones that are left. Lewin (1934) comments: "In my opinion these memoirs have the character and quality of a people's triumph. They are not just individual stories, but rather tales based on historic events that they themselves have lived through, one hundred percent truth, and in this lies their colossal value."'2 The writers of these memoirs recall desperate parents who hid their children in the forest, in Christian homes, or in foreign countries if they could afford it. Moshe Shpiegel's memoir recounts the efforts of his widowed mother to buy his freedom at the age of seven, only to have to see him lost to the khappersa year later while the whole family tried to cross the border to Austria and was betrayed.13 Another story relates the extreme desperation of the families: a mother whose two boys were in hiding erroneously sends the khappersto the hiding place, thinking she had found replacements for her own sons.14 Once abducted, the children were put in a local prison to wait for enlistment procedures. Sometimes they were kept for weeks before being taken away, while their families tried to reach them and keep in touch. An integral part of the official procedure included a macabre practice of the time, an imposed oath (sh'vuah) of loyalty to the tsarto be sworn in Hebrew with hands on the Torah. The rabbi who officiated the oath would sign the document testifying that all was proper and take upon himself a curse and punishment should this oath turn out to be false. The detailed instructions for administering the oath indicate that the Russians were well informed about Jewish ritual, and subterfuges-to swear on a Torahpesula (false or damaged Torah) or to refute an oath in one's heart.'5 During enlistment the Russian officials would also hear testimony about the age of the children. Often ten Jews from the coummunity would falsely swear (for money or other favors) that a child was indeed twelve years old. As their children were being taken off, parents and relatives would follow the convoy through several cities in hope of freeing the children or simply to be with them a little longer, and would then give up. The long and dreadful journey, with children dying of exhaustion, exposure, and hunger is commemorated in many memoirs. Most of the

Jewish Children as Soldiers


sources, however, do not fail to quote the words of one of the first Russian liberals, the freedom fighter Alexander Herzen. Lewin, who retells Herzen's full account of a group of children being taken to Kazan on a day of terrible rain, indicates that the incident documented by Herzen is of special significance because "it relates to the first years of the recruit law, for which we have only few memoirs and facts, and also because the author was not a Jew and thus he could describe and judge such events with composed objectivity."16Herzen quotes a conversation he had with the officer leading the cantonists, who told him that many had dropped like flies and would not reach their destination. He gives a vivid description of the eight- and ten-year-yearold children standing pale and exhausted: "the most awful sight I have ever seen. These sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the raw wind from the Arctic ocean, were going to their graves."'7 Many of the writers recall the last words of their mother being a warning and a plea not to convert, to remember the Jewish laws, and to pray every day. For some this legacy was underscored by clear memories of study in the cheyder,Shabbat in synagogue, and holiday celebrations. As the three detailed memoirs present it, the early ab(Jewish experiences) may have given them the sorption of Yiddishkeit to withstand total conversion. The significance of a rememstrength bered holiday as a bond is vividly illustrated in the memory of one Passover night celebrated for the first time after years of denial of this right, at a Jewish home with a group of guests, Subatniks(gerim, Russians who have converted to Judaism). The former cantonist and his friend were taken home by a Jewish merchant and showered with love. Saying the prayers again and reading the Torah brought Chaim the cantonist to weep uncontrollably. "Until the grave I will not forget that Pesach.... I was mostly interested to see how 'Jews' keep our faith," he wrote in his memoir. He then goes into a detailed account of every part of the celebration, the ritual and food. This is the same man who had endured, as we shall see, tremendous suffering and relentless attempts to convert him.18 For most kidnapped children, though, faith and even mere survival were not assured. It it historically demonstrable that among those who survived, more cantonists agreed to baptism than resisted it. Israel Lev Izkovitz devotes a chapter in his memoir to what he calls the "shmad (forced apostasy)-inquisition." He tells about the officer of their battalion, a converted Jew named Yagref Gulavittch, who declared, that as long he would remain alive not a single cantonist would come out of his battalion alive as aJew, and he kept his word. This apostate Jew perfected methods to persuade the children to convert. Izkovitz recalls:


Adina Ofek

Each night before they went to bed he would call several cantonists and place them in front of his bed on their knees. He then forced in them with the Chumash hand to declare that "Jewslive in error As and thatJesus was the true Messiah." he went on, his tone became threateningand he demanded that the children agree to be baptized on the spot. Those who agreed were allowed to go to bed and supplied with new clothes and bread the next morning. Those who refused were kept kneeling on the floor all night long and would not get any food. Their superiors picked on them for every little thing and would not leave them alone. You figure that one could not withstandthis for long and would convert againstone's own will. The cantonistswho were between 12-15 years old held out longer, but even they gave in when stories were told about this one and that one who died under the beatings. The whole battalionwas indeed baptized except for one 17-year-oldcantonist. For a long time he resistedand was beaten every day, nearlybleeding to death. In 1856 the order came to disband the cantonist battalion, and our kadosh (martyr)who had turned 18 was inlisted into the regular army. So, the officer kept his word, no Jew remained in the whole battalion.19 The hopless battle against the conversion of the children was also fought on the home front. Every memoir of a former cantonist includes the final farewell words: "Never forget the God of Israel; remember that you are a Jew! Do not disregard the laws of the Torah!" Many cantonists held this attitude to have been a major factor in their attempts to remain Jewish. Yakov Partzel, who settled in Irkuts, alludes to it: "I don't know myself what made me stand by my Judaism with such fervor, maybe it was my mother's tears, who begged me the eight-year-old boy to remain a Jew. And maybe it was this innate stubbornness toward those I could not but regard as enemies."20 Two conflicting forces haunted the young cantonists' tie with a distant home. Childhood memories of Jewish experiences and a compelling feeling of obligation to remain Jewish undoubtedly reinforced that tie. However, there was also another force: the fears of cast-off sons assumed to have been converted. The memoir of Chaim, the son of a poor melamed,tells in detail about the torture he endured in the Christian home where he was housed. He was constantly beaten, cursed, and called an anti-Christ, but he would not agree to be baptized. After running away he was put in a new home with a humane Christian family, and as the most important event in his development and training, Chaim cites the help of his adoptive parents after his own family had cast him off. A short summary of an almost unbelievable development of his life events follows. Every month he received a letter from his parents with one ruble enclosed, but the letters suddenly ceased. Worried that something had happened to his par-

Jewish Children as Soldiers


ents, he wrote to his former teacher to inquire about them. He receives one last letter: To our former son Chaim,[ ... ] We are sending you a ruble so you can buy yourself a rope and hang yourself, or tie it around your neck and drown. [ ... ] from now on never mention our name, and never send us your phony letters. You have new parents now, [ ... ] We hope to die before you do so we can bother you from the next world because you have disgraced our name. You murderer, you shamed our whole family. Children are chasing us on the street (apostate)!"21 calling after us: "YourChaim is a mushumad Chaim later learned that someone from his town, who had followed his kidnapped son to Kiev, had heard that the whole battalion had been baptized and had then carried the misinformation back to the town. Chaim survived the misery and sorrow of being disowned by his parents, and along the way yet another family took him in as a son. At one time he overheard them talk of a chance to inherit a lot of money should he convert, but he turned down the offer and earned the respect of his host family, who told him he should remain firm in his faith. When he eventually returned to his hometown as a grown, lonely man, he had to prove that he had remained a Jew before his parents would accept him (reluctantly) and even then,, it did not end well. He could not readjust and never found happiness. He ends his memoir thus: "Now in my late days I feel lost and lonely. In my old age I have remained alone, barren as a stone, barren as a stone."22 The same sentiments and similar experiences can be found in other

Upon reading these and similar stories one cannot but wonder what force it was that helped the few survivors cling to their faith and endure the pettiness of their own people in addition to the pain and suffering inflicted by the military. Perhaps it was for others as the cantonist wrote: "So much had I suffered for being a Jew, I would not give it up for anything."24 Few accounts exist of the military performance of Jewish soldiers. Since so many converted, the Jewish origin of the heroes is rarely mentioned. Slotski points out that while very little is known about the part Jews played in battles of that time, it is known that thousands participated in the Crimean War. A memorial was erected in Sebastopol in 1864 for 500 Jews who were killed and buried in that Black Sea town.25 In the memoirs we learn of Jewish soldiers who were skillful and able and won the approval of their superiors; however, most heroic acts recounted in the memoirs have more to do with


Adina Ofek

resistance to conversion than with heroism in battle. According to Slotski many restrictions in the military barred Jews from entry into higher ranks and special jobs. Few of the soldiers who did not convert are known to have reached high positions.26 In rare instances we hear of ex-cantonists who converted and later became high-ranking officers, even generals, and some are known to have helped Jews in their area. Such a story is told about General Lieber Mironowitz Spiback, who was kidnapped at the age of eight and carried with him for years remnants of a worn letter that his father had sent him. In the letter his father begs him not to forget that he is a Jew. Spibak eventually converts and becomes a general, but as a last safeguard against complete submission to another religion he never gets married. In later years he is found by his brother and returns in secrecy to Judaism.27 Yet even conversion did not stop the animosity of the Russian soldiers. Many accounts of this era include vignettes that demonstrate anti-Semitism toward converted soldiers. Whenever a fight broke out between a convert and a Pravoslav soldier, the convert would be called farshivi dz'id (dirty Jew), and a favorite expression was: "A converted Jew is like a dressed-up wolf."28

Folk Songs and Legends as Oral History The distinction between folk songs and poetry in the Jewish tradition has always been somewhat hazy. During the cantonist period and later in the century works of full-fledged poets (like Y. L. Gordon) were widely adopted as folk songs. These are discussed more fully below. However, in the present section folk songs are treated for their value as a historical source rather than for their literary and poetic value. In fact, just as a major part of the memoirs and eyewitness accounts outlined above is devoted to descriptions of the poor being and kidbetrayed by the leaders of the community-deceived napped-so are the songs. Many of the folk songs lament and complain about the troubles, employing bitter humor and sharp, spiteful words against the kahal. But they go beyond it, also giving a voice to the anger of the people against the cruelty of the government. Anonymous authors may have felt freer to speak their mind. Nevertheless, to avoid censorship the songs often disguised their harsh condemnation of the Russian government, for instance, by substituting for the term "military" the term "Yevonim" (Greeks), the old symbol of evil and religious persecution in Jewish history. Common are lines like:

as JewishChildren Soldiers ... Tears are pouring in the streets, One can bathe in children'sblood. Help! What a disaster! Will there never be an end to it? Little children are torn from cheyder And dressed with Yevanishe (Greek)cloths Our leaders, our rabbonim (rabbis) (soldiers); Help to hand them over as Yevonim Zushe Rakoverhas seven sons, But the only son of Lea the widow is taken,
He is the kapora (expiation) for the kahal's sin.29


The first collection of recruit folk songs in print was edited by Ginzburg and Marek and published in 1901.30 Referring to this collection Lewin points out that by then many "songs of great value may have been forgotten."31 Elsewhere, S. Ginzburg himself tells about his and his co-author Marek's quest for the almost lost Yiddish folk songs at the end of the nineteenth century. They considered the songs an important component of the oral history of the period and collected the material by talking to people in many cities and towns, but they realized that many of the recruit songs could not be fully reconstructed and saved.32In his search for materials of the period, Lewin also found songs in Paulin Wengeroffs memoirs and he draws examples from both sources.33 Meir Wiener thinks the first recruit folk song found in writing (but not in print) is in the Ukraine science academy in Kiev and dates from 1836. It was composed by an anonymous writer in a letter in the form of an acrostic (letters of the alphabet in the first line of each stanza) and had the style of a religious kinah (lamentation), a form in which many later recruit songs would be penned.34 Little is told about actual experiences on the battlefields in these folk songs and tales. Ruth Rubin does not devote a special section to cantonists' songs, but she includes soldiers' songs and says: Yiddish folk songs of the nineteenth century do not include lyrical descriptionsof battles nor epic songs glorifying war. Wherever war is mentioned, it deals with the suffering of the soldiers and the miseriesthatcome in its wake.The earliernineteenth-centurysoldier songs were laments and cries expressing the loneliness of the raw recruit far from home, the hardshipsof the pious in a hostile, antiSemitic tsarist army where Jews suffered as second-classcitizens at the hands of the sadisticmilitary.35 As mentioned above, few works relate to actual warfare involving cantonists. For the most part, heroic acts in these songs reflect resistance to conversion rather than behavior in battle. These actions often include legendary and mythical references to martyrdom, kiddush


Adina Ofek

hashem.For instance, Lewin (1934) mentions a folk legend (related by Margolin) about a group of Jewish cantonists who were ordered to be baptized in the Volga River in the city of Kazan during a visit by Tsar Nicholas. All the children indeed jumped into the water, according to the tale, and all drowned themselves, to the tsar's astonishment. Lewin adds that behind this legend lies a kernel of historic truth.36The German-Jewish newspaper, AllgemeinerZeitung desJudentums, printed a story in 1845 about 800 Jewish cantonist children who were baptized at one time to the tune of trumpets. Two boys would not convert and drowned themselves. This story apparently moved poets, and in two poems written almost one hundred years apart, the theme becomes a prism for the cantonists' experience. The first poem, "The Two Sailors" by the German poet Ludwig Weil, was printed in Schwalbenin 1847. It describes a specific event the journal Westostliche in which two sailors demonstrate their martial skill during exercises on the Black Sea. The tsar, impressed by the sailors, wants to reward them. To his dismay, he discovers they are Jews: The tsar greets them in a cheerful manner Praisesboth braveones loudly, names them officers of the Marines. While the two bow down in reverence, moving to the front row The Admiral cries out in fear and anguish: Tsar, oh Tsar forgive us! Don't you know your honor, where those two stem from? They belong to the hated tribe that spilled the blood,
They spilled the blood of our master, Jesus ....

The tsar immediately orders them to the church to be baptized. The two sailors offer to demonstrate, in the tsar's honor, their special skill in deep waters-and drown themselves so they will not have to convert. Note, however, that this relatively early poem lacks the key theme of child martyrdom. The literary theme of children as martyrs started to appear in the memoirs where cantonists would call the few among them who resisted conversion k'doshim(holy); historians of the period in fact referred to the cantonists in these very terms. With the passing of time the theme intensified and took on mythical connotations; such is the case with the poem "Doron" ("The Gift") by David Shimoni. It describes the last night of a group of children who are about to be baptized in the Volga in the presence of Tsar Nicholas and decide to drown themselves. In earlier years, Y. L. Gordon had also written two cantonist poems in Yiddish, much in the format and style of folk songs of the era. These poems by Gordon and Shimoni are discussed more extensively below.

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In addition to historical studies, personal histories, folk songs and tales, another source of information on the cantonists are the literary works. The problem here is that of transforming reality into an artistic-literary image. Dan Miron in "Contemplations on the Classical Literery Image of the Shtetle,"examines a similar problem: As much as a writerrelies on his memory and on a keen observation of reality, he bases his description mainly on an abstract intellectual which does not represent the historic reality, but rather the concept, aesthetic sublimationof the relation toward this reality.38 Miron emphasizes that this intellectual concept will determine which of the main aspects of recalled reality will be included or emphasized in the artistic product.This, he claims, is not a process of mere "negative" choices, of selection for the sake of the writing process. We have here a "positive" act of imaginary invention.39 Some of the same issues are salient in the examination of the literary expressions of the cantonist period. The cantonist experience placed writers in especially complex relations to their subject matter. Since most of them came to the cantonist experience with strong beliefs about its causes and consequences, while also being part of the society affected by it, their texts are often marked by conflicted sympathies, and their messages to their readership are decidedly mixed. In studying the depiction of the
cantonist episode and the reactions to it in the literary sources, one

is struck, as Abraham Lewin notes, by the paucity of references: "Overall, the traces of this dark period, as compared with the size of the tragedy, are barely represented in the Jewish press and literature of those times."40One may speculate as to why such a dark episode in Jewish history has not received more scholarly attention. One reason may be that only a few former cantonists survived to tell their stories; most of them were invisible victims from non-influential families. It may also be that writers required some distance from the events to create their literary image and that with the passage of time, when another even darker period began and these communities were wiped out, the earlier events themselves were eclipsed. The limited supply of source material may also reflect the ideological motives of the maskilim (proponents of the enlightment movement), who saw in the Russian government an ally they did not wish to offend, and ultimately from the public's fear of writing openly about the atrocities committed by its national officials.41 The majority of the literary works on the period that do exist


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were written by haskala authors and poets during a period of about sixty years (from around 1834 to the 1890s). Some were written at the beginning to the twentieth century, and one in 1934. The main works were published during three distinct periods: during the years of the decree, close to the events, before the end of the nineteenth century, and in a more retrospective era at the beginning of the twentieth century. The time period in which they were written plays an important role in the genre and character each work takes.42These literary works also differ in terms of contents and their dominant themes, which span the many issues that conscription raised: the panic in the community, the atrocities against the poor, the kidnapping, life among the Russians, forced baptism, martyrdom, and survival. In examining the main representatives of each period, I will seek to show how the admixture of ideology and historical trauma manifests itself in these cantonist literary works.

Early Worksof Haskala Writers Writing during Conscription: The most controversial among the literary and semiliterary sources were the early works of haskalawriters. Since they saw the government as a natural ally in achieving the goal of enlightening the Jews, they felt compelled to support almost all governmental policies. (The main exception was their opposition to Pale of Settlement restrictions imposed on the Jews earlier in the century.) It is still astonishing to discover how blind they were to the ill intentions of ithe government and its officials toward the Jewish population. In their urgent quest for allies in the fight against the "ignorance" of the Jews, these writers were happy to accept the help of the government and supported its actions in their writing.43Most of the maskilim regarded military service as a long-term compromise in the path toward equality, and hoped that along with civil obligations would also come civil rights. Thus we find that in most of their work the conscription decree is given a favorable rationale, and if they protest at all, the authors write mostly against the manner in which the law was carried out in the community. Though the haskala writers had a distinct common ideology, it should be noted that their various works do not always reflect it. One discovers that the ideological leanings of most authors often became blurred in the artistic shaping of the cantonist experience. In other words, no matter what the ideology, certain inescapable truths often compelled the authors to write against the exploitation of the poor and the oppression of the masses by the kahal, even though they criticized the government only indirectly, or not at all. The works

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written during the first years of the conscription deal mainly with the despair and fear of the people whose children were taken, people who were poor, widowed, or helpless. We find description of the kahal and the khappers jointly conspiring to send away "unproductive" Jews or their young sons, to replace sons of wealthy and influential Jews who might have otherwise been conscripted. Among the writers in this early period we find maskilimlike Levinsohn, Axenfeld, and Etinger. Issac B. Levinsohn, who observed the suffering of the ill-fated members of the Jewish communities at the hands of their own leaders, found he could not remain silent. He was, according to Zinberg, "the first among the maskilimwho issued forth with a battle-document of a thoroughly social character, in which the great injustice committed against the poor and defenseless was disclosed".44 Levinsohn's pamphlet takes the form of a conversation among a traveler from Byelorussia and two men from Kremenets.45 The two men tell the traveler about the corruption of their town leaders and the silence of the people who dare not denounce them for fear of losing their sons to the army. When the traveler protests that "surely they cannot take little children or only sons-it is against the law!," one of the men responds that children younger than twelve are the easiest to trick. "You should see, my friend, how they drag little children, like pigs from their mothers' bosom. The pity of it breaks one's heart."46 He explains that the very young, though unable to serve as recruits, are taken by the kidnappers because parents would sell their shirts to get them back.

Levinsohn returns to the matter of fulfilling the draft quota in the satire ToldotPloni Almoni ha-Kozevi(The Life-story of Anonymous the Liar) about the "chief of the kidnappers" and the corrupt community council. Here he describes the council's maneuvers to avoid drafting the sons of the rich by substituting them with sons of the poor (that is, through the perjury of reports on family size). At the center of this satire is the "chief of the kidnappers," a despised figure. In the misdst of despair over the kidnapped children, "he regards the sound of the weeping as the sound of a flute. He walks about his house hither and thither and laughs or whistles to his birds." However, as Levinsohn describes the appalling deeds of the community leaders, he is quick to say: "and the good commands of the government (tsar) they trample with their feet.47 The maskilimperceived the government as their only support in the battle for haskala and struggled to convince themselves that the tsar was not to blame. Levinsohn was no exception. In fact, he was so


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sure of the good intentions of the tsar that he even complained to him in a letter about the extremely harsh conditions of the cantonists, as though the tsar had not orchestrated it all.48 Israel Aksenfeld was another prominent haskala writer who treated the subject early on. According to Wiener, Aksenfeld accepted the necessity of the recruit law, and even felt that it might serve as an emancipatory force for the Jewish population in Russia. At the same time, however, he was skeptical as to its real benefit for the Jews. Aksenfeld's views are reflected in his writings, which include the only play written about recruits.49The characters in the play represent the entire spectrum of the community at the time. Perl, the "smart, beautiful, and good" woman in the play complains bitterly about the decree: "it is very bad to the father and the mother when a child is taken away.... When I think of it, how would I feel-God forbid-if someone should wish to take away my child? I would certainly die!" Her husband, Aaron Kluger, a maskil as well as a wealthy and influential merchant in town, apparently sees conscription in a different light. He considers it a chesed(favor) from the tsar by which the Jews would gain equal rights and thus 'enlightens' Perl: [T]he soldiers protect us all in the war against the enemy.... So who will go to war?Everytown has to send some for recruits,so we draw lots and decide who will go ... So the father and mother must understandthat when they take awaytheir child as a recruithe really goes for them; if he didn't go, all would have to go to war.50 Yet, as it turns out, no lots are drawn, and Aaron becomes instrumental in tricking Nachman, a poor young tailor, to enlist as the town's recruit. Pinchas, a typical member of the new middle class in town, becomes Aaron's accomplice in the scheme. In his attempt to convince Pinchas to help him, Aaron tells him that the town will be better off to rid itself of some of the "good-for-nothing" batlonim (bums) like Nachman. The reader's sympathy for Nachman (who is in love with Pinchas's daughter Frumele) is ambivalent at best. He is the only son of his blind mother, a good-hearted libertine who is subjected to the council's abuse. Aaron has sympathy for him, yet deceives and destroys him anyway, and at the end Aaron's hypocrisy is exposed and the tragic conclusion leaves us with an impression of a good person and faithful son who was victimized.51 Meir Wiener calls Aksenfeld a "naive primitive realist" and points to the inconsistency and contradictions in the portrayal of the central figures in the play. He argues that Aksenfeld could not justify the injustice committed by his "own" maskilic representative in the play and left the moral issue unresolved. Though this unresolved moral paradox may have hampered the poetic credibility of the characters,

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it allowed the author to express the dilimma without taking a clear stand. Still, Wiener points out, "as helpless and contradictory as Aksenfeld's position toward the recruit issue might have been-he constantly demonstrated in his portrayal of Nachman and his fate that he feels deeply for the poor, and that his heart goes out for the suffering masses.52 Solomon Etinger, a maskil from Poland, is another author of the time who responded to the recruit law in a characteristic fable "Di Shmates" ("The Rags"), written in 1842 at a time when the conscription law also included the Jews of Poland.53 His opinion that enlisting would only benefit the poor is evident when he lectures the personified "rags" (the poor, who are of no use to anyone) that serving in the army is for their own good because they will not have to bother about their daily existence: "Not to figure out or to worry./ He will wear decent clothes/ And have the food on the table."54 At the end he encourages them to go willingly, assuring them a good outcome if they do their best: "Go without clamor or cries / Entrust your heart completely, / Go with happiness and Joy, / And at all times be prepared / Even into the fire to run / To carry out the king's plan; / For the good men in crowns / Know well how to reward everyone." Wiener calls Etinger's attitude of "happily and merrily they serve the king" "cold and 'objective,' patronizing and hypocritical preaching," even if one takes into consideration that in Poland the conscription law was applied later and not as harshly as in Russia. He argues that none of the folk songs composed at the time ever indicated anything but despair toward the conscription.55

Writing about the Recent Past: The Later Worksof Haskala Writers In the later works of proclaimed maskilimsuch as Dik, Gordon, Smolenskin, and Mendele, the recruit issue also finds expression. As most of their work was written after the decree was lifted, some of the works tend to reflect a more forgiving attitude or have a brighter ending.56 Isaac Dik's Der ErsterNabar (The First Levy Conscript)is a memoirlike story told by a first-person narrator about life in Vilna in his childhood.57 Dik describes in detail the horrified reaction to the conscription law. Yet at the same time he emphasizes the advantage of sheer physical reduction of bodies in the community as the result of their recruitment. In the last chapter, entitled "A Critical (True) Look


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at the Recruitment of Jews," he offers additional arguments in favor of the law: Even though the military service is hard to endure, for us Jews it has severaladvantages.... The Nabar[the Levy]cleaned our towns from negative elements and bums. Many of the recruits actually improved their behavior... competition among shopkeepers was reduced. The Jews became real citizensof the world by participating in the draft. There are people who live under terrible conditions, worse than dogs, they starveto death, dwell in cold places ... would it not be better for them to be soldiers?58 Among all maskilicwriters, Dik is the only one who finds excuses for the Russian government, even for the loss of the thousands of children and mass baptism of young recruits. He asserts: This was all our fault. The government did not force us to give up young children, they only allowed us to do so, and this was for our own good so we could spare the ones who were already married. If we cared about our children we would not have given up eight-and six-year-oldchildren, who still had no understandingof Judaism.59 In reality, however, the forcibly converted children, even those who wanted to return to Judaism in later years, were persecuted by the government, and their wishes were denied. Two recruit poems by Y. L. Gordon (written in Yiddish and not well known) take a similar, though milder, approach.6 In a short preface to these poems Lewin argues that Gordon, "the greatest poet of the haskalahperiod," believed in working with the Russian government to bring enlightment to the Jews. Just as his predecessors did, Gordon believed that enlisting in the army would eventually prove beneficial to the Jews. Despite this point of view, one that retarded open criticism of the government by the maskilim, Gordon "had to calm his conscience and could not be silent in face of the tragic

"In the scheme of maskilic memory and artistic persuasion, the scene of desecration, the place where laws of the land and of the torah were violated with impunity, the locus of evil was ... the local kahal chamber and the synagogue."62 Indeed, one of Gordon's poems deals with a phenomenon typical of the time, ikuv ha-kri'ah, the disruption of reading the Torah in the synagogue service in order to draw attention to injustice.63 This dramatic action was often practiced by widows who would not let the Torah be removed from the Ark until they received assurance that their kidnapped sons would be released. Gordon employs this motif with sharp sarcasm in describing the activities of the religious leaders and prominent members of the syn-

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agogue, in a scene in which three people try to stop the Torah service. They lay their complaints before the reluctant synagogue and are then thrown out. Indifference to their plight prevails. In his more sentimental treatment of the recruits in "Di Mutter's Apsheid fun ihr kind um yahr 1845" ("The mother's farewell to her son in the year 1845"), a widow bids farewell to her son who is drafted into the military. The poem is mostly in line with other folksongs of the era: she laments his leaving, urges him not to forget he is a Jew, to pray, to put on tefilin, and to keep whatever he can of the faith. Be well, my dear, go quickly, There is the officer, Be well and run, he must be asking for you! Go! No, come here again, They soon will take you far. Give me your hand and swear to me, To remain a Jew forever, a Jew forever. At the same time, true to Gordon's conviction, the mother also exhorts him to do his duty and to serve the tsar faithfully. Be not afraid, my dear child, And serve the emperor true, Even in great danger be fearless and bold. Your life, your blood don't spare When asked for sacrifice, If men will not repay you, Don't worry, God surely will!64 In a (long) short story Ha-atsamotha-yeveishot(DryBones). Gordon offers a convoluted, not very credible plot, the life story of a former cantonist who became a highly influential navy officer.65 We find out that the officer was abducted at the age of twelve and taken on a long journey to the east. Along the way the children receive the helping hand of Jews in the towns they passed. but eventually, with all the other children, he is forced to convert. Later he climbs up in the ranks of the navy, marries a Russian girl from a wealthy home, and comes back after years to see his brother, who wants nothing to do with an apostate sibling. He learns about another cantonist, a friend from their early days of plight called Jacob, who was initially abducted under unusual circumstances. In his youth Jacob leaned toward the enlightment movement, but a fanatic rabbi in town, afraid that he would become an epikores(heretic), turned him over to the military. Much like the plot in a later novella by Steinberg, although not as intricate and complex, Jacob becomes a religious leader to his cantonist peers and manages to return to Judaism and to his hometown.


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In a complicated subplot we learn that he wants to become a teacher in a state Jewish school but encounters the anti-Semitism of a Russian bureaucrat, who tries to block his entry to the school. In the end, he is engaged to the officer's niece, and all ends well when the couple has a child and he, the uncle, is able to help all of them. The spirit of the new age comes to breathe life into the slain and to revive them. The dry bones rise up to new life. The sense of forgiveness on the part of the former cantonist protagonist is remarkable. Wronged by his own dishonest community members, forced to be baptized, persecuted by the Russians, and even now turned away by his brotherhe nevertheless acts with goodwill and provides help to all those who will accept it. In this story Gordon approaches the cantonist tragedy in a new way. In contrast to his recruit poems, in which he places blame solely on the corrupt Jewish establishment, he now lays equal blame on Russian officials. For Gordon the lesson was obvious: the forces of reaction and evil in Russian society (under any tsar) collude with the forces of evil in Jewish society-but there is hope. Even during that year of the big pogroms, when liberal Jews were losing faith in the achievements of haskala politics, Gordon still remained optimisticperhaps, too optimistic.66 The anguish inflicted by the kidnapping of the children was also expressed in the work of a leading author of the period, Mendele Mokher Sefarim. In one chapter of a long series of episodes about life in the imaginary shtetl Kisalon, Shmulik, a poor rag-dealer, singlehandedly chases the khapperswho have taken his young son. As he catches up with them, he is also abducted. After being beaten badly, father and son are rescued by a maskilwho happens to pass by in his carriage and hears their cries for help. In the midst of describing the father's agony as he searches for his son, Mendele disgresses into a long lament to God, on the torment inflicted upon the poor and widowed by the kidnapping of their young ones. The father is depicted as a helpless, hard-working family man, unwilling to give up the fight for his son, even though he is clearly outnumbered. But the story has a happy ending since both are rescued.67

The Cantonist Themein New LiteraryExpressions More recently, the cantonist theme found new expression in three literary works, a novella and two narrative poems, all in Hebrew. The three works depart from their nineteenth-century antecedents, both in form and in theme.

