Friday, December 18, 2015

The Jewish Cantonists who Said "No!" to the Czar

300 boys and girls assembled at a Chanukah Ralley in Moscow Russia. They read Tehihilim, recited Pesukim and listen to the words of Rabbi Berel Lazar, followed by a thrilling production by the boys of Cheder Menachem Moscow, depicting story of Cantonists  in the Czar's army who gave up his life Al Kiddush Hashem.

Cantonists were Jewish boys who were drafted to military service at the age of twelve and placed for their six-year military education in cantonist schools. They were required to serve in the Imperial Russian army for 25 years after the completion of their studies. According to the "Statute on Conscription Duty" signed by Czar Nicholas I of Russia on August 26, 1827, Jews were made liable to personal military service and were subject to the same conscription quota as all other tax-paying estates in the Russian Empire.

The first 1827 draft involved some 1,800 Jewish conscripts; half of them were children.

There were some significant differences in treatment of Jews and non-Jews: all others were required to provide conscripts between 18 and 35, while for Jews the age limit was 12–25, and it was left to the discretion of the Jewish "Kahal" to choose conscripts from whatever age they decided. Thus in practice, Jewish children were often conscripted as young as eight or nine years old.

The official policy was to encourage their conversion to the state religion of Orthodox Christianity and Jewish boys were coerced to baptism. As kosher food was unavailable, they were faced with the necessity of abandoning of Jewish dietary laws. Initially conversions were few, but after the escalation of missionary activities in the cantonist schools in 1844, about one third of all Jewish cantonists would have undergone conversion and intermarriage R"L. Most never returned to their homes.

The cantonist policy was abolished by Tsar Alexander II's decree on 26 August 1856, in the aftermath of the Russian defeat in the Crimean war. All unconverted cantonists and recruits under the age of 20 were returned to their families. The underage converted cantonists were given to their godparents. However the implementation of the abolition took nearly 3 years.

It is estimated that between 30,000 to 70,000 Jewish boys served as cantonists, their numbers were disproportionately high in relation to the total number of cantonists.  In general Jews comprised a disproportionate number of recruits (ten for every thousand of the male population as opposed to seven out of every thousand),.

No comments: