One particular Passover for young Chaim Merimzon must have seemed like a dream. Merimzon was one of thousands of Jewish children – Cantonists – who were victims of Tsar Nicholas’s zealous obsession with forcing them to accept baptism.
One day, at the age of twelve, he was literally snatched from his home and forced to face years of hardship as a Cantonist. Despite the incessant pressure to accept baptism, he stubbornly resisted and remained a committed Jew.
The years passed and Nicholas’s successor, Alexander II, ended the brutal practices of the Cantonist system. After years of “service,” Merimzon was being transferred to another battalion. Along with a fellow Cantonist, Mikhail Zaks, he waited for another group to arrive to be transported together with his down the Volga River to the province of Saratov.
Merimzon and Zaks, who had also held on stubbornly to his faith, began to converse. It was the day before Passover, and the two commiserated. Tomorrow their parents would sit at the Seder while they would be traveling down the Volga. They reminisced about their lost childhoods and wept.
Suddenly, an elderly man approached. He had a thick reddish beard and wore a long coat of dark blue broadcloth belted with a red sash.
He stopped the men and questioned them. From where had they arrived? Where were they being sent? He noticed they were Jews and asked whether they had converted. Merimzon and his companion responded that they had not.
He stranger was impressed. “You were in the Cantonists and were able to remain Jews?” He bid them not to leave, promising he would soon return. Merimzon and his friend stood there wondering who the man was.
They waited for one hour and then another. Suddenly the man returned with a cab, and they embarked. The cabby yanked on the reins and the horses took off.
The elderly man led Merimzon and Zaks up a dark stairway to the top floor. He opened the door of a large and lavishly decorated chamber. From the ceiling hung a bronze chandelier; pictures decorated the walls along with mirrors in gild frames. Velvet armchairs rested around the room.
At a large table sat a middle-aged man in a long frock coat reciting from the Haggadah. The man got up and offered the Cantonists his hand. “Shalom aleichem,” he said. They replied in kind. Pointing to others in the room, Merimzon asked him, “Who are these people who are dressed as Russians but seem as Jews?”
The man smiled. “They are converts to Judaism, Subbotniks who enthusiastically practice Judaism. The government persecutes them cruelly but they have found a place in my landlord’s home to observe religious practices. This evening they will gather to sell their chametz, and tomorrow evening they will gather to pray.”
The two Cantonists were asked to stay for the holiday. They gladly accepted.
The next night at the Seder, the room was brightly lit by chandeliers and candelabras. The table was adorned with a magnificent bottle of wine. There were small goblets at each place and a large goblet set aside for Elijah the prophet. At each end of the table was a china plate with three matzos wrapped in new silk napkins.
The glasses were filled with wine and the host – the man who had found the Cantonists, Avraham Moisevich – recited the Kiddush in the traditional melody. He invited the soldiers to follow suit. Merimzon remembered how he used to do it at home; he chanted the words with joy and clarity. Then it was Saks’s turn. The children present asked the traditional Four Questions, which were answered by the adults.
At the meal, matzah balls were served with a tasty soup followed by a large portion of goose. Following the meal, the Seder service continued and everyone sang merrily. The final song of “Chad Gadya” was sung to the tune of a Russian folk dance.
Merimzon and his friend slept in soft beds until Moisevich called them for morning prayers. It was quite a change from the wake up calls they had heard over the past few years. For the next several days, life was like a dream; another Seder and more festive meals with their gracious hosts. The guests were content, well-fed and at peace.