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Ba-yamimHa-hem (In ThoseDays). This novella by Yehudah Steinberg is a story about the endurance of a kidnapped young boy who grew up as a cantonist in the Russian army and returned to his home town and to Judaism.68 The story revolves around four main themes: the depiction of life in the shtetlduring the recruitment era (primarily the turmoil and strife in the community when the children are kidnapped); the suffering and agony of the children forced to abandon their religion; the creative inventions that were made in an effort to keep one's Jewish identity in the midst of a hostile environment; and finally, the adventures, heroism, and fame of the cantonist as a mature soldier in the Russian army and his return home. The novella seems to rely upon actual first-hand accounts, and many of its themes follow the story line found in the memoirs of former cantonists.69 A first impression might lead us to conclude that Steinberg conforms to other literary and nonliterary works on the cantonists, but on close reading we learn differently. The novella breaks free of certain basic ethical and literary conventions and often surprises us with its unexpected turns. As the story departs from conventional persecution stories by depicting both good and evil, some of it also contradicts the historical facts as these are presented in cantonist documents and memoirs. Shmuel, the protagonist, gives the impression that he represents a fate that befell the majority of the canonists. In fact, Shumuel's life story is the exception and not the rule. Steinberg's own maskillic ideology and his deep religious childhood convictions tend to pull him in different directions at once, and often result in unexpected views.70 Published first in Hashiloach in 1905 and translated into English in 1915, the novella begins with the "frame story" of an old man, Shmuel the shamash (Beadle), taking his son to the city to begin his mandatory military duty. It is clear that both father and son consider this to be the right thing to do. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that the old man was himself once a soldier, recruited, however, under very different circumstances. The first-person narrative is related by an outside observer who "has the fortune" to be on the same coach with the old man, a form that enhances credibility and allows for a new perspective on events. Throughout the journey, this narrator-witness (and the reader along with him) listens to the old man's life story and hears his reflections on what has been. The novella is considered an important work about the cantonist era. Gershon Shaked holds that it is the most important work by Yehudah Steinberg and that it goes far beyond a mere descriptive depiction of life in bygone days-a view held by some of Steinberg's contemporaries. In two comprehensive essays on Steinberg, Shaked defines him as one who paves the way for the writers who postdate


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him.7' Defined as one of the HamahalachHahadash ("New Movement") authors,72 Steinberg's work constitutes, according to Shaked, a transitional link from the "actualistic sentimental" works of the closing days of the nineteenth century to the "realistic" literature of early twentieth-century literature. The first section of the novella recounts the story of the boy Shmuel, who is kidnapped at the age of eleven. Shmuel tells of the terror that struck his town when the khappersfirst started hunting down the boys, and the various tricks that parents employed to save their children. He is kidnapped twice, at first owing to a mistake: his family name was the same as that of the rich family in town, whose son-in-law was designated to be drafted. He is saved, only to be given back later in place of his more talented and already married brother. The shock of this "betrayal" leaves its mark on his developing character. This section also describes the roundup of the kidnapped children in the town's prison before they are sent east. The section ends with the description of the town's rabbi pretending to be a thief in order to gain entry into the prison, so that he can bless the children and instill in them a strength to remain Jewish. In the narrator's words: You will be taken far far away ... for many many years and become soldiers.... He warned us not to eat of any food forbidden by the Jewish law, and never to forget the God of Israel even if they tore our flesh with thorns. He also told us about the Ten Martyrs. . . and Hanna the mother and her seven sons who were killed for having refused to bow before the idols... how all the saints and martyrs are now in Paradise.I came to believe that I was the one whom God picked out to be put through great trials and temptations.73 The memory of this night with the rabbi seems to play an important part in easing Shmuel's pain, though ultimately, it is the non-Jews who shelter and comfort him.74This approving portrayal of the rabbi and the symbolic-mythical aura of martyrdom with which he imbues the children's fate, combined with the antithetical climate of the story-which generally places the gentiles in a more favorable light than the Jews-set the stage for more ambiguity as the story unfolds. These conflicting allegiances are also reflected in the author's selection of detail and in the rationale he attributes to them. We are constantly reminded that the perspective is that of an old and experienced man. While the long tragic journey away from their homes plays a major part in the memoirs and reports, it is only briefly described by Steinberg's protagonist; the old man admits to glossing over this experience, and his words disclose an interesting evaluation of events. Their

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guard curses and beats them, but the old man admits that he cannot be angry with him. Had we died the year before, or at the moment, he would not have had the hardship of leading a half-dumb crowd.... "Do you think it's pleasant to feel that little children consider me a hard and cruel man?Now, that I am an old man I may confess that I bear no malice towardall those at whose hands I suffered ... whatcould they do?"75 Is this empathetic attitude an outcome of the innocence and naivete that some critics find in Steinberg's stories, or is it irony played out in a simple man's view of the world? Writing about Steinberg's children's literature, Zvi Sharfstein terms him a satirist.76F. Lachover says Steinberg had the special maturity of a clever man who had seen a lot in his life. In this witty and sharp mind one senses a childlike innocence, Lachover claims, and it is often hard to distinguish between them.77 Steinberg's protagonist is taken to a Russian village until he is old enough to join the regular army. Anna, the woman of the house (later he learns that she was a former Jew), treats him harshly and forces him to eat pork. He fears that he will be beaten like other cantonists if he refuses, so he eats. Unable to tolerate the meat, he vomits on the table with the whole family watching. The protagonist realizes that he cannot survive if he does not comply with their rules. At this point he meets three other cantonists, who tend the horses at night as he does. While lying in the grass at night, he hears the chant of Tehillim (Psalma). Three boys, Jacob, 15, and two younger ones, tell him that according to Jacob, who "can tell the calendar by the smell and the color of the day," it is the eve of the fast of the Ninth of Av. When he asks why they recite Psalms instead of Lamentations (which are appropriate for the day), the boy replies, Lamentationswe have forgotten, but Psalms we remember, so we recitethem every holiday ... for at bottom,are mere wordsthe main
thing? Your real prayer is not what you say with your lips ... as long you wish to put into them.78

as the words are in the holy tongue. It all depends on the feelings The protagonist feels like a sinner within this tiny congregation, and he confesses to having eaten pork. Jacob conforts him and tells him that they have starved for two days because they were given only pork to eat. On the third day of fasting, he saw his father in a dream telling him they should be mindful of their lives and do whatever they have to do in order to survive.


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Tell all thy comrades the cantonists: Your reward is great. Every sigh of yours is a prayer, every good thought of yours is a good action! Only beware, lest you die of hunger; then surely you will merit eternal punishment.79 Since then, he tells Shmuel, they have eaten all kinds of forbidden food, but the main thing is that they have remained Jews. With the same tone of gravity, though, Shmuel is warned not to carry on with Marusya, the likeable young daughter of the Russian family who has been good to him. Jacob cautions him: "It is dangerous! Keep away from her, do not take any favors from them. I don't know why, but I know that we should not find any loving friends among the gentiles." In the little congregation they formed, Jacob was their authority,their Rabbi."I came to consider him Jacob] my superior, whose behavior had to be taken as an example. He knew what was right and whenever he was in doubt his father would instructhim in his dreams . . . We got used to seeing him eat forbidden food, break the Sabbath,and trespassagainst all ritual rules without a wink. And yet he would warn us not to betray

The small community they formed gave them support. He finds out that Anna was indeed converted to Christianity to marry Peter, who treated her much better than her stepmother and even her own father. She then lets him and his friends meet in the house where they create their own version of Judaism: Our longing for the things we were forbidden to practiceprompted us to invent many new usages. For instance, we managed to meet every Sabbath to exchange a few words in Yiddish; two or three words were sufficient to satisfy our sense of duty. Those meetings were the kind of things for which we were ready to run any risk of
discovery, any beatings.

