On August 26, 1827, Tsar Nicholas I published the Recruitment Decree calling for conscription of Jewish boys between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. These boys were known as Cantonists, derived from the term ‘canton,’ referring to the districts where they were sent and the barracks in which they were kept.
Conscripts under the age of eighteen were assigned to live in preparatory institutions until they were old enough to formally join the army. The twenty-five years of service required that these recruits be counted from age eighteen, even if they had already spent many years in military institutions before reaching that age.
Nicholas used the Cantonist system to single out Jewish children for persecution, their baptism being a high priority to him. No other group or minority 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.”
Observed historian Simon Dubnow: “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 Chritianized.”
During the reign of Nicholas I, approximately seventy thousand Jews, some fifty thousand of whom were children, were taken by force from their homes and families and inducted into the Russian army. The boys, who’d been raised in the traditional world of the shtetl, were pressured by 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 thirty-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 Tsar’s quota. A child could be snatched from any place at any time. Every moment might be the last together; when a child left for cheder in the morning, his parents could not know if they’d ever see him again. When they retired after singing him to sleep, they never knew if they’d have to struggle with chappers (kidnappers) during the night in a last ditch effort to hold onto their son.
The famed writer and folk poet Eliyakum Zunser compared the suffering of the Cantonists to the suffering of Jewish children in other eras of Jewish history: “The mothers who were robbed of their children by the Egyptians, the Romans and the Spanish priests had, at least, the sad comfort of knowing that their little ones were spared from long and great sufferings – by a quick death. The bereaved mothers in the days of Nicholas I had not even that much ‘comfort.’ Their young were snatched away from them, scattered in the faraway snow fields of Siberia, or in the steppes of the Caucasus.”
Though a significant number of young men found ways to avoid conscription, government quotas of recruits remained in force. It was the duty of the kahal (Jewish communal leadership) to ensure that the quotas were met. The kahal was thus under tremendous pressure and faced a serious moral dilemma: If Jewish leaders did not provide recruits to fill the quota, the government would punish the Jewish communities with more severe measures, i.e., increasing the quota of recruits.
In dealing with this agonizing quandary, the kahal often chose to conscript the very young on the basis that they did not yet have dependents. Needless to say, this policy did not provide a satisfactory solution, since no family would volunteer its child for the draft. The kahal therefore resorted to paying a fee to chappers for each child they 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.