They would also abstain from work for at least one hour on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays (according to Jacob's calendar) and repeated the prayers in their heart, as Shmuel says, "These and many other usages we invented slowly, one after another, and in time we got into the habit of observing them punctiliously."8' Steinberg draws parallels between the protagonist's fate and the fate of his adoptive family. His family abandoned him to the khappers, and Marusya's Christian family replaces his own. Anna herself was mistreated by her formerJewish family. Peter, her Christian husband, is a compassionate character in the story who treats the Jews well. A tender love relationship develops between the young Marusya and Shmuel. The novella conveys the idea that personal relationships can

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sometimes transcend ethnic and religious ties. In another turn of events, the cantonists counter another common belief-that all Jews are cowards and never fight. The protagonist and his companions fight against the Turks and show great bravery in doing so. Indeed, Shmuel saves the Christian icon, lets a Russian soldier from his village take credit for the heroic act, and in return he is able to retrieve the house that was taken away from his adoptive family. But Jacob his friend, who saved the general's life, has to convert before he is promoted to become a high-ranking officer. In another unexpected twist, the character who was the role model for his fellow cantonists is the one who converts. We expect that the culmination of such melodramatic events would bring the protagonist back to marry Marusya. Despite this expectation, however, upon his return after having recovered from his wounds, he goes home to his biological family. He marries a Jewish girl rather than Marusya, whom he loved and who had remained faithful to him. The loyalty of the protagonist to his Jewish home has neither moral nor poeticjustification, argues Shaked. Only the unique characteristics of the group that the cantonists have formed, and its attempt to create a new set of mitzvot(ordinances) to fit the times, that is, the loyalty to an internalized ethnic-religious identity-can explain his return to the Jewish home. "The internalized identity turns the scale, even though the group as a whole [the Jews] is not worthy of it in the eyes of the author."82 Two long narrative poems (the form was called poema and was common in Hebrew at the beginning of the twentieth century) were devoted to the cantonist theme. The authors of these poems, Kahan and Shimoni, were contemporaries; both were born in Byelorussia toward the end of the nineteenth century, "their childhood passed during the end of the 1880s and the beginning of the 1890s and the historical events that affected the Jews in Eastern Europe, left a deep impression on both of them."83 "Hahotfim"(the Kidnappers). The poema "Hahotfim," by Yakov Kahan, was first published in 1904 and later with modifications in 1948.84 This poem portrays a poor woman worried about her sickly only son. She sits and listens to him study Torah, and remembers how often he was gravely ill and recovered-when the door suddenly opens and her husband bursts in:
"They are coming!"

"Whois coming?"-The khappers, He moaned and his eyes
Stared in madness at his son.

They know that they cannot give him up, so they make him pretend that he is dead:


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A black cloth covers all his body, A candle flickers,death shadows all around, And the mother firmly warns: "Don'tmove a limb, don't breathe!" And the two cry, tear their hair and scream with panic and fear. When the kidnappers enter: They entered with malice-and froze: Cold death slapped their faces!

[ .. .]Soon the boy is down on the floor

Howled and cried and mournedBoth truth and untruth was in their cries.

]And the parents wept for their dead,

When the intruders finally leave-the parents cry with joy, hug each other, and thank God for saving their son. As the mother turns to her son: "Get up, come now," all is quiet and he does not respond, so they think he had fallen asleep. When they lift the black sheet from his face the mother screams with horror, throws herself on the cold body of her dead son and cries: Oh God! What have you done to my only son? What have I done to my boy? What have they, the cruel and heartlessdone to him? They should be cursed, forever damned! The parents are depicted as tragic figures who, in trying to save their son, cause his death. They represent the poor in the community who must stand up to the two ugly and merciless Jews who come with Russian soldiers for support. As in other literary works, the scene is again the traumatic kidnapping of an only son. None of the concrete images of the kahal and the community are depicted. The participants have become symbols, and the emphasis has shifted to their suffering and desperation. The boy, the central figure and actual victim of events, does not take an active part in them. In the first version of the poem we hear him speak and are provided with a more tangible image of him. In this late version we only learn about him through his parents. Indirectly we realize that he identified so deeply with their fear that he was too afraid to breathe, and died.85 Doron (The Gift). Written later in time relative to the events is another narrative poem, "Doron"by David Shimoni. While the novella Ba-yaminHa-hem only insinuates that the children who keep their faith become martyrs, "Doron" revolves entirely around this theme.86 It builds on the legend told about the mass baptism in Kazan and personal stories of some of the children. The three-part poema opens with the description of a stormy winter night and depicts a group of

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kidnapped children in the army barracks. A sleepless night for the children who are to be baptized the next morning. They huddle together and see before their eyes images of their loved ones and hear ancient forgotten prayers. In the second part, the children share memories of bereaved parents left behind, and some tell their personal stories, which echo many of the themes in other cantonist literature. When a pale dawn breaks, the group of children follows the oldest boy who urges them to put their trust in God and to remember the covenant, and they all move like shadows praying silently. In the third part, the scene of the coming event on the Volga is described. They are led through the white city decorated for the occasion with Christian icons, with masses of worshippers looking on and the tolling of the churches' bells. When the children jump into the cold water a magnificent ring of the Shema,the ancient prayer of martyrs, resonates everywhere. Several stanzas from each part follow. In the faint light of dawn, like ghosts, A white flock of children was gathering. "Comeon children, we'll pray to God, We'll put our trust only in him. Get up children, let's pray Shaharit, And our heart will be like a rock. To affirm the oath... To remember the covenant, So be it, Amen, Selah!" So spoke bravelythe oldest of the boys, He was a shepherd and a friend to them, And how they adored him when he spoke: He knows the whole Torah! Kazan,the Volga town is shining It is splendid in a carpet of snow. The storm calms down, the sun is bright And from the churches'towers In festive tones, that hail, The bells ring. Ding-Dong, Bim-Bam... empty is Kazan, But the bank of the Volga is crowded, All of Kazan'speople have come to the river They came to watch the baptism performed. The golden crosses brilliantcolors; The priests'garments are pure white like snow.



And the people all bow down when the emperor arrives, "Hurrah to the tsar!" they all shout. They cut through the ice and prepare a wide "mikve,"and the boys stand there waiting. And the words of the priest are smooth as oil: "Justone minute, children, you'll dip just once, And come up quickly,so you won't be cold." The children are not complaining,not begging, Their faces glow in serene majesty, They salute the tsar like veteran soldiers. Then the priest orders: "One, Two!" Just once they raise their eyes to heaven, Join hands, look eye to eye.... And jump into the water with "ShemaYisrael" Which ring like a rare bell, Resounding vigorouslyall over the square. The emperor grows pale, his lips quiver: "You stubbornpeople! You alwaysrebel..." And the order echoed in the wide square: "Pullthe drowning out of the deep!" The emperor frowned and plucked his mustache, But the drowned are gone! Swept away. The masses disperse. The Volga is deserted. But under the ice it is flowing strong, Carryinga gift to the Caspiansea. Without shrouds, without a coffin, Without a father'sKaddish mother'stears: or It carries children, martyrs who died for their faith (kiddush
hashem). . .

The development clearly leads toward the expected end. From the start the children have decided not to convert and to die as Jews. They become a symbolic portrayal of children-martyrs, an offering that the river carries into the sea. In sum, the presentation and analyses by historians of documents and memoirs by cantonists or on cantonist subjects, when considered in conjuction with a century of literary works, present varied and conflicting views on a traumatic moment in Jewish history. They shed light on the role of each and every participant, whether a willing or a forced participant: the Russian government, the army officials, the Jewish council, the Jewish intellectuals and authors, the Jewish masses, and of course the cantonists themselves. It becomes clear that, even with all the diagreement on the social and political issues among the various Jewish writers, nearly all of them agree on the basic historical judgment that taking the young children was a despicable crime, the

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blame for which lay both with the government officials-with the with the Jewish community leaders who exploited the poor. tsar-and As Michael Stanislawski has correctly pointed out, in the hands of most Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian-Jewish poets and authors "the cantonist episode served as the most egregious example of the pathology of Jewish life under the tsars-governmental persecution, forced baptism of little children, internal Jewish corruption and divisiveness."87 SEMINARYOF AMERICA JEWISHTHEOLOGICAL

NOTES * I would like to thank my colleagues Zevulun David, Zipporah Kagan, Abraham Holtz and David Roskies for their assistance in the various stages of research for this paper, and Steven Katz for his helpful suggestions. 1. Historical accounts in this chapter are based on Simon M. Dubnow, History of theJews in Russia and in Poland, translated by I. Friedlander, (Philadelphia, 1916-1926); Shaul Ginzburg, Historishe Verk (Yiddish; New York, 1937), Vol. 3; Abraham Lewin, Kantonistn [cantonists] (Yiddish: Warsaw, 1934); Shmuel Ettinger, in Haim H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), Vol. 3; and the more recent book by Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and theJews: the Transformationof Jewish Societyin Russia 1825-1855 (Philadelphia, 1983). 2. Paul Johnson, A History of theJews (New York, 1987), p. 358. 3. For more details on exemption rules, see Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and theJews p. 19. 4. See, for example, a story about the blind father lost in the freezing forest and perishing because his ten-year-old son and guide was kidnapped, as told by Yekutiel Berman, "Sh'not Rainu Raah" [The Years We Saw Evil], Ha-melitz, Vols. 15 and 16 (1861). 5. Eliyahu Tsherikover yehudim be-itotMahpekah (Tel Aviv, 1957) offers several examples of communities in which Rabbis incited the people to storm the Kahal doors and free kidnapped prisoners, and such cases were not so rare (pp. 108-110). 6. Tsherikover (1957) also argues that violent actions were committed against the Jewish informers who collaborated with the Russians; such avengers also informed the authorities about illegal actions of the Kahal (such as age forgery)-which further demonstrates the deep animosity and division within the Jewish community. 7. Lewin, Kantonistn, pp. 39-64, 96-115. 8. Ginzburg, Historishe Verk, Vol. 3. 9. Both Ginzburg's and Lewin's books (n. 1 above) stand out in scope and intensity of facts, personal accounts and eyewitness descriptions. Ginzburg emphasizes that he was careful, whenever possible, to juxtapose the personal


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accounts with archival documents. This led to important discoveries regarding falsifications of the children's age. 10. Sinad Archives, 1866, #1313, as quoted in Ginzburg, HistorischeVerk, p. 20n. 11. Lewin, Kantonistn, pp. 245-313. 12. Ibid., p. 246. 13. Ibid., p. 247. 14. M. Friedberg, "Friedberg's Memoirs," in Sokolov'sYearBook (Warsaw, 1902), pp. 94-95. 15. For detail and text, see Lewin, Kantonistn,pp. 45-48, and Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and theJews, pp. 20-21 and n. 33, p. 194. 16. Ibid., p. 120. 17. Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, translated from the 1834 Russian version by Constance Garnett (New York, 1974), p. 169. 18. For the complete memoir, see Lewin, Kantonistn, pp. 269-313. 19. Israel Izkovitz, as quoted in Lewin, ibid., pp. 263-264. 20. Ibid., p. 114. 21. Ibid., p. 288. 22. Ibid., p. 313. 23. See for example Issac Brodotski, "The Cantonists-A Sea of Tears," in Jacob Halevi Lipshitz, Zichron Yaakov (Kovna, 1838-1921), reprinted in Israel (1968). This is a three-volume history of the Jews in Russia and in Poland in the years 1760-1896, by an orthodox rabbi who vows that he wants to set the record straight about the "so-called khappersperod as it was called He by the maskilim." argues that it is wrong to blame the kahal for this horrible decree, rather than the tsar for demanding the draft quota from the community as a whole. Each person should be responsible for his own part"hovatgavra" ("a man's accountability" as was instituted after Nicholas' death), rather than invoking "hovatkahal"("community responsibility, p. 110). Nevertheless, the chapter "The Cantonists: A Sea of Tears" abounds with vivid descriptions of the bad treatment of the children of the poor, their abduction, and the cruelty of the family toward the forcibly converted son, and the old and poor homeless former cantonists who could no longer even find their families and were spending their final years on the mercy of the public charity (Vol. 1, pp. 213-214). 24. Lewin, Kantonistn, p. 312. 25. Yehudah Slotski and Mordechai Kaplan (ed.), "Yehudim Betsva Russia Hatzarit" Jews in the Russian Tsar's Army], in Ha-Lohem Hayehudi Be-tsiv'ot Ha-Olam [The Jewish Soldier in World Armies] (Tel Aviv 1967), p. 105. 26. Ibid., pp. 107-108. For regulations and restrictions on promotion of Jewish soldiers, see Lewin, Kantonistn, p. 106. 27. The story (including two photos of the decorated general in full uniform) appear in Jacob Tsuzmer, Be'ikvie Hador [In the Footsteps of a Generation] (Philadelphia, 1957), pp. 231-34. 28. I. Izkovitz, as quoted in Lewin, Kantonistn, p. 265. 29. See also analysis and translations by David Roskies, Against the Apocin alypse:Responsesto Catastrophe ModernJewish Culture (Cambridge, 1984), pp.

Jewish Children as Soldiers


57-62; and by the same author, The Literature of Destruction (Philadelphia, 1989), pp. 119-20. 30. S. Ginzburg and Marek (eds.), Jewish Folksongsin Russia [Yiddish]. (St. Petersburg, 1901). 31. Lewin, Kantonistn, p. 216. 32. Ginzburg, Historishe,pp. xi-xii. 33. Paulin Wengeroff, Memoirsof a Grandmother (Berlin, 1910). 34. Meir Wiener, Tzu Der Geschichte fun der YiddisheLiteratur in 19th Jarhundert [To the History of the Yiddish Literature in the 19th Century] (New York, 1945), Vol. 1, pp. 152-154. Hereafter cited as Wiener, To the History. 35. Ruth Rubin, Voicesof a People: the Storyof YiddishFolk songs (New York, 1973), p. 214. 36. Lewin, Kantonistn, p. 146. 37. The full text appears (in German) in Lewin, ibid., pp. 146-149. 38. Dan Miron, "Contemplations on the Classical Literary Image of the Shtetle," Hadoar, Vol. 37 (1975), p. 611. 39. Miron, ibid., raises this issue to counter the tendency of critics to see the literary depictions of the shtetle as equivalent to the reality of the actual town in eastern Europe, which was destroyed and gone. 40. Lewin, Kantonistn, p. ii. 41. Lewin, ibid., bluntly accuses Max Lilienthal and Moses Montefiore, among others who were involved in Jewish affairs at the time, of failure to even mention the child conscription in their extensive writings. For another view, see also the discussion below and note 43. 42. The literary works are in the form of satiric pamphlets, memoir-like accounts, short stories, poems, a novella, and a play. 43. In an attempt to evaluate the "hurrah-patriotism" of the haskalawriters more evenhandedly, Zinberg notes, One must take into consideration the bizarre contradictions which manifested themselves in the realm of popular education under Nicholas's regime. The same government which closed the doors of educational institutions to the broad strata of the people of Russia ... forcibly dragged theJewish children to the schools ... Uvarov (Nicholas's faithful minister of education) became the bearer of culture for the Jews and was certain that with the aid of education he would "liberate the Jews from their 'fanaticism' and isolation and bring them close to the basic foundation of general civic conceptions." Israel Zinberg, The HistoryofJewish Literature,translated and adapted by Bernard Martin, (Cincinnati, 1978), Vol. 12, p. 81. 44. Ibid., vol. 11, p. 54. 45. Di Hefker-velt [The Lawless World] was written in the 1930s but appeared in print only as late as 1888 because of censor restrictions. It was then [The Jewish published in Shalom Aleichem, (ed.), Die YiddisheFolks-Bibliotek Folk Library], Vol. 1 (Kiev, 1888). 46. As quoted in Zinberg, History, p. 56.


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47. Ibid., pp. 57-58. 48. Zinberg, ibid., points out that Levinsohn never relinquished his belief in the value of the Talmud and continued to suffer the consequences. Uvarov, the Minister of Education, never fully trusted him. Zinberg presents a broad account of the scope of Levinsohn's activities and writings, his inner conflicts, as well as his personal agony (p. 59). 49. Israel Aksenfeld, Der Erste Yiddishe Recruitin Russland [The First Jewish Recruit In Russia, 1834-35], in Meir Wiener (ed.), Y. Aksenfeld Verk, Vol. 1 (Kiev, 1931), pp. 144-195. 50. Ibid., pp. 160-161. 51. The play was originally written for a social reading and adapted for the stage by Reznik. It was then edited and translated into English in David S. Lifson, Epics and Folk Plays of the YiddishTheatre, with a happier ending. Frumele does not die of sorrow, but rather conforts the blind mother of her beloved Nachman, who is seen in the background being taken away by the soldiers. 52. Wiener, To the History, p. 185-186. 53. Solomon Etinger, "Di Shmates," in Maks Eric, (ed.), GeklibeneVerk [Collected Works] (Kiev, 1935), pp. 111-118. 54. Ibid., p. 118. 55. Wiener, To the History, pp. 150-151. 56. Ibid., p. 182. 57. Isaac M. Dik, Der ErsterNabar [The First Levy Conscript] (Vilna, 1871). 58. Ibid., pp. 31-32. 59. Ibid., p. 34. 60. Y. L. Gordon, Sihat Hulin [Everyday Conversation, 1883], appeared in press after a long delay by the poet. A. R. Malachi writes that the poems in Yiddish were indeed written in the first period of his career, but for ideological reasons the poet would not print works in Yiddish until later when he "reached the highest level of popularity." According to Malachi the poems were "grabbed" by the people who adopted them to a known melody and were sung in many Jewish homes. See A. R. Malachi, "Yehudah Lieb Gordon Als Dichter in Iddish" [Y. L. Gordon as a Poet in Yiddish], Di Zukumft, Vol. 22, No. 9, (September 1917), pp. 543-546. 61. Lewin, Kantonistn, p. 229. 62. Roskies, Against, p. 60. 63. Gordon, Sihat Hulin. 64. Published for the first time in Kol Mevasser, Vol. 6, No. 11, (1866), pp. 171-173. 65. Published in Hebrew in five issues of Ha-melitz in 1881, it alludes to Ezekiel's prophecy of the dry bones which are brought back to life. 66. Michael Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of RussianJewry (Oxford, 1988), p. 147. 67. Mendele Mokher Sefarim, "Be'emek ha-bakha," Hashiloah (1897), pp. 229-233. 68. Jehudah Steinberg, In those Days: The Story of an Old Man, translated by George Jeshurun (Philadelphia, 1915). 69. Steinberg was born in a small town in Besserabia in 1963, by which

Jewish Children as Soldiers


time the conscription decree had been abolished. Memories of the events were probably still alive among the people, and stories of surviving cantonists or eyewitnesses were being published by the turn of the century. 70. Critics pointed to his conflicting attitudes toward the religious groups and the views toward the maskilim but did not agree on the nature of his leanings or its reasons. Y. Fichman in his preface to the first edition of Steinberg's stories, published posthumously, asserts that Steinberg moderated his criticism of the religious Jews because of the strong attachment he still had to his upbringing in a religious home. Others, like Shaked, consider this also a result of the author's realistic literary writing (see note 71, below). Joseph Dan argues that Steinberg's so-called leniency toward hasidic Jews was misread, see Moznayim, Vol. 40 (July 1975), pp. 114-136. 71. Gershon Shaked, "Masoret V'hidush Biyezirato shel Yehudah Steinberg" [Tradition and Innovation in Y. Steinberg's Work], Moznayim,Vol. 44 (December, 1976), pp. 15-17; and Hebrew Narrative Fiction 1870-1880, (Jerusalem, 1977), pp. 255-258. My review of the story relies heavily on his analysis of both sources. 72. The term was used by critics of the time for a group of writers, led by Ben-Avigdor, who intended and claimed to be the first "realist" writers in Hebrew. S. L. Zitron, however, argues that they actually failed to describe the real traumatic events that befell the Jewish people at that time, such as the be'halah (panic) days. He mentions Ben-Avigdor who was the leader and ideologue of that movement, in Pardes, Vol. 3, (Odessa, 1894), pp. 157-68. Later critics such as Miron and Shaked place Steinberg in this circle. 73. Steinberg, In ThoseDays, p. 35. 74. While the cooperation of community leaders with the draft authorities was widespread, there were exceptions among the rabbis. One in particular, Rabbi Eliyahu Shik, is known to have worked against the kahal and the govenment. He openly condemned the conscription laws and the collaboration of the leaders with the authorities and called for a revolt against the kahal (see Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and theJews, p. 129). In the novella, Steinberg creates a sympathetic rabbi and reserves his censure for the kahal. 75. Steinberg, In ThoseDays, pp. 41-42. 76. Zvi Sharfstein, Yotsrey shelanu [ Our children's literature sifrut ha-yeladim authors] (Tel Aviv, 1947), p. 28. 77. F. Lachover, Mechkarimve'nisyonot [Studies and Attempts], (Warsaw, 1925), pp. 159-162. 78. Steinberg, In ThoseDays, pp. 75-76. 79. Ibid., p. 80. 80. Ibid., p. 86. 81. Ibid., p. 114. 82. G. Shaked, "Masoret," p. 17. 83. See Dan Miron, When Loners Come Together(Tel Aviv, 1987), p. 285. 84. Yaakov Kahan, today an almost forgotten poet, was at the turn of the century (according to Miron, ibid., p. 262) "one with considerable poetic presence, the first among three to be mentioned by Bialik in his essay 'Our Young Poetry'." The poema was printed in Hashiloach, Vol. 14, pp. 173-79. In a


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shorter, edited version it reappeared in the book collection of poems Shirim, Min Ha-am [Poems of the People] (Tel Aviv, 1948). Miron also argues that Kahan rewrote his poems in the 1930s into the sefardic (milra) accent, as was common then, and in the process ruined the poems' musicality and "suffered a catastrophic fall in his literary fame" (p. 263). 85. Many other concrete details, such as what the mother was cooking that day, details of her words to the boy and his reply, which were present in the early version (1904), were omitted in the last one (1948). There are many intriguing differences that may result from the perspective of distance on the historical events; these merit further study. 86. David Shimoni, Shirim [Poems] (Tel Aviv, 1934). 87. M. Stanislawski, For WhomDo I Toil? p. 